City Officials Try to Balance Security, Safety at Pines Encampment
By Beth Milligan | Sept. 9, 2023
Approximately 70 unhoused individuals – or a quarter of Grand Traverse County’s total homeless population – are now living in an encampment off Eleventh Street known locally as the Pines. Traverse City officials are working on new safety measures around the site, including trimming trees and adding lighting and security cameras – efforts they say are a compromise to accommodate vulnerable individuals with nowhere else to go while still ensuring public safety. As with other communities across the country, Interim City Manager Nate Geinzer says the city is caught “in the middle” of a housing crisis and taking flack for both doing too much and too little to address the situation at the Pines.
According to city data, the Pines has consistently been among the top locations requiring public safety resources in recent years. Interim Police Chief Matt Richmond says the Traverse City Police Department has responded 118 times to the area already this year as of August 18, many of those for arson or assault cases. “We determined that the status quo was not sustainable,” says Geinzer. “It was determined that measures needed to be taken to improve safety and access for our first responders, those living in the Pines, and those who service our most vulnerable.”
The first step was relocating all individuals camping at the Pines from the Women’s Trail area – located along the north side of Eleventh Street – to the Men’s Trail area on the south side of Eleventh Street. The Women’s Trail area has more challenging terrain and is more difficult for first responders to reach, according to Richmond. Authorities have told individuals staying at the Pines that they won’t enforce the city’s no-camping ordinance so long as campers keep to the Men’s Trail area. City Attorney Lauren Trible-Laucht says it’s “constitutionally questionable” whether the city could enforce the ordinance anyway, citing legal complexities around enforcing such laws against individuals who have nowhere else to go. “It’s not a straightforward question,” she says.
The city also recently hired a tree-trimming service for approximately $15,000 to clear out the lower branches of trees in the Pines area. Though some perceived that action as hostile – believing the city was trying to expose campers and make them feel unwelcome – multiple public safety officials say it was necessary to protect both campers and first responders. The dead limbs are “fuel that will lend itself to a fire going out of control very quickly,” says Traverse City Fire Department Chief Jim Tuller. Geinzer points to an arson that occurred at a Pines campsite near the Women’s Trail earlier this summer.
“We had a period of drought earlier this summer...and had that (arson) been on the Men’s side, we would have really had a bad day,” he says. “No city manager can sleep knowing those hazards are out there in the woods.” The lower tree branches were also frequently being used by Pines residents to start campfires – which are prohibited – and stuck out at dangerous angles near eye level, posing risks to first responders racing through the woods on quad runners or other vehicles to respond to emergencies.
Traverse City commissioners approved a resolution in a split vote in July to add the Men’s Trail and Women’s Trail to the list of city parks where alcohol is banned. That was yet another measure in which some criticized the city for appearing to target the homeless encampment, while public safety officials countered that it’s merely a tool the Traverse City Police Department can use if needed for security. Richmond and Trible-Laucht note that police officers have discretion in their enforcement; they can, for example, decide whether or not to issue a ticket to a driver for speeding. In the same way, Richmond says the alcohol ban at the Pines is there if officers need to use it, but that they’re not going in on sweeps targeting individuals drinking. In fact, Richmond says he's not aware of any tickets being issued for alcohol use at the Pines since the ban’s enactment nearly two months ago.
Trible-Laucht adds that issuing tickets to individuals who can’t afford to pay them – and whose prospects for employment or housing might be negatively impacted by legal action against them – is not productive. “There’s a deep understanding – I can speak for my office – that an enforcement mechanism when dealing with people experiencing homelessness is a special consideration,” she says. Trible-Laucht says the city is targeting a “balancing of interests” between the Pines residents, the public, and first responders. “The end goal of the whole thing is to have (campers’) behavior comply with the ordinance,” she says. “It’s not to make people leave.”
Other safety measures will be coming to the Pines area. Traverse City Light & Power will soon install lighting along the Safe Routes to School Path located south of the Pines. Geinzer says the city receives “a lot of complaints” from people wanting to use the path but not feeling safe with it being dark and located next to the Pines encampment. The new “pedestrian-scale lights” will hopefully make the path feel safer for users, Geinzer says. The city also plans to install security cameras at the Men’s Trail intersections with Eleventh Street and the Safe Routes to School Path to “deter illegal dumping and criminal and predatory activities,” Geinzer says. GFL is providing increased pro bono dumpster services to the city to help keep the Pines area clean, but Geinzer says some city residents appear to be taking advantage of the service and are illegally using it as their own dumping ground. The security cameras will help crack down on that activity as well as assist law enforcement with any incidents at the Pines.
All of these efforts represent the city’s attempt to deal with a crisis that has been “thrust upon us,” says Geinzer. “It’s not a great situation for us to be in. We’re not really equipped to manage homeless populations or homeless shelters.” The Pines as a location itself represents a compromise in city policy; Richmond acknowledges officers have directed individuals experiencing homelessness from other city parks over to the Pines, eventually leading to the growth of the encampment. It’s a tradeoff, staff say: While the concentration of unhoused individuals at one site creates risk in some regards – an increased likelihood of more harm or casualties if a disaster hits the site, of incidents occurring between residents, of an illness like COVID sweeping through an encampment – it minimizes the impact to other city parks and establishes a known location where first responders and nonprofit outreach groups can focus their services. “If we didn’t have that spot...we could end up like other communities, where tents are lining Front Street,” says Richmond.
Geinzer says the city has been hit with criticism on multiple fronts: from those who think the city’s actions this summer have been hostile toward the unhoused residents of the Pines, and those who think the city isn’t going far enough and should shut down the entire encampment. It's a difficult balance to try and accommodate all the interests involved, from individuals experiencing homelessness to surrounding residences and businesses to the public to first responders, he says. “If the goal was to push people out of there, we could have done that a long time ago,” Geinzer says. “We’re here in the middle trying to make the best of this whole situation.” He adds: “Something that gets lost is...it’s much broader than this city. When the calls (come in), it’s, ‘Why are you doing this?’ Or ‘Why aren’t you doing this?’ It’s the ‘city’s fault’...but this is a community issue. We can’t solve this on our own.”
The ultimate goal, in the end, is to help individuals experiencing homelessness to secure housing. But with the region facing a critical housing crisis and income-restricted apartments and shelters like Goodwill at capacity, those options are severely limited. Geinzer says city representatives are in discussions with local nonprofit groups about options, such as Safe Harbor operating its emergency shelter year-round instead of just the winter. However, that would require a significant boost in funding and volunteer support that may not be immediately feasible. No matter what, Geinzer says most everyone agrees “we need an alternative to the Pines. We need a real solution, a better solution.”
TCPD Police Social Worker Coordinator Jennifer Holm adds that it’s important to keep in mind during these conversations that individuals experiencing homelessness are members of the community and shouldn’t be reduced to stereotypes or stigmatized as a public menace. Unhoused individuals are much more likely statistically to be the victims than the perpetrators of crime, she points out. And most have few or no alternatives to their current circumstances. “It’s important to remember that for the majority of folks we’re serving, there is no choice in this,” she says. “This is a community problem. These are our neighbors.”Comment