By Kristen Domingue & Ozone House

Photo by Leisa Thompson

Ozone House helps homeless, runaway, and high-risk youth lead safe, healthy, and productive lives with emergency shelter, a crisis line, housing, job training, and other support services. Located in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, the organization is in the midst of constructing a new building to better serve our community.

In our interview with Susan Allison, who has championed Ozone House’s efforts to build a new home and has served on the Board of Directors for eight years, it was clear how much Susan’s passion and vision for the future of youth services in Washtenaw County have made an impact. Susan serves as the co-chair of Ozone House’s Front Door Capital Campaign. When we talked with her, we especially noted her commitment to validating and lifting up those who are often overlooked.

Just as Ozone House is committed to providing support to at-risk young people, an often underserved population, Susan has spent her career advocating for teens who find themselves unable to be at home because it is a place where they are neglected, unacknowledged, or physically unsafe.

Both Ozone House and Susan’s commitment to this work speaks to the fact that everyone deserves a chance to be seen, feel safe, contribute, be honored for who they are, and validated. This unconditional love is something the world so desperately needs. Susan has taken the opportunity to provide that love to the people in our community who need it the most.

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On taking a passion and making it bigger

Shortly after Susan’s family arrived in Ann Arbor, she stumbled across Ozone House. She had already spent a large part of her years in Atlanta in service to at-risk teens. For Susan, it all started in 1999 when she read an article in Family Circle titled “Suddenly Homeless: The Hidden Horror of Foster Care” by Jan Goodwin. She read about how 25% of kids who become too old, or “age out,” of foster care experience homelessness at some point over the next two years of their lives. That really struck her. The article said that one of the things the young people could greatly benefit from was a positive, supportive adult. She thought to herself, “I can do that.” From there, she volunteered in several different capacities with many organizations addressing the needs of youth who were aging out of the foster care system. Those volunteer efforts led to a job creating and managing programs to serve those same youth (including raising the funds needed to operate the programs). Later, Susan co-founded a consultancy to help child welfare organizations with their fundraising and development efforts.

Then, as many families do, Susan’s family moved with her two children from Atlanta to Ann Arbor for her husband’s work. While getting settled in Ann Arbor, she was looking for a way to meet new people and make it her family’s home.

“When I heard about Ozone House, I tried to attend their annual fundraising event in September, but it was sold out. As a person who has spearheaded many fundraisers, I recognized that this was amazing. I knew they were doing something special. I set up a meeting with the Director of Development to understand how I could get involved and the kind of work they were doing.

“When I asked some of my new friends, long-time Ann Arbor residents, about the organization, none of them knew exactly what Ozone House did. One even thought Ozone provided drug rehabilitation services. This was my first introduction to the misperceptions of Ozone’s work. Shortly thereafter, I met with the Executive Director and joined the Development Committee and eventually became a member of the Board. I learned what Ozone House really does:

Ozone House provides prevention and intervention for youth in crisis: housing, case management, counseling, peer support, educational support, job skills training, life skills training—we do it all. Emergency housing, transitional housing, and supportive housing are all included as well. We also offer drop-in support for youth who need a hot meal, a shower, to use the computer, or just have someone see them, acknowledge and appreciate them. We also have a 24-hour crisis line that has recently expanded to text and chat.

“The staff at Ozone House are amazing and many have been here for years. As a donor, I appreciate how fiscally sound the organization is as well. They do so much with so little, and  money is never wasted or spent unwisely.”

On understanding youth homelessness

Ozone House does a lot of outreach at schools and maintains a strong relationship with the superintendent’s office within the school district. Their outreach with schools helps teachers recognize the signs of homelessness or instability at home that might cause a teen to need Ozone House. They also have a peer outreach team of young people who are paid and trained to talk about Ozone House services with other young people at community spaces like the bus station, the library, the mall, and different events.

A young person will most often come in through the Ozone House drop-in center for programming, a hot meal, or a safe place to be for a while. Sometimes they are referred by teachers or a school counselor. Other times, young people or their parents or guardians call Ozone House directly, with over 2,000 calls or texts coming through their crisis line every year. As an agency, they are also seeing more youth who are experiencing rejection at home because of the way they identify themselves, including and especially because of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.

All of their services are free of charge and primarily limited to Washtenaw County. But with two youth shelters in adjacent counties recently closing their doors, Ozone House is now seeing more young people come across county lines to access services.

“In order to help foster understanding in my home, work, and community of how teens might become homeless, I frequently find myself having conversations about privilege. For many kids, it is a privilege to feel safe at home, not scared; they can be themselves at home without being criticized or put down for it. Teens experiencing neglect and rejection often do not have this advantage. Homelessness is more than just not having a physical address, and youth homelessness rarely looks like a 14-year-old standing on the street asking for money. Homelessness means there is nowhere safe for the young person to land.

“Unfortunately, I have learned that some people have really narrow stereotypes about youth and homelessness. Many of the young people who come to Ozone House are the opposite of what people envision when they think about a homeless or at-risk teenager. These resilient young people aren’t standing on the street asking for money. These are young people who are scared to go home because of violence within their household, or because they aren’t welcomed at home or their family isn’t equipped to care for them. The young people I’ve encountered in my different roles have an innate drive to succeed and reach their full potential, and it is a privilege to support their success by being a part of organizations like Ozone House that offer support services, job training, educational support, and simply a place to be safe.”

Ozone House understands that the traumatic daily experiences that come with being homeless impact school performance as well as mental and physical health. Young people often stay in unsafe and potentially dangerous situations because they don’t have anywhere else to go. Sometimes they couch surf or bounce between different friends or family. They’re at risk of being harmed, exploited, or even trafficked.

Often, help means giving them a safe place to be until the crisis that put them at immediate risk is over. For youth under age 18, Ozone House focuses on family reunification and strengthening family relationships as much as possible. For those over 18, they work with them towards self-sufficiency and support them with housing and connections to work and school. In essence, one might say that Ozone House serves as the parent that these kids don’t otherwise have at the moment, helping them to navigate the complex and overwhelming transition to adulthood.

These are good kids in bad situations

“One of the things I’m most proud of with Ozone House is our partnerships with complementary organizations. Law enforcement in particular has come a long way in their understanding of assisting at-risk teens. Recently, our Executive Director spent time working with law enforcement officials to help de-escalate an altercation at a local bus station. This is a huge step forward because it meant that these young people didn’t hurt each other or end up getting arrested. They were connected to services they needed as well. As one of our volunteers puts it, ‘These are not bad kids. These are good kids in bad situations.’ Often, when a kid acts out at school, it’s because they are experiencing some form of crisis and may be in need of support.”

On community support

Ozone House is celebrating 50 years of operation this year, which is such an accomplishment! They are also building a new home that will be able to offer housing and services for more young people than ever before. It will provide them with private rooms on a beautiful site in Ypsilanti overlooking the Huron River. The facility is scheduled to be completed this December.

Fundraising in general has increased, and this is significant. Their budget has nearly doubled in the last five years as they have expanded their services and partnerships. This has been possible in large part due to private giving. Donations are incredibly helpful because despite changing federal priorities and budgets, they’ve been able to sustainably grow their lifesaving services.

“We’ve done a good job of getting our name and mission out there as well. When we initially launched our Front Door Campaign to build a new home, we were told by outside counsel that we could only raise a little over $2M. However, I knew we could do more. I advocated and rallied for a larger campaign goal because I knew the young people of this community needed and deserved more from this new facility. Further, I insisted that we raise the money needed through fundraising instead of through debt so that the organization could continue to thrive and fully meet the needs of youth in crisis without the added burden of long-term debt.

“It has been a privilege to co-chair the Front Door Campaign, and I am thrilled to report that we have already raised $4M of the $5M needed to build our new home. Even more exciting is the fact that we just received a $500,000 matching grant from a local foundation, which means that every gift or pledge made to our Front Door Campaign will be matched dollar for dollar, up to $500,000, in order to help us close out the campaign.

“We’re very optimistic about reaching our campaign goal, and it means so much to be opening our new ‘Forever Home’ the same year that we celebrate our 50th year delivering services. We’re counting on Washtenaw County to stand up for youth, be a part of the Ozone House story, and make a difference in the lives of these young people.”

Ozone House is something everyone can all be proud of. It is truly a treasure in this community. Over the past several years, Ozone House has grown to better meet the needs of youth and families in crisis, and they couldn’t have done it without the support of amazing volunteers and large and small contributions. Every little bit helps, and they recognize that it’s the small stones that are moving the needle.

On educating the community about the cause

“My biggest personal challenge is not talking about this everywhere I go and asking anyone and everyone to get involved! I’m passionate about this work. I know it’s the right thing for our community to own this challenge and provide solutions for these youth and families.

“The biggest challenge the organization faces is that homeless youth are often stigmatized and their challenges are misunderstood. We work hard to change the misperceptions many people have of what leads young people to homelessness, and we hope people take seriously what it means to leave at-risk teens underserved in our community.

“So many people I speak to say things like, ‘Well, I thought the government was paying for that, aren’t there grants for this? Can’t they help you guys?’ The reality is, we have been receiving many of the available grants for decades, but the awards do not fully cover our services and they are always at risk as federal priorities shift. As we grow and evolve, we rely on community support to fill our funding gaps. Moreover, there is something powerful and important about the message it sends when the community stands up for and supports its most vulnerable youth.

“Further, when I explain the difference between the ways we can deploy private donations as opposed to the limitations that come with federal funds, people begin to understand the necessity of our community owning the problems and owning the solutions.

“It would be great if there was more compassion for this group who needs our help and less misplaced judgment. If more people understood the truth of what these young people are facing, I think it would logically occur to them to help in any way they can.”

What’s next

On September 14, 2019, Ozone House will host their eleventh annual fundraiser at the Domino’s World Resource Center. Then later in the fall, they will cut a ribbon on their new “Forever Home,” which will truly change the way they house and support young people. “It’s amazing to be a part of Ozone House’s efforts to lay the groundwork for its next 50 years. Making sure that all teens have a safe place to grow and succeed is what we’re committed to, and I’m very proud of what we’ve been able to do for them.”

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Susan Allison’s unwavering passion to ensuring that teens in our community have the chance to pick a positive path at a fork in the road is awe-inspiring. Her channeled commitment has focused this community’s resources toward a goal that will make it stronger for generations to come.

Visit https://ozonehouse.org/ to learn how you can get involved with Ozone House and its Front Door Campaign.

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