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Washtenaw United: Avalon Housing works to fix housing insecurity and provide safe, affordable housing

Heather Thiefels, Family and Community Services Team Lead at Avalon Housing
Avalon Housing
Heather Thiefels, Family and Community Services Team Lead at Avalon Housing


Heather Thiefels, LMSW, has over 10 years’ experience working with people who are homeless and/or have behavioral health challenges. She is committed to creating a more just and equitable community through permanently affordable, supportive housing. Heather started her career working at a teen drop in center for at-risk youth as well as a school-centered health clinic focused on prevention services. She has worked for eight years at Avalon Housing, where she is the Family and Community Services Team Lead. In her current role, Heather leads a team of staff who support and help stabilize families through case management and community programming. Heather is a licensed social worker in the State of Michigan with a master's degree in social work from the University of Michigan. Heather provides field instruction and support to MSW candidates through University of Michigan.


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and welcome to Washtenaw United. This is our weekly exploration of equity and opportunity in our community. I'm David Fair, and today, we're going to center our conversation on homelessness, housing insecurity, affordable housing, and how best to increase service to those in need. Our guest today is Heather Thiefels, and she leads the Family and Community Services team at Ann Arbor-based Avalon Housing. And, Heather, thank you so much for the time today.

Heather Thiefels: Thanks for having me, Dave.

David Fair: Avalon's stated mission is to build healthy, safe, and inclusive supporting housing communities as a long-term solution to homelessness. Now, the organization has been working toward that end since it was founded in 1992. But, I think before we look at where we've come and where we're headed, we should get a better understanding of the issues that make Avalon necessary in the first place. How prevalent is homelessness in Washtenaw County?

Heather Thiefels: You know, it is prevalent, Dave. And I think what folks might not see in our community is how that impacts households with children. I think we do a really great job in our county of coming together collectively and prioritizing those families that are experiencing chronic homelessness. So, although you may not see them in traditional spaces like out in the streets, they are still experiencing homelessness. We've just provided a pretty good pathway to help support those folks. So, they're not in that situation for long.

David Fair: It's not only being out on the streets, whether in a traditional sense or not, but it's housing insecurity. More and more are living paycheck to paycheck and just barely getting by with rents and mortgages. With a likely recession right around the corner, is it likely that homelessness is going to become an even bigger issue?

Heather Thiefels: It is possible because you're right about all those things. Costs are going up. At Avalon, we see housing as a basic human right. So, I think we're always working on multiple levels to try to ensure that we are developing more affordable housing, and we're increasing that, you know, ability to have that affordable housing across Washtenaw County.

David Fair: Now, certainly, there are efforts underway at a variety of different level-- governmental organizational--to create more affordable housing. But I think most agree it's a process that moves much too slowly. How does Avalon help identify and preserve as much affordable space as necessary?

Heather Thiefels: Yeah, that's a good question. I think it's been a collective effort. It started way back, you know, to secure even sites that are, um, you know, we've got apartment complexes. We've got standalone homes and duplexes, so really being integrated in the community and taking those opportunities wherever they could to provide, you know, various different types of housing throughout the county. And they were intentional about doing it in high opportunity areas--so, having access to transportation, good schools, and just nearby amenities. So, it's been a creative and collective effort over time to secure those developments.

David Fair: You had mentioned that Avalon views housing as a human right.

Heather Thiefels: That's right. Yeah.

David Fair: Not everybody agrees with that notion. And the fact of the matter is, when we use the term affordable housing, it can be rather subjective. Am I correct in thinking that what some consider affordable in Ann Arbor is completely out of reach to many on the east side of U.S. 23 through Washtenaw County and is still difficult in many of those areas?

Heather Thiefels: Yes, yes, absolutely. Affordability to look really different to different families. And I think a lot of folks that we serve in Avalon Housing have struggled to pay what others might perceive as affordable rent. So, housing first programs. You're right. We, at Avalon, we see housing as a basic human right, and housing first programs, like Avalon, that combine, you know, the lower rents, you know, through subsidies along with the case management or supportive services have just been proven to increase that housing stability.

David Fair: WEMU's Washtenaw United conversation with Heather Thiefels from Avalon Housing continues. And, Heather, I think to solve some of the issues surrounding homelessness, we need to also take time to recognize and address the root causes. And there are a good number of them. In your ten years or so working with the homeless, how have you learned to define those causes and address them?

Heather Thiefels: Yeah. So, I think a lot of folks at Avalon, we tend to do something a little different than most traditional private landlords. We do something called "screening folks in versus screening folks out." We're helping the most in need. And some of those big challenges that folks might face are physical or mental health challenges, which can also often be really stigmatized in communities, and that includes substance use disorder. So, I think it's a combination of educating the community on destigmatizing those things and providing a space where folks can come that might have those, you know, major life issues going on and just have a safe, stable, decent housing environment to try to work on those things.

David Fair: You mentioned those with substance abuse issues. Anyone who's gone through recovery knows that's a day-to-day endeavor to stay sober, and, frequently, there are setbacks. What is your support process at Avalon Housing to go about providing that longer-term care that not only gets the effected into housing but helps keep them there?

Heather Thiefels: Yeah. So, one of the things I think that's really unique about our work is most of our tenants have lived with us for years. So, I've known and supported the same tenants for eight years now. So, that builds a long relationship of trust. And I think a lot of folks that come and live at Avalon Housing have had years of, you know, systemic issues of trust with different systems. So, I think what is unique in our work is that we're able to meet folks where they're at and be able to come into their homes. For example, when we're sort of assertively outreaching to them, we come into their homes versus them having to come to a space that they've never known before. And we allow for that time for people to deal with their issues, right? So, if someone does have a relapse, it doesn't mean that they're going to be exited from their house. It just means that we're going to try to, through our trusted relationship, connect them to the resources that would best support them to get through that, you know, relapse that they might be experiencing.

David Fair: And that I read correctly of, like, over a 90% success rate in once you find people housing, keeping them in housing?

Heather Thiefels: Yeah, that's our retention rate. Yep.

David Fair: That's pretty spectacular. You are listening to 89 one WEMU, and we're talking with Avalon Housing's Heather Thiefels on this week's edition of Washtenaw United. Right now, Avalon owns and manages about 29 sites across Ann Arbor, Dexter, and Chelsea. Four new housing projects will create another 152 units of housing. What is the kind of timetable to bring these properties online?

Heather Thiefels: Yeah. That's, you know, the expertise of our development program. There's a lot of things that go into that. But I think, within the next few years, is the slated time for the new units coming online.

David Fair: One of the things that I find so intriguing is Avalon Housing's participation in Veridian at County Farm. That entirely sustainable community that has all levels of income--section eight housing. All of it put together with some units that go for near or upwards of $1,000,000. So, creating that kind of community, you had mentioned the word stigma before. When people can live, walk, work, and engage with one another in those kinds of close confines, does that make a difference?

Heather Thiefels: I really think it does. I mean, I think it builds understanding and empathy in the community. It also helps, you know--one of the things that's unique to Avalon too is our strong community building side. So, we are bringing families together that may have been isolated in all different ways from their neighbors in Washtenaw County. And so, I think it builds resilience on all sides to have folks come together, whether it's for a event or a community food pantry or even the children. You know, we sometimes see the children in these households become the gateway of connection for families. So, as children engage in our programs, that builds trust for heads of household or caretakers to come. And I think you're right. It's going to build stronger empathy in our community.

David Fair: Well, when Avalon Housing opened the units at Hickory Way in 2021, you reported that chronic homelessness in the county went down 31%. That's significant. So, while also noting that homelessness remains prevalent in Washtenaw County, what kind of impact might we see with all of those new housing units come online?

Heather Thiefels: Well, I think our ultimate goal is to end homelessness and have zero families that are experiencing that. And I think as we increase those spaces and can have more families and more individuals enter into safe and decent homes, then you're going to see that trend continue, which I think is great.

David Fair: Heather, thank you so much for the time and sharing the information today. I appreciate it.

Heather Thiefels: Yeah. You're welcome.

David Fair: That is Heather Thiefels. And she leads the Family and Community Services team at Avalon Housing and has been our guest on Washtenaw United. For more information on today's topic and our conversation, visit our website at WEMU dot org. Washtenaw United is produced in partnership with the United Way of Washtenaw County, and you hear it every Monday throughout the year. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti.


Avalon Housing


Most recently, Avalon Housing is a recipient of Power of the Purse Fund, which aims to support existing and emerging programs and initiatives that increase the financial capability of people who identify as women. They have received a $10,000 reward to provide permanent housing and additional support to women with children exiting homelessness, to ensure family stability and wellbeing.

WEMU has partnered with the United Way of Washtenaw Countyto explore the people, organizations, and institutions creating opportunity and equity in our area. And, as part of this ongoing series, you’ll also hear from the people benefiting and growing from the investments being made in the areas of our community where there are gaps in available services. It is a community voice. It is 'Washtenaw United.'

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Contact WEMU News at734.487.3363 or email us at studio@wemu.org

Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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