Traverse City News and Events

'It's Staggering:' Homeless Services Under Major Strain

By Art Bukowski | Dec. 27, 2023

Resources designed to assist people experiencing homelessness in the region are under tremendous strain as 2024 arrives.

Unhoused people in the Grand Traverse region are assisted by a variety of organizations that meet basic needs, from temporary shelter to help with food and hygiene. And while the overall number of homeless individuals seems to have risen only slightly, all these organizations are reporting an exponential increase in the use of their services.

“The number of guests we’re seeing is at a record right now – it’s staggering,” said Brad Gerlach, facility manager and volunteer coordinator at Safe Harbor. “We’re at capacity every night, and we’ve had to turn people away.”

Safe Harbor, which began as a collection of churches opening their doors overnight for people experiencing homelessness, now has a permanent 84-bed shelter in Traverse City. Over at the Jubilee House, another facility dedicated to the cause, unhoused people can receive mail, shower, and tend to other basic needs. It’s the same story there, Rev. Derek Quinn said.

“November, which is the last month we have statistics for, saw the greatest number of visits to Jubilee House that we've ever recorded,” said Quinn, who runs the house as a program of Grace Episcopal Church. “We’ve definitely gotten to the point where we’re seeing a trend line with a true upward trajectory.”

Though advocates say a fully accurate census is sometimes hard to pin down for a variety of reasons, the five-county Grand Traverse region has had a relatively stable population that hovers around 200-250 homeless people for several years. It’s up around 275 now, marking a relatively minor increase. But people seem to be needing services more, or at the very least interacting with services differently.

“I think the difference is they're coming in a more concentrated way. Instead of people just coming and stopping by at Jubilee House, maybe being here for an hour and doing a load of laundry and grabbing a shower and then moving on, we're seeing more people who want to come and stay for the whole day or for large chunks of time,” Quinn said.

Ryan Hannon is the community engagement officer at Goodwill Northern Michigan after serving for more than a decade as the organization’s street outreach coordinator. He’s been in the trenches for years, interacting with thousands of people living without permanent homes. Another big difference he’s seeing these days is the physical attributes of the people he’s helping.

“One of the biggest trends is we’re working with more physically frail people. There's a big shortage of adult foster care housing around the state and especially around here,” he said. “So we’re seeing more intense needs for these people, and people who are aging as well, getting older.”

Advocates say more people are also ending up in Traverse City from around the region as other municipalities crack down on homelessness. Some areas will arrest unhoused people for trespassing or other concerns.

“Some of the townships have taken steps toward criminalization of homelessness,” said Ashley Halladay-Schmandt, director of the Northwest Michigan Coalition to End Homelessness. “And if we don't have people feeling like they can safely camp in certain regions, they're all going to the city.”

Jim Perra is rector at Grace Episcopal, which runs Jubilee house. Another problem, he says, is it’s getting harder to stay housed for an increasingly large segment of the population. Housing prices have skyrocketed while wages have risen much more slowly, for instance, and services are less accessible. Simply put, more people are getting closer to the danger zone than ever before.

“There is less and less margin of error for living,” he said. “A lot of the people who are becoming homeless are just one way or another falling off the grid.”

And while people definitely come to Traverse City here from more rural areas to access the broadest network of support services in Northern Michigan, Perra wishes to strongly dispel the notion that people experiencing homelessness come here with the goal of coasting or living on handouts.

“Whenever I hear someone say that people are coming to Traverse City to be homeless, it makes me want to throw something across the room,” he said. “There is no cushy place to be homeless.”

The wooded corner near the intersection of 14th and Division streets (popularly known as the pines) has contained a homeless encampment for decades, in large part because the city does not criminalize people who camp there. But a recent tree trimming at the site has made it a stark visual reminder of how a certain segment of the population lives, leading to lots of discourse on the issue in meeting rooms, social media groups and more.

If nothing else, the increased attention will hopefully drive meaningful change on the issue, advocates hope.

“People are talking about it like they've never talked about homelessness before. Ryan (Hannon) and I are being asked to speak at neighborhood associations, things like that. So it's a great education opportunity,” Halladay-Schmandt said. “It lays the groundwork and gives us a platform to talk about the need for housing.”

Since the people at the pines have become more physically visible, folks with good intentions have left food, blankets and more. But for a variety of reasons, many of these items can’t always be utilized or properly stored, and they simply serve to clutter the area further. For that reason, advocates strongly discourage anyone from dropping off donations at the pines, as there are better ways to help.

Safe Harbor seeks volunteers and funding, for instance, and Goodwill Northern Michigan’s webpage (look for “Homeless Donations” under the “Donate” tab) includes a variety of ways people can donate money or needed items.  Halladay-Schmandt said she’s always happy to speak with individuals who want to help in an effort to best direct their generosity of time or treasure.

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