'Roofless' in Traverse City, not homeless

Nov 25, 2014

Credit Peter Payette

Just before Thanksgiving at IPR, we hear the story of a family in difficult or unusual circumstances. This year, we meet a group of people who you might not think of as a family – but they do. They’ve lost a lot of members in the last year, people who might have been forgotten but are not thanks to a little house in Traverse City.

In the living room at Jubilee House is a wooden cross. There are twenty cards hanging from it, each with the name of a person who has passed away. The cross is made of two tree branches lashed together with twine.

"A lot of people who’ve passed through Jubilee House have lived in the woods," says Glenda Anderson, the coordinator of the program. "They used to burn the wood to keep warm and we just thought it was very symbolic to have a cross made out of something they lived with."

Jubilee is an outreach center run by Grace Episcopal Church where people living on the street can come in from the cold, take a shower, get mail, and watch TV. The coffee pot is always full, they say.

The story of the cross goes back a few years when somebody made another cross as a memorial for a woman who’d died alone in a motel room. She died of a drug overdose and as far as anyone could tell she had no family to notice her departure. That first cross was put in the woods in her honor.

Later this cross was made and now when someone dies they hang a card during a memorial service.

"We play their music," says Anderson. "We’ve had Bob Seger, Rolling Stones, lots of different music that you wouldn’t expect at a memorial but it’s their music in honor of them."

Year of mourning at Jubilee

This memorial tradition started in 2007 but Anderson says 12 of the 20 cards have been added since October 2013. She calls that an incredible number.

"We were just stunned that that many have passed in a year," she says.

There’s no explanation for the large number, just people dying of various causes.

Depending on the day and how you count it, the population of people living on the street in Traverse City varies between 50 and 100. Losing 12 is enough that Jordan O’Hagan says it’s noticeable at Safe Harbor. That’s the overnight shelter that is set up at local churches in the winter.

"These are people we used to share meals with," says O'Hagan. "People that have seen us at our worst and sometimes at our best. It’s a lot quieter this year. And we remember these people as we stand around smoking cause they used to come out and smoke with us and we’d trade jokes. A lot of them were funny people."

Among the departed was one of the most prominent members of this community, Don Espy. He was actually the guy who made that first cross that started the memorial tradition.

Espy was known as 'Hobo Don' here and O’Hagan says he was a spiritual leader in the community, always offering prayers.

"At all the meals and all the funerals he was there beseeching God," says O'Hagan.

Espy made friends with everyone on the street and had a huge crowd at his memorial. George Golubovskis says Espy never thought of himself as homeless.

"He said he wasn’t homeless because he did have a home, Jubilee House," says Golubovskis. "He may have been 'roofless' to use his term."

Espy had his problems and he didn’t hide them. In an interview five years ago with the weekly paper, Northern Express, he explained his enthusiasm for alcohol. He even asked the reporter for a few bucks to buy a drink.

Don Espy in August a few weeks before his death.
Credit Glenda Anderson

Jubilee Coordinator Glenda Anderson says for all the years she knew Hobo Don, he wanted to come to her house for dinner. She made sobriety a condition for that and it never happened.

But this summer he got cancer, lost his desire to drink, and went to Anderson’s house for a picnic. He also had his picture taken.

"We didn’t have any current photos of Don that showed Don as he really was," she says. "There’s been photos in the paper and things that really were not real flattering. So we took some nice pictures so we could have a remembrance of him."

A few weeks later, Don Espy passed away. His ashes were spread in the garden at Jubilee House. His name hangs on the cross in the living room with others for whom the building was the closest thing they had to a home.