Traverse City News and Events

No-Go on Summer Safe Harbor

By Beth Milligan | March 4, 2024

Plans to potentially convert Safe Harbor into a year-round emergency shelter will not go forward in 2024, with leaders from both the nonprofit and City of Traverse City citing logistical hurdles – from funding to staffing to a minimum three-month process to amend Safe’s Harbor special land use permit – that couldn’t realistically be resolved before summer. Conversations about a future year-round Safe Harbor will continue as the city and community partners explore other solutions for helping individuals experiencing homelessness, including at The Pines encampment.

The Northwest Michigan Coalition to End Homelessness told The Ticker last June that conversations were occurring among community partners about Safe Harbor operating year-round, instead of just during winter months. In September, then-Interim City Manager Nate Geinzer confirmed the city was in discussions with local partners about potentially operating Safe Harbor as a year-round emergency shelter. That was one of multiple options on the table to address the burgeoning homeless encampment at The Pines off Eleventh Street, where approximately 70 unhoused individuals were living at the time, Geinzer said. He told The Ticker that operating Safe Harbor year-round would require a significant boost in funding and personnel support, which might not be immediately feasible. Regardless, most parties agreed “we need an alternative to the Pines. We need a real solution, a better solution,” Geinzer said.

In January, city commissioners approved a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to formally work with Grand Traverse County, Safe Harbor, and The Northwest Michigan Coalition to End Homelessness on creating a “year-round overnight shelter for the region’s unhoused population,” according to the resolution language. Grand Traverse County commissioners have not yet approved the MOU, though discussed it in February and agreed to review it further at a future study session. Neighbors – particularly from Boardman Neighborhood – weighed in at both city and county meetings expressing concerns about the impacts of extending Safe Harbor year-round. They cited experiences like finding needles in F&M Park and having negative encounters – including involving their children – with individuals who appeared to be drunk or drugged in the neighborhood.

Though Safe Harbor board members approved the MOU in January, they have not yet considered or been presented with an official proposal for extending operations year-round, Board Chair Christopher Ellalasingham said in a letter Friday. Becoming a year-round shelter is not just a Safe Harbor decision, but rather one that “the community at large and its elected officials need to make,” Ellalasingham said. Accordingly, Safe Harbor will postpone applying for a special land use permit (SLUP) amendment from the city to change its operations until such a formal proposal is presented. Safe Harbor’s existing SLUP allows the shelter to operate from October 15 to May 15, though it currently operates only through April 30. Changing those hours to year-round would require amending the SLUP, which is typically a three-month process, according to City Planning Director Shawn Winter.

Ellalasingham said Safe Harbor would need at least two months’ notice “to hire and train staff in order to implement year-round operations.” The organization has “developed an operational plan and a budget that will need to be funded should we be asked to function as a year-round shelter,” he wrote. “It is also critical that the concerns of the neighborhood are heard and addressed via a public safety plan.”

Ellalasingham said that public discussion around the MOU has resulted in Safe Harbor becoming “the target of frustration and anger from some in our community.” He continued: “Our staff have been harassed; trash has been dumped on our property. Misinformation has been circulated as to our intentions and role in this matter and culpability for some of the problems in the neighborhood.” He noted that Safe Harbor held a community listening session at Traverse Area District Library on February 22 to hear from surrounding residents. “We are sympathetic to the many concerns voiced by those who live, work, own businesses, and function in our neighborhood – including the public library, which bears the brunt of incidents during the day,” he wrote. “Those are fair and reasonable concerns that need to be heard and addressed.”

But Ellalasingham also said that Safe Harbor reminds its guests “on a frequent basis to be respectful of private property, not to congregate in the area prior to check-in, and frequently have one-on-one conversations to encourage good behavior.” He also noted that homelessness – “a regional problem that happens to be concentrated in Traverse City” – won’t go away by being ignored and deserves a compassionate and multi-faceted approach, since “driving those who are experiencing homelessness out of our backyards simply shifts the problem elsewhere.” Operating a year-round shelter is a “big task” for a largely volunteer-run nonprofit, Ellalasingham said, but added that Safe Harbor is “willing to help, in whatever capacity, if the community at large believes this is the best course of action.” Even if approved, a year-round shelter would be only one part of a necessary “comprehensive regional plan” to address the crisis, Ellalasingham said.

City Manager Liz Vogel and Mayor Amy Shamroe echo those remarks. In the short term, Vogel says more conversations will need to happen about addressing the Pines this summer without the option of Safe Harbor being open. “No one thought (Safe Harbor) would be a silver bullet or solve the situation at the Pines, but the thought was that if we were able to remove some of those individuals from the Pines, it’d hopefully shrink the footprint and make it safer for the people who still reside there, as well as fire and police,” she says.

Vogel plans to continue conversations to see if there’s a way to reduce the overall footprint of the Pines, and/or to map the area so emergency workers can more quickly respond when issues arise within its sprawling boundaries. The city wants to avoid “criminalizing poverty,” Vogel says, but could look at more proactively enforcing rules when bad behavior arises. Ultimately, addressing homelessness is a “sensitive and complex” issue that will require multi-entity solutions, she says. “The city needs to lean on all of the bench strength in the community surrounding this topic,” Vogel says.

Shamroe says the MOU and Safe Harbor conversations have put a spotlight on the need for more in-depth community discussion and understanding around issues of housing insecurity and homelessness. “One of the things that came out in public comment is that there haven’t been enough community-wide conversations about this as a whole,” she says. “We need to do better about having bigger conversations about housing and homelessness, and what the next several years are going to look like.” Safe Harbor not operating this summer doesn’t mean the issue is being dropped, Shamroe says, adding the city will be “continuing the conversation” and exploring an array of potential solutions with other local partners going forward.

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