Traverse City News and Events

City Commissioners to Talk Options for Safe Harbor; County, Neighbors Weigh In

By Beth Milligan | Feb. 10, 2024

Traverse City commissioners will discuss efforts to address homelessness at a study session Monday, including options for either the temporary or permanent extension of Safe Harbor operations year-round. Grand Traverse County commissioners also discussed the topic this week, including a proposed memorandum of understanding between community partners to jointly address homelessness. Several residents also weighed in, asking for careful consideration of how making Safe Harbor a year-round shelter could impact the surrounding neighborhoods.

City commissioners in January approved a joint resolution of cooperation and memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Safe Harbor of Grand Traverse, The Northwest Michigan Coalition to End Homelessness, and the Grand Traverse County board of commissioners – which has yet to approve the MOU – to work together on creating a “year-round overnight shelter for the region’s unhoused population,” according to resolution language.

On Monday, city staff will review efforts to date to address homelessness and discuss possible options for Safe Harbor. Three options are on the table for this summer, according to the presentation. The first is that city officials can approve a new special land use permit (SLUP) and funding agreement to allow Safe Harbor to become a permanent year-round shelter. The second option is the city could approve conditions allowing Safe Harbor to operate this summer only – a sort of pilot project or stop-gap measure good only for 2024. Commissioners could also decide to take no action with Safe Harbor, in a third scenario, but that would require considering other options for working with the city’s unhoused population this summer. The presentation also notes that a shelter extension isn’t a long-term solution to addressing homelessness in Traverse City, highlighting the city’s efforts to back permanent supportive housing projects and collaborate with partners on programs to connect individuals with mental health and other services.

Mayor Amy Shamroe says Monday’s meeting will be the city’s “first big discussion” since approving the MOU on what next steps could look like in trying to address homelessness in Traverse City. “This was all brought about because the situation at the Pines is untenable,” she says, referring to a homeless encampment off Eleventh Street that has grown to shelter approximately 70 unhoused individuals, or a quarter of Grand Traverse County’s total homeless population. Because Monday’s meeting is a study session, commissioners won’t take any action, but Shamroe anticipates the board’s feedback – and that of residents – will help shape next steps in the coming months.

If Safe Harbor were to extend operations, Shamroe says it wouldn’t be as simple as “flipping the light on at night” for the summer. An extension would require significant logistical, staffing, and funding support. Some of that could come from the city – which has some funds set aside in its budget this year to put toward housing/homelessness issues and will soon start budget discussions for the upcoming fiscal year – as well as from other community partners and funding sources, like grants. Revamps to the Safe Harbor building and operations would also need to be considered in a year-round scenario.

“Can we just put people in a warehouse on 90-degree nights? Absolutely not,” Shamroe says, noting some type of HVAC improvements would likely be needed at Safe Harbor. An extension also requires looking at hours and other aspects of Safe Harbor’s current operations, Shamroe says. For instance, nearby residents have expressed concerns that when Safe Harbor closes each morning at 8am – releasing many guests into the surrounding neighborhoods – that time directly overlaps with morning commutes for school and work. “Could Safe Harbor release a little later in the morning? Those are the kinds of things we’d want to look at,” Shamroe says. “We’d need to deal with the reality of the ripple effects of an extension. It won’t just happen in a vacuum.”

Monday’s staff presentation addresses some of those other realities, including the need to address cleanliness on public and private properties surrounding the shelter, an estimated $40,000-$45,000 in anticipated additional security expenses at Traverse Area District Library, impacts on nearby local businesses, and necessary law enforcement support. Presentation materials note that one Traverse City Police Department patrol officer is assigned to address homelessness issues in NOBO/Boardman Neighborhood, but that position splits time with the Pines/Central Neighborhood in the summer. The TCPD would like to assign one patrol officer to each location and is working on recruiting to beef up staffing, according to the presentation.

Grand Traverse County commissioners discussed the MOU between community partners Wednesday and are scheduled to have a study session on the topic in the coming weeks (a date has not yet been announced). Some commissioners expressed concern about the “vague” nature of the MOU, in the words of Chair Rob Hentschel, who said Safe Harbor had “a very important mission” but that he was concerned the MOU could be “a slippery slope.” However, Commissioner Ashlea Walter said she felt a “sense of urgency to start the process,” while Commissioner TJ Andrews noted the county’s unique ability to bring a “regional approach” to the issue.

“We are the only governmental entity that is in that role,” she said, adding she couldn’t think of a topic more critical for the county to take part in addressing than “unhoused individuals in our community.”

Several neighborhood residents spoke at Wednesday’s county commission meeting asking for careful consideration of the impacts of extending Safe Harbor year-round. Betsy Brick Corbett, who lives on Washington Street, echoed the remarks of other residents in calling it a “sensitive, complex issue,” having empathy on the one hand for individuals experiencing homelessness while also contending with experiences like finding needles in F&M Park and being confronted by individuals on drugs. Corbett encouraged officials to “really gain perspectives from everybody involved” as they consider the MOU and options like extending Safe Harbor.

“As a resident there, it is a different experience than what people really understand,” Corbett said, adding that she hoped to help collaborate on solutions. “I really feel like we can’t just rush this and put a Band-Aid over a really big complex issue, that needs a lot of attention and thought to make our city safe for everybody and find solutions to truly end homelessness.”

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