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Homeless outreach continues in Traverse City under 'stay at home' order

Max Johnston
Interlochen Public Radio
Ryan Hannon looks for people at a makeshift camp in Traverse City.

Across the state millions of Michiganders are staying at home after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued a "stay at home" order for at least the next three weeks.
But what if you don’t have a home? The order makes no mention of people experiencing homelessness.

On a Tuesday morning, members of the street outreach team for the Goodwill Industries of Northern Michigan walked through some woods in Traverse City. The woods serve as de facto camps for some of the area’s homeless and unsheltered population.

They came across a man named Jay. He slept in the woods the previous night, but says he’s well equipped as he's wearing a thick jacket, long johns and snowpants.

"The only thing that got cold last night was my feet," Jay said.

Jay is currently homeless but applied for an apartment through the city’s housing voucher program. He says he can’t think about all that right now.

"Considering that I have no place to live at the moment, and the food and water situation is gonna be on my mind everyday, so there's just too much going on for that," Jay said.

Jay said he’ll scope out another spot to camp in these woods until the governor's order is lifted. The team from Goodwill gives him some hand warmers and some phone numbers to call if he’s feeling sick.

Over the course of the day Ryan Hannon, who leads the outreach team, gave supplies to about a half-dozen more people camping in the woods.

"Keep up the good work, stay warm and healthy and reach out if you need," Hannon told one group.

Hannon normally checks-in with people like this across the five-county area every few days. But since the coronavirus pandemic started, Goodwill has cut down on those trips. Hannon says they are trying to avoid crowds where they could catch or spread the coronavirus.


Credit Max Johnston / Interlochen Public Radio
Interlochen Public Radio
Ryan Hannon checks one tent in Traverse City.

For now, they’re focusing on keeping people healthy. Goodwill works with doctors that can consult with people experiencing homelessness over the phone.

"They can talk to the doctor right there in the video and then get further instructions on what to do next if the doctor feels they may have COVID-19, we're able to instruct on what to do next," Hannon said.

How the governor's order impacts the unsheltered

The governor’s executive order mandates that everyone in Michigan stay home. It has exceptions for necessities and essential services like Goodwill, but doesn’t mention anything about people experiencing homelessness that have no shelter.

Hannon has worked in homeless outreach for over a decade but doesn’t know what this order means for the unsheltered.

"I don’t know moving forward if the community is going to force people [indoors] if they’re out there," Hannon said. "Certainly if they’re going to force people there’s gonna have to be somewhere to go."

One place people can go is the Safe Harbor homeless shelter in Traverse City. Chairperson Mike McDonald said they’ve already taken precautions to avoid spreading COVID-19.

They put young people or vulnerable guests with health problems in hotel rooms, gave out tents so others can camp outside and converted a chapel and dining area into spots for people to sleep.

All that has lowered Safe Harbor’s occupancy from their normal range of around 70 people, down to just 50 staying in the shelter itself.

McDonald admits it's not ideal.

"The alternative would be to close the shelter and throw everybody out in the elements, and that’s very dangerous. We’re not gonna do that," McDonald said.

Like many community organizations these days, Safe Harbor is also understaffed. McDonald says they normally rely on senior citizens for help, but many have been sent home due to the high risk COVID-19 poses to older adults.

Waiting on updates from the state

So far, the daily life of many unsheltered people or those without homes in Michigan hasn’t changed.

Grand Traverse County Sheriff Tom Bensley says people experiencing homelessness who normally hang out at places like libraries or laundromats don’t have that option anymore. But he says — for now — his officers won’t be writing tickets to anyone that’s out and they’ll direct them to places like Goodwill or Safe Harbor.


Credit Morgan Springer / Interlochen Public Radio
Interlochen Public Radio
Grand Traverse County Sheriff Tom Bensley

Bensley says they’re getting updated rules on the order from the state nearly every hour in some cases, and their policies may change.

"It’s kind of like drinking from a fire hose, we don’t have time to digest one before we get the next," Bensley said.

All they can do is wait for more guidance from the state on how — or if — to enforce the "stay at home" order, he said.

As of Tuesday evening, the governor’s office had not responded to a question about how the order affects people experiencing homelessness.

Max came to IPR in 2017 as an environmental intern. In 2018, he returned to the station as a reporter and quickly took on leadership roles as Interim News Director and eventually Assignment Editor. Before joining IPR, Max worked as a news director and reporter at Michigan State University's student radio station WDBM. In 2018, he reported on a Title IX dispute with MSU in his story "Prompt, Thorough and Impartial." His work has also been heard on Michigan Radio, WDBM and WKAR in East Lansing and NPR.