Traverse City News and Events

A Better Winter: Advocates For Local Homeless Population Get Ready For Winter Operations

By Craig Manning | Oct. 1, 2022

As daylight fades and temperatures drop, life gets more difficult for people experiencing homelessness in northern Michigan. This winter, though, that population will have more support than ever before. Between Safe Harbor, Goodwill Inn, Jubilee House, and Central United Methodist Church, there will be homeless shelter options available in Traverse City for what amounts to 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It’s a big improvement from last winter, when volunteer shortages forced shelters to cut hours, inadvertently triggering issues at Traverse Area District Library (TADL) and other community spaces.

Jubilee House, an outreach ministry at Grace Episcopal Church that is intended to serve as a day shelter for the local homeless population on a year-round basis, has struggled to attract a sufficient volunteer base since the COVID-19 pandemic struck. Those staffing shortages have sometimes forced the program to limit days and hours of operation. At the outset of last winter, Jubilee House was operating just three days a week (Monday through Wednesday) from 10am-1pm, as opposed to its normal pre-pandemic hours of 10am-2pm Monday through Friday.

According to Dr. Derek J. Quinn, who serves as associate rector at Grace Episcopal Church, Jubilee House has recently been able to rebuild its volunteer base, which he says will make a big difference this winter. The shelter is currently up to four days a week, but will move to a winter schedule of 10am-5:30pm Monday through Friday beginning Saturday, October 15.

Safe Harbor, which provides overnight shelter services from October through April, will also open on October 15, with hours of 6pm-8am Monday through Friday, plus 24-hour operations on Saturdays and Sundays. Those expanded weekend hours are new this year, thanks to a decision this summer by the City Commission to amend Safe Harbor’s Special Land Use Permit (SLUP).

Central United Methodist Church fills the morning gap by serving hot breakfast from 8:30am-10:30am Monday through Friday.

If all goes according to plan, this winter will be a night-and-day difference from a year ago. Reduced hours at Jubilee House last winter, combined with a lack of weekend day shelter options, meant individuals experiencing homelessness were congregating elsewhere to stay warm – namely, at the library. TADL, in turn, reported a rising trend of problematic incidents on its premises, ranging from vandalism to drinking and drug use.

In doubling its hours from last year, Jubilee House had to significantly increase its overall base of volunteers – something Quinn says was possible thanks to collaboration and coordination with Safe Harbor. “We partnered with them to invite people who had already volunteered at Safe Harbor to consider volunteering at Jubilee House,” Quinn explains. That approach, combined with a general easing of pandemic anxiety in the community, helped replenish the Jubilee House volunteer pool enough to make the extra hours feasible.

But while more volunteers and more shelter hours are a massive aid to the local homeless population, they’re ultimately treating the symptom of a larger disease. That disease, according to Ashley Halladay-Schmandt – director of the Northwest Michigan Coalition to End Homelessness – is the lack of affordable and attainable housing in the region. Halladay-Schmandt says there is still more “inflow” (or people entering homelessness in the community) than “outflow” (or people exiting homelessness), and identifies housing affordability as the predominant reason.

“We want the numbers every month to go down, and that’s not happening right now,” Halladay-Schmandt says of homelessness counts. “The only way it’s ever going to happen is if we get more housing in our community that is affordable for people who have extremely low incomes.”

Per Halladay-Schmandt, this year’s local homelessness counts have been hovering around 180-190 people. She identifies approximately 70-80 of those as “people experiencing chronic or long-term homelessness” and the remaining hundred-plus as newer to the struggle. In particular, Halladay-Schmandt says that she and colleagues have seen a lot of new faces this year at “The Pines,” the name given to the encampment of tents clustered throughout the woods off Division Street.

“In years past, we’d go out [to the Pines], and it was our chronically homeless folks; we were familiar with them,” Halladay-Schmandt notes. “This year when we went out there, there were a number of people not familiar with our system who were out there for the first time because of affordability reasons.”

Those newer faces, Halladay-Schmandt says, help to put a human face on the local housing crisis. “One that keeps me up at night, he’s been out there for over a year,” she tells The Ticker. “He has a steady job at a restaurant in town, and he said he can afford about $700 a month in rent. But he's homeless because he can't find [housing for that price].”

It’s a “good news, bad news” situation for solving that part of the crisis. On the one hand, Halladay-Schmandt says that inflation and rising market rates are making it harder to find landlords or developers that will partner with the Coalition and reserve units for people experiencing homelessness. For example, of the 600-plus units currently being developed within the City of Traverse City, zero of them are dedicated to the Coalition’s cause.

On the other hand, Halladay-Schmandt thinks the growing visibility of homelessness in the area – particularly at the Pines – is helping to mobilize the community. “Since that camp on the corner of Division has become visible this summer, we’ve had several calls to the Coalition about homelessness in general,” she says. Those calls help start conversations that move locals “from a place of concern to a place of ‘I want to help,’” which in turn benefits everything from volunteer staffing numbers at local homeless shelters to the dialogue around housing advocacy in the community.

There is also a new initiative in the works at the Coalition that Halladay-Schmandt says “will hopefully help us end chronic homelessness” when it launches next year. More details about that effort will be announced in early 2023.

“[That initiative] will help us take that number of 70-80 people experiencing long term homelessness, and get it much closer to zero,” Halladay-Schmandt says. “And if we can do that, then we’re in a much different reality in our community. We'd be able to better manage our inflow and outflow because these really high-needs folks would be in permanent housing.”

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