Mobile homeless: A view from living at the ‘Walmart Hotel’
Giving back to the community: Volunteers haul tons of garbage out of the Pines
Police social worker and group see more than 100 cases
Supportive housing planned for East Bay Flats
HOMELESS IN TRAVERSE CITY: Townships evict homeless; not so in city
LIFE IN THE PINES: A family struggles to survive
TRAVERSE CITY — Discussions between Traverse City’s new manager, a homelessness-focused nonprofit and an emergency shelter can begin.
But if Monday’s city commission meeting was any indication, it’s going to be a complex conversation. Commissioners voted 6-1 to approve a memorandum of understanding that city Manager Liz Vogel said would give her the OK to talk with Safe Harbor about keeping the shelter open year-round, as well as with the Northwest Michigan Coalition to End Homelessness.
Grand Traverse County could be part of the conversation as well, although county commissioners haven’t voted on the memorandum yet — Vogel said she believes it’ll be on their meeting agenda in early February.
What commissioners voted on was just the start to a process that will involve several steps, Mayor Amy Shamroe said. For one, Safe Harbor’s current special land use permit wouldn’t allow for year-round services, limiting it to Oct. 15 through May 15.
“This is not a one-and-done here, then we get presented with a final project with nothing in between,” she said.
Vogel told commissioners the idea for the memorandum came from her previous role as Missaukee County administrator. She hoped it would be similarly useful in starting a conversation about developing a proposed plan to keep Safe Harbor open year-round, starting in 2024. That would include developing an operating plan, cost estimates, funding strategy and determining what roles each party would play.
That specificity had Commissioner Heather Shaw, who voted “no,” concerned that the discussion would too heavily focus on Safe Harbor, she said. She wanted to remove the first task outlined in the memo so the conversation could be wider and focus on “bigger picture” solutions like transitional housing, for one. Plus, the second and third tasks would still look at what it would take to operate a year-round shelter.
Shaw also asked whether an emergency shelter could justifiably stay open in the summer, and if so, would it mean The Pines would be permanently shut down. That’s the informal name for a spot west of Division Street and Eleventh Avenue where people without shelter regularly camp.
“By making the commitment for our plan to keep Safe Harbor open 24-7, it’s all-year-round, it gives the impression that we’re taking a problem that exists in another neighborhood and moving it to a different neighborhood,” she said.
Her comments touched on the controversy over opening Safe Harbor, and which still lingers among neighbors upset by bad or, at times, illegal behavior by some of its guests.
Now in its 20th season, Safe Harbor is a nonprofit emergency overnight shelter that typically opens from October through April. Its current location, a converted Boys and Girls Club building on Wellington Street’s south end, opened in 2017 after years of rotating around various participating churches.
Along with bunkbeds, there’s a kitchen, hot showers, laundry facilities and space for other providers to reach guests with needed services. Those who stay overnight typically check in each late afternoon and must check out in the morning, except on weekends when the shelter is open throughout the day.
Commissioner Jackie Anderson said she wanted the nearby neighborhood associations and city police department included in the conversation, to which Vogel replied that is her intention.
A few neighbors spoke up as well, including Sarah Masak. She pointed out Safe Harbor doesn’t have air conditioning, and opening the shelter year-round could have unintended consequences involving the children who use Hull Park nearby. That’s where some shelter guests have caused issues before.
Another neighbor, Emily Kuschell, said she and her neighbors have experienced numerous situations that have put her or their kids in unsafe situations. She was concerned the number of people without homes causing issues in her neighborhood could increase.
Michele Howard, Traverse Area District Library director, made a similar point. She said the library already spends about $44,000 a year on security because of behavioral issues there, to the point where patrons were refusing to come.
One commenter who only gave his first name, Cam, suggested Safe Harbor residents should be in the conversation.
“I think you all should talk to them, I think they’re missing from this piece,” he said. “They should be at the table.”
Dustin McCracken told commissioners he had recently been living in the Pines, and said many of the people staying there lack the “mental structure” to get a job. He suggested instead of a year-round shelter a building with dozens of rent-free rooms and therapists, one where each resident pitches in to the apartment community in some way.
Other commenters raised numerous issues, from a federal court ruling that restricts local governments from forcing people out of encampments if they have no other shelter available to the need to involve neighboring townships and other agencies.
Vogel said commissioners are set to talk about her upcoming conversation with Safe Harbor, the county and the homelessness coalition on Feb. 5. That’s where they can talk about a few issues Commissioner Tim Werner raised: how often the board will be updated, whether a commissioner could be a part of the conversation and whether any regular meetings among the parties could be made public.
Werner said the discussion about keeping Safe Harbor open all year has been ongoing for years, but typically between individual commissioners and Safe Harbor or other entities. He wanted the future conversation to be more open and transparent, and for it not to derail city efforts to create more permanent supportive housing.
Mobile homeless: A view from living at the ‘Walmart Hotel’