The Only Solution: Inside The Campaign To End Chronic Homelessness In Northern Michigan By 2028
By Craig Manning | June 10, 2023
Could northern Michigan’s chronic homelessness problem be a thing of the past by the end of the decade? That’s the goal of a new initiative launched by the Northwest Michigan Coalition to End Homelessness (the Coalition). To achieve the mission, though, the Coalition and its partners will need to navigate a tricky labyrinth of different issues, including the region’s insufficient housing stock.
Earlier this year, the Coalition adopted a five-year Strategic Plan to End Chronic Homelessness in the northwest Michigan region. “Chronic homelessness” is the term that the National Alliance to End Homelessness uses “to describe people who have experienced homelessness for at least a year—or repeatedly—while struggling with a disabling condition such as a serious mental illness, substance use disorder, or physical disability.”
Right now, Coalition Director Ashley Halladay-Schmandt says there are around 70 people in the Coalition’s 10-county region that meet the “chronically homeless” definition. The group’s goal is to bring that number down to zero by the end of 2028.
Halladay-Schmandt says the Coalition has already gotten numerous local government officials involved in its five-year plan, including representatives from the City of Traverse City and Grand Traverse County. Those connections could prove key, given that Traverse City, in addition to being the largest city in northern Michigan, is also where most of the area’s chronically homeless individuals tend to cluster—a situation that typically garners a lot of attention at this time of year.
“We don’t tend to see a seasonal shift in our overall numbers, but what we do see seasonally is an increase in unsheltered homelessness in the spring and summer months because Safe Harbor closes,” Halladay-Schmandt explains.
Located on Wellington Street, Safe Harbor provides overnight shelter services in Traverse City from October through April but isn’t available during the warmer months.
“So, right now, we have roughly 70 people who are unsheltered,” Halladay-Schmandt continues. “They’re either living in tents, encampments, that sort of thing; or they’re in their vehicles; or they’re ‘sleeping rough,’ which means they are just sleeping outside.”
She says that since Safe Harbor closed for summer 2023, the Coalition has been hearing a lot of community concern about “The Pines,” the name given to the encampment of tents clustered throughout the woods near the corner of Silver Lake Road and Division Street. “That’s where our region’s largest encampment of people experiencing unsheltered homelessness is,” Halladay-Schmandt says.
Because springtime sends more people to places like The Pines, Halladay-Schmandt says the seasonal shift inevitably triggers an uptick of calls from community members who “see people experiencing homelessness and call out of concern that this is happening in our community.”
If all goes according to plan, the Coalition’s new five-year initiative would make it so that encampments like The Pines aren’t necessary, though Halladay-Schmandt says there is only major lever that collectives like the Coalition can pull.
“There’s really only one solution to homelessness, and that’s more housing,” she says.
Of course, the Coalition isn’t the only entity calling for more housing in northern Michigan. From BATA to Grand Traverse Resort and Spa, numerous local employers have recently taken matters into their own hands in an effort to build more workforce-friendly housing options in the community.
To make housing available for people experiencing homelessness, though, Halladay-Schmandt says the Coalition needs developers or landlords to set aside units specifically for that population.
With the local housing shortage being what it is, it hasn’t always been easy for the Coalition to find allies on the development or property management side. But Halladay-Schmandt says there has been “quite a bit of progress” on that front recently, and it’s giving her reason to be optimistic that the five-year plan is actually realistic.
In particular, Halladay-Schmandt points to the City of Traverse City’s approval of Annika II—an affordable housing development planned for Hastings Street—as a watershed moment in the fight to end local homelessness.
“For Annika II, [project developer Woda Cooper Companies] will set aside 19 units for people experiencing homelessness, and those units will actually be set aside specifically for our most chronic homeless individuals,” she says. “That’s huge progress. And then, on top of that, the Coalition has also secured over $1 million from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to provide support services in housing once this population becomes housed.”
Local homelessness advocates have other reasons to feel optimistic, too. This winter, due to the expansion of day shelter services at Jubilee House (part of Grace Episcopal Church), Halladay-Schmandt says the Coalition saw significantly fewer incidents involving people experiencing homelessness at Traverse Area District Library, a spot that had become a de facto day shelter the previous winter when Jubilee House hours were more limited. Additionally, the Coalition’s data-tracking shows that more families and more youths or young adults have exited homelessness in the past year than have entered it.
But Halladay-Schmandt stresses that the work is far from done, as The Pines attests. And because creating more housing is a solution that takes time, other stopgap measures will be necessary to protect the local homeless population this summer and in the future.
Ryan Hannon, who serves as the housing and homelessness services community engagement officer for Goodwill Northern Michigan, leads much of the work around more immediate, on-the-ground responses to local homelessness.
In particular, Hannon chairs the Basic Needs Coalition, which brings together a variety of players—including Goodwill, Safe Harbor, Jubilee House, Salvation Army, the Father Fred Foundation, and Addiction Treatment Services—to address basic and pressing needs for people experiencing homelessness. Those needs can include anything from hygiene products to warm clothing.
At this time of year, because of the transition away from overnight shelter services at Safe Harbor, the Basic Needs Coalition focuses on providing unsheltered individuals with sleeping bags, tents, and tarps. In any given year, Hannon says the Basic Needs Coalition will distribute about 70 tents and sleeping bags just at the end of Safe Harbor, to keep the chronically homeless population equipped.
But because the broader homelessness count in the region is significantly higher than the chronic homelessness statistic shows—Hannon says there are currently around 270 people in the region total who are experiencing some version of homelessness—the Basic Needs Coalition typically needs to collect at least another 100 tents and sleeping bags to get throughout the spring, summer, and fall months before the overnight shelter opens again.
Right now, the Basic Needs Coalition is calling on community members to donate those items to help prepare for the next five months of the Safe Harbor “offseason.” Supplies can be dropped off at the donation door at the Goodwill on South Airport Road, or supporters can buy items for the Basic Needs Coalition via the group’s Amazon wishlist.
When asked whether it might be more logical to keep Safe Harbor open year-round—or to pursue some other year-round overnight shelter offering—rather than equip people to camp in places like The Pines, both Halladay-Schmandt and Hannon say dialogue on that subject is starting to pick up among Coalition partners.
“The work of the Coalition is really to bring more housing online,” Halladay-Schmandt says. “That’s our focus. However, we do have to prioritize people having a safe place to be while we wait for housing, and the only solution there is more emergency shelter, which we don’t have open in the summer. And so, I would think we’re getting close to needing to have a conversation around shelter options in the summer.”
“As advocates whose work is to end homelessness, we don’t want to just make more shelter, because we would end up with a never-ending need to create more shelter,” Hannon adds. “So, if we are adding shelter, we always want to be increasing housing, as well. Right now, I know there is a plan to build some low-income affordable housing right next to Safe Harbor. So that, I think, justifies the ability to increase shelter space—as long as we’re continuing to increase housing, as well.”Comment