Community Debates Traverse City Homeless Shelter Proposal

Feb 20, 2014

Dramatic growth in the homeless population of Traverse City has brought more attention to the issue. But it’s not clear whether that will help efforts to build a new overnight shelter in the city.

A crowd of more than 80 came out Wednesday to hear plans for a proposed homeless shelter on Wellington Street. Comments suggested views in the room were mixed.
Credit Linda Stephan

Neighborhood Concerns

There’s been some bad press in recent years. In 2012, city leaders began banning alcohol in some parks as a way to curb problems caused by a certain segment of the homeless population. The problem has also grown more visible on the streets, something long-time resident Bryan Olshove has noticed.

“I have seen the vagrant population increase in the last 10 years,” he said at a meeting Wednesday night at the Traverse Area District Library. “It’s directly related with the amount of homelessness, and people that we see in the parks, and in particular around the TART Trail in the evening.”

It’s not a trend he likes, but Olshove is not convinced the answer is to renovate a run down, 9,600 square foot building in his neighborhood for use as an overnight, winter shelter.

“I don’t like the plan one bit,” he says. “I think that the Eighth Street corridor is very fragile and it’s taken two or three decades to make progress. And this sort of facility would put the nail in the coffin for future development.”

“Weakest Among Us”

The meeting was held by shelter proponents who hope to address neighborhood concerns over the proposal before the debate goes before the city commission as early as next month. Safe Harbor, a consortium of churches that run a winter shelter program, proposes to lease the vacant city-owned building at 517 Wellington Street for a dollar a month.

Some in the neighborhood have concerns about crime and property values. Others question whether a church program that has survived this past decade on a shoestring budget is really ready to handle the costs of its own building.

Supporter Mike Coco, who lives on Wellington two blocks from the site, says he is confident Safe Harbor would address the neighborhood’s concerns.  He also doesn’t think money is an object for a community that came together in a matter of weeks to renovate two downtown, non-profit movie houses.

“We can do it for a movie theater, how about the weakest among us,” he says.

Churches Overflowing

For now, and for the past 10 years, Safe Harbor has not had a dedicated building. Instead more than a dozen area churches take turns housing it. All winter, the shelter moves every couple weeks from one church to another.

Some Boardman neighborhood residents say that’s a good system, because it spreads the solution into neighborhoods across the region, rather than concentrating a homeless population in one area.

But Safe Harbor’s Ryan Hannon says the churches are bursting at the seams.

“The reason that we want to do this is because some of the churches are beyond their comfortable capacity,” he says. “We don’t want to have to turn anyone away because we’re full.”

Hannon says this building on Wellington is ideal – convenient for guests because it’s within walking distance to other homeless services. They wouldn’t have to rely on the bus. That’s not true with all the churches.

But shelter guest George Golubobskis says he doesn’t mind the current system.

“I don’t mind moving and seeing different places and different congregations,” he says. Golubobskis sees pros and cons to the current proposal. But, either way, he would rather not stick around to see the grand opening of a new building.

“Obviously I’m not making reservations for next season. I hope not to be in Safe Harbor,” he says.