Homelessness Up North
The struggle is real — and getting harder
By Victor Skinner | Jan. 22, 2022
Across the northwest Lower Peninsula, hundreds of Michiganders are struggling to find shelter this winter.
It’s not a new situation, but the problem is steadily getting worse for a variety of reasons, from the global health pandemic sapping already limited resources to unprecedented demand driving up the cost of homes.
From Traverse City to Charlevoix, Cadillac to Leelanau County, folks from all different backgrounds and ethnicities are out on their own. But there’s one thing they all have in common, a shared thread that defines their lives.
Unhoused residents come from “varying levels of life experience, support and world views, and sometimes culture,” says Ryan Hannon, community engagement officer at Goodwill Northern Michigan, “but basically you have a lack of choice.”
“Lack of choice is a big thing,” he says.
“You stay in a shelter if you qualify and they have room,” and community meals are available daily in many places, served on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, Hannon says.
But no one is going in by choice, and it’s the cycle of desperation and the struggle to survive that keeps many coming back.
“People are kind of stuck in flight or fight mode to get their basic needs met,” he tells Northern Express. “It’s a grim outlook to get out of homelessness.
“The longer you’ve experienced homelessness, the harder it is to get out,” Hannon said. “There’s a lot of negative stigmas attached.”
Many homeless struggle with mental health issues or substance abuse, often in addition to domestic problems and unemployment. Most don’t have transportation. But there are no specific circumstances that lead to life on the street, which is why understanding each person’s individual needs is essential to turning things around.
Help for the homeless is futile and fleeting “if we don’t meet them where they’re at,” Hannon says. “The big picture bottom line is we have to provide support and work with the community to help people get out of homelessness as quickly as possible.”
A BAD SITUATION GETTING WORSE
Ashley Halladay-Schmandt, director of the Northwest Michigan Coalition to End Homelessness, is responsible for coordinating that work. The coalition, which covers 10 counties in the northwest Lower Peninsula, works with local shelters, service providers, health professionals, property developers and others to help the homeless navigate the labyrinth of state and federal aid programs to maximize those resources, both for individuals and the communities struggling to help them.
It’s a daunting task that’s only become more intense amid the coronavirus pandemic, and there’s currently little relief in sight.
“In the past year, we’ve seen about a 10 percent increase in people experiencing homelessness,” she says. “Marginalized groups are seeing the effects of that tenfold.”
“In the 10-county region right now, there are about 350 people experiencing homelessness and about 260 of those are in the Grand Traverse region,” Halladay-Schmandt says.
About 30 homeless reside in Wexford and Missaukee counties, and another 30 in Charlevoix and Wexford counties. In Manistee, there’s about 10, she says.
Traverse City boasts the highest number due to its status as a regional population hub, but also because of the city’s competitive housing market and higher cost of living.
“The cost of housing is the primary factor” driving homelessness, Halladay-Schmandt says, and the skyrocketing prices for homes and apartments over the last year is dumping fuel on the fire.
“On average, we’re seeing one-bedrooms in Grand Traverse County start to average out around $1,100 a month, and that’s very difficult for people making … lower to moderate income,” she says.
“In the past, we’ve been able to house people quicker in markets that are cheaper,” she adds. “Now, though, what we’re seeing is our numbers are rising in all these communities because of the housing shortage, and the market is getting more expensive in all these communities.”
The pinch, however, doesn’t necessarily mean more homeless are relying on area shelters for help.
In Charlevoix, “our homeless shelter numbers have actually declined the last two years, and I think it’s due to COVID more than anything else,” says Kim Baker, director of the Night Light emergency men’s shelter.
The facility is open each year between Nov. 1 and March 31 and typically houses about two dozen men over the course of the season, or about eight to 10 a night.
“This year, we’ve had only four guys sleeping with us night to night,” he says.
Health concerns related to the pandemic required Night Light to reduce capacity by about half to keep guests socially distanced, while volunteers to help cover shifts at the facility have also dwindled, Baker said.
“I really don’t have as many as I need,” Baker said of volunteers, “so we supplement our sleeping at the shelter with motels, actually.”
Baker said Night Light was born in a church eight years ago and transitioned to its current location on Oak Street three years later, as demand increased.
“We went from one to two guys to the point where we’ve transitioned probably 130 individuals there in the five years we’ve been at the house,” he says.
Today, it’s a different dynamic.
“I think more people are couch surfing where they can. Sometimes, they’re sleeping in their cars,” Baker says. “I personally don’t feel we have less of a homeless problem — I think it’s more that they’re not utilizing the shelter.”
In other places, like Cadillac’s New Hope Center, the pandemic has made less of an impact.
Chris Crawley, the shelter’s executive director, said that between May 1, 2020, and April 30, 2021, the center hosted about 8,200 bed nights — each representing a night’s sleep for one individual.
“That’s not too far off from the year before, maybe [a difference of] 100,” he says. “We’re usually anywhere between 8,000 to 9,000 bed nights.”
New Hope operated five older homes in the city until this year, when one burned down and officials sold another to help buy a new facility. With about 11,500 volunteer hours, the new place is nearly set to open. It offers four family units, plus separate wings for men and women, and an array of in-house services to help guests get back on their feet.
The plan is to utilize a conference center on-site to help guests with housing searches, job training, and classes on things like budgeting, parenting, and cooking. The building will also greatly increase New Hope’s capacity to a maximum of 60 beds, Crawley says.
“There’s a lot of opportunity at the new facility."
Plans are in the works to address the growing homelessness problem in Traverse City, as well.
A special land use permit for the city’s Safe Harbor seasonal shelter near downtown stipulates an adjoining lot must be used to develop affordable housing, Halladay-Schmandt says.
While those plans are in their infancy, the affordable housing factor will add to an arsenal of existing services and resources in the community devoted to the homelessness problem. Goodwill Northern Michigan runs programs that collect soon-to-expire food for local food pantries and community meal sites, as well as fresh food from farmers to stock the shelves. The nonprofit’s Housing and Homeless Services aims to “make homelessness rare, brief, and one-time in northern Michigan.”
Goodwill’s Street Outreach team works to connect with homeless residents in the community to help them transition to something better, such as the full-time Goodwill Inn shelter, Patriot Place transitional housing for veterans, or other supportive housing programs.
Those programs, however, compete for a limited amount of resources at a time when officials are forced to devote an increasing amount of time to protecting the public from COVID-19. Since the start of the pandemic, Traverse City shelters have implemented mandated masking, added plastic dividers to eating tables, fitted bunks with similar barriers, and dedicated rooms at the Goodwill Inn and area hotels to quarantining homeless visitors who contract the virus. There’s also regular testing for the virus.
The pandemic has meant volunteers are increasingly wary of helping out, as well, Hannon says, though acknowledges that both “Goodwill and Safe Harbor have been able to sustain volume.”
“A lot of time and energy and resources go to that right now,” Halladay-Schmandt says.
And while there are plenty of programs to help those in need, it’s not enough.
DEMAND OVERWHELMS SUPPLY IN TC
“The biggest problem we have is trying to find locations we can take someone in need of assistance,” says Traverse City Police Capt. Keith Gillis, who coordinates with Hannon and Goodwill’s Street Outreach team. “There’s not enough resources for the homeless.”
Over the last 15 years working with the local homeless, it’s obvious the problem is continuing to grow with the city, and it’s affecting a different demographic than in the past, Gillis says.
“In the past, if we responded to a camp in the woods, it was four to five people,” he says. “Now we’re responding to homeless camps in the woods that are 20 to 30 people.
“I think our homeless population is also a lot younger now than it was in the past, just based on our contacts,” he says.
Gillis said a majority of calls related to homeless residents are nuisance-type complaints, but a proactive approach, like patrolling the downtown neighborhood around Safe Harbor and nightly stops at the facility have helped to prevent a lot of issues.
“We try to stop in once a night,” he says. “If we didn’t do that, we’d probably be called there three to four times a night.”
Gillis says “it’s a little easier to deal with the situation when everyone is on the same page,” but Halladay-Schmandt stresses that while the shelters are helping keep many out of the cold, they’re a product of a problem that ultimately does little to fix the problem itself.
“The only thing with shelters is, they’re not the solution,” she says. “Housing is the goal.”
“In Grand Traverse right now, with Safe Harbor open, we have about 170 people sheltered, and unsheltered is about 90. What we’re trying to focus on, especially in Grand Traverse, is the development of housing.”
Zoning issues are a “huge factor” on that front, she says, but short-term rentals are also complicating efforts.
“Last year, we lost between five and 10 landlords because they were selling their properties, some to do short-term rentals,” Halladay-Schmandt says.
State, federal, and local housing voucher programs offer homeless residents subsidies to help cover rental costs, but caps on the price per unit eliminate many of the available properties in Grand Traverse County. The coalition helps to direct about $1.7 million in rental assistance each year, but it doesn’t help if there aren’t units available that qualify, she says.
“Someone is issued a voucher if they qualify, but then they have to find their own unit in the community,” Halladay-Schmandt says. “In Grand Traverse, a lot go unused because they can’t find anywhere to use them.”
The coalition found one solution is to partner with affordable housing developers to secure “set aside” units officials can use to place homeless clients, but progress on that is slow-going.
The coalition has secured four units at a development in the works in Leelanau County, and that’s about it. In total, only about 13 ongoing developments across the 10-county region — Emmet, Charlevoix, Antrim, Kalkaska, Missaukee, Wexford, Grand Traverse, Leelanau, Benzie, and Manistee counties — are focused on affordable housing, according to an interactive map available through Housing North.
“Yes, development is happening, and that’s great,” Halladay-Schmandt says, “but we need it to happen at a much higher rate if we’re going to end homelessness.”
Opening the Door to Development
Housing North has developed concepts for affordable housing for each of the 10 counties it serves. Some are already in progress. Here is a look at four:
Grand Traverse County
Flats at Carriage Commons
The Traverse City Housing Commission and the Bay Area Transit Authority are engaged to co‐develop a property that will include a transit‐oriented development (TOD) project that will include all of the operations of BATA and a large multi‐family “workforce” housing project. This collaboration is unique in many ways, but most significantly it is one of the largest TOD projects attempted in rural America. This project will be an ideal support system for several of this region’s economic engines: tourism, agri‐business, and light manufacturing.
This project consists of five (5) multifamily buildings for a total 210 apartments with the majority being one‐bedroom units. There is a possibility that each building would be built with different development finance packages and may be built in phases over two to three years – once funding is secured. Additionally, there is plan to include up to fourteen (14) single‐family residential units. Total parcel size is approximately 30 acres.
The target population is workforce households earning 50–80% of Area Median Income (AMI). This translates to those households at or about $14.00 to $22.00 per hour [$28k to $45k per annum/Grand Traverse AMI is about $58K per annum].
The Bellaire Marketplace vision is a 3-story mixed-use housing development. Goals are to add additional downtown storefront space for new and expanding businesses. Second floor could be housing or professional space for transient workers, office-based businesses, municipal offices and/or housing, daycare, yoga, etc. We'd love to have housing on the third floor. The design of this development would also focus on options to activate the alleyway to the east and inspire additional developments in collaboration with the Village and County as part of their master plan initiatives. It's a great opportunity to champion the Village of Bellaire as the County seat, spur economic development, and enhance public and commercial spaces.
The Housing Development vision would be a combination of market-rate housing and workforce housing located a mile from downtown Bellaire. In total, the 37-acre site already has infrastructure in place for about 25 homes. The remaining acreage is being considered for workforce housing. This is a great opportunity to add much-needed housing inventory into the community.
Lofts on Lake Street
Michigan Community Capital has been approved to create a beautiful new addition to Boyne City's downtown. The 3-story project includes 42 apartments, 9,025 square feet of retail space and 72 dedicated parking spaces. The site preparation work has been completed which included remediation of a blighted property located on the southeast corner of State and North Lake streets across from the south end of Veterans Memorial Park. The approved plan calls for the apartments to be located on the second and third floors, including six studio apartments, 28 one-bedroom and eight two-bedroom apartments.
Lofts at Lumber Square
Located at 900 Emmet Street, commonly known as the Hanky Lumber Property, or the Gruler Property. The project is in the City Limits of the City of Petoskey. This building will include 60 units total, 15 one-bedroom apartments, 30 two-bedroom apartments, and 15 three-bedroom apartments. All units will be reserved for eligible low- and moderate-income households earning between 30% and 80% of the area median income. The estimated cost of the project is $15 million. The developer has a purchase agreement on the property with a deadline of May 2022 to close.
* Information and renderings provided by Housing North.