Traverse City News and Events

Code Blue: How Cold Weather, COVID, And Short-Staffing Are Straining Traverse City's Homelessness Resources

By Craig Manning | Jan. 19, 2022

“Code Blue.” That’s the term advocates for the local homeless population use when temperatures dip below 10 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter, or when a blizzard is forecasted to strike northern Michigan. On several occasions this month, frigid temperatures and harsh winter conditions have forced the Grand Traverse Basic Needs Coalition to coordinate Code Blue alerts and scramble to get people experiencing homelessness off the streets and into safe, warm environments. But rising homelessness numbers locally, a recent surge of COVID-19 cases in Grand Traverse County (including among the homeless population), and staffing and volunteer shortages at local shelters are combining to make this winter a particularly trying test of the area’s resources for protecting the homeless community.

Last month, Ashley Halladay-Schmandt, director of the Northwest Michigan Coalition to End Homelessness, told The Ticker the number of people experiencing homelessness in Grand Traverse County had climbed to 260, up from 225 the year before. Safe Harbor Board Chair Mike McDonald also noted that Safe Harbor – which opened for the winter season on November 1 – had seen higher night-to-night numbers in November than it would in a typical year. “We're a little apprehensive about what's going to happen in January and February,” McDonald said at the time.

Fortunately, Safe Harbor has yet to hit its overnight capacity for the season. McDonald says the peak number of overnight guests at the shelter this season was 70, with a nightly average closer to 60.

“We have 82 beds,” McDonald says of Safe Harbor. “We could go up to 90 by sleeping some folks on the floor, but we haven't had to do that yet [this season]. So, space isn’t an issue at this point.”

The bigger problems for the homeless population this winter have been COVID-19 and cold weather.

So far, Traverse City has avoided a major coronavirus outbreak among the homeless population. That’s thanks in part to precautions at the shelters, such as COVID testing for new guests, masking requirements, plastic dividers at eating tables and between bunks, and a “shelter within the shelter” setup at Goodwill Inn that allows visitors who test positive to isolate. Still, as COVID rates started rising in the community throughout November and December, McDonald says Safe Harbor also experienced its worst COVID scare since the start of the pandemic.

“The Sunday night right after Thanksgiving, we had a couple people [at Safe Harbor] that had to be transported to the hospital for non-COVID-related medical issues,” McDonald explains. “Well, the hospital calls us back the next morning and says both of them were positive [for COVID] – because, of course, they're tested when they go to the hospital. So, the next night, we tested everybody coming in, and we found 11 positives. That was a little bit of a wake-up call.”

“Since then, any new guest is tested, and once a week, we’ve been testing everybody,” McDonald continues. “And luckily, we haven't seen that kind of number again. I think four [positive cases] is the most we’ve found in a mass test.”

One challenge posed by more COVID positivity is that the majority of the area’s COVID isolation spaces aren’t at Safe Harbor, but at Goodwill Inn. According to Ryan Hannon, community engagement officer for Goodwill Northern Michigan, Goodwill Inn has a different setup than Safe Harbor in that it “is always full and there’s a long waitlist.” So, when more people are testing positive for COVID and need to isolate, there’s only so much capacity to accommodate them within the shelter itself.

“We have a total of 11 family rooms at the Goodwill Inn, and we have three set aside right now for COVID isolation,” Hannon explains. “That’s our ‘shelter within the shelter’; these three family rooms are like mini apartments, and we use the ones on the end by the emergency exit so we can use that for in and out, to mitigate any spread or risk.”

When those three rooms are in use, that’s it for isolation space at the Goodwill Inn. The recent COVID surge has demanded more isolation capacity, which has in turn necessitated creative solutions.

“Just last week, we secured six motel rooms in the area that we can use [for COVID isolation],” Hannon says. “We pay for all six, just to have them, and right now four of them are being used.”

The situation is a tenuous one, and it becomes more difficult to manage when extremely cold weather arrives. The Grand Traverse Basic Needs Coalition, a group Hannon formed, exists in part to watch for those dips in temperature – and to rally the troops when they come. In addition to Goodwill Street Outreach, the Basic Needs Coalition consists of Central United Methodist Church, Jubilee House, Salvation Army, St. Vincent de Paul, the Father Fred Foundation, the Thomas Judd Care Center, and the 5Loaves2Fish meal program

“We meet monthly to talk about basic needs for folks,” Hannon says. “And we also coordinate the Code Blue alerts. So, if it's 10 degrees or colder outside, or the windchill is 10 degrees or colder, or there's a blizzard warning, we’ll initiate Code Blue, which means we'll work together to make sure there's a space for everybody, including in the daytime.”

Hannon admits the Code Blue process is a bigger lift these days with Traverse City’s day shelter capacity reduced due to COVID. Still, it’s possible to fill the gaps and find ways to keep people warm and sheltered on cold days. For example, when The Ticker connected with Hannon last Friday – when real-feel temperatures in the area were dipping below zero even in the daytime – he outlined a plan for the day that included morning breakfast and showers at Central United Methodist Church, an emergency day shelter at the Salvation Army building on Barlow, and earlier hours at Safe Harbor.

During Code Blue alerts, Goodwill Inn also won’t turn away any guests, instead utilizing common space in the building to put down mats and sleep more people. “We've been doing that the past few days, and we'll do it the next few days as well,” Hannon said on Friday. “Because there may be some folks that typically live unsheltered and don't come in normally, but who will come in on nights like this and sleep on the floor [to get out of the cold].”

While the local shelters have so far been able to manage the multiple challenges, Hannon is quick to note that he and his colleagues could use a helping hand – and a louder conversation about the community’s housing needs.

“There’s a lot going on, and Safe Harbor and Goodwill Inn are both short-staffed, and we’re low on volunteers at these day centers,” Hannon explains. “So, it's really taken a lot to coordinate and pull this all together. It’s all-hands-on-deck, and the longer we operate in that mode, the more it wears on people. We do the best we can to try to not let [the fatigue] affect the guests. But with all that, we know that there’s still the underlying issues. With homelessness, we know the end of it is housing. So, we will incorporate housing-focused conversations in all of these efforts – with our street outreach, with our volunteers, with doctors – and try to talk about housing when we’re talking about health and COVID.”

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