November 29, 2020

New Season for Safe Harbor

The stakes are high for a homeless shelter determined to make it through a season amid a pandemic.
By Patrick Sullivan | Nov. 14, 2020

At the end of March, as the pandemic descended and uncertainty raged, residents of Safe Harbor spent their last night of the season in Traverse City’s homeless shelter, which closed early out of concern that the new virus could gain a foothold and spread among the guests.

That left dozens of people on the street, without a place to stay, just as Michigan’s governor ordered the state’s residents to shelter at home. The nights were still freezing, and although the again-homeless Traverse Cityians been issued tents and blankets, to be on the street at that time, for some, was sheer terror.

“April first — April Fool’s Day — was the day that we were shown the door,” said George Golubovskis, a fixture of and advocate for Traverse City’s homeless community. “It ended up that I got a place. A lot of people ended up down on the Men’s Trail. It was pretty demoralizing because they had just told us, ‘No problem, we’ll stay open; we’ll do social distancing.’”

Now, seven months later, Safe Harbor is open once again, this time with measures in place that its administrators hope will stop the virus from getting inside and enable the nonprofit to provide shelter for those who need it into the spring.

A DIFFICULT CALCULATION
Mike McDonald, board chair if Safe Harbor, said the decision to close the shelter early last spring — a decision made after earlier pronouncements to keep the shelter open despite the pandemic — was an extremely difficult call to make.

McDonald said the board voted to close the facility only after a lot of deliberation and information-seeking. Board members consulted with experts, including the county health department. They weighed the risks of clients catching and spreading the virus among themselves in the shelter versus their risk of exposure outside during the still cold nights of early spring.

“It was a very difficult decision,” McDonald said. “We decided it was lower risk for the guests [if we closed and kept them] out of the shelter, rather to keep them in.”

At that point, McDonald noted, the shelter didn’t have COVID tests available to make sure everyone was healthy, and the best precautions to stop the spread of the virus hadn’t yet been agreed upon.

The availability of tests, data, and guidance from health officials and clinicians nationally and regionally has substantially increased since last March. That has enabled Safe Harbor to implement best practice precautions — and engender hope: McDonald said he believes Safe Harbor will not have to close early this season.

“We were very concerned about an infection getting started in that community, and I think rightfully so, at the time,” McDonald said.

McDonald especially hopes the precautions work through January and February, the time of year when the shelter is most needed and likely the period when the virus is most libel to spread in the region; the colder the weather, the more likely that increased numbers of people, homeless or not — will spend more time together inside.

One of the challenges last spring in keeping Safe Harbor open amid COVID was its reliance on volunteer staffing, especially older volunteers, a population that's proving to be at the highest risk for death and debilitating conditions should they catch the virus. This season, things have been switched around so that Safe Harbor relies less on volunteers and more on paid staff hired through Goodwill. 

BUNK BUBBLES AND MEAL WAVES
On a recent morning, Ryan Hannon, Goodwill’s street outreach coordinator, was overseeing Safe Harbor and its new heated day tent, which will offer a warm place for guests to spend mornings; usually, Safe Harbor asks guests to leave the shelter at 8am.

Hannon gave Northern Express a tour of the overnight facility, highlighting the safety measures that have been put in place.

The first measure begins at the front door, where a quarantine room has been placed near the entrance to divert anyone who arrives with symptoms. Right next to that is an alcove where rapid COVID tests can be performed through the Traverse Health Clinic; they will be conducted by Munson Family Practice staff. Every two weeks, a voluntary rolling testing effort will be offered available for the entire Safe Harbor population.

Safe Harbor has long provided communal evening meals to its guests. Now the cafeteria will be limited to 28 guests per seating, so small groups of guests will be served dinner in waves.

Inside the sleeping area, the bunks have been covered in plastic sheeting to limit airflow between quests.

All of the precautions are based on Center for Disease Control guidelines for shelters and follow consultation with health department staff.

As for the day tent outside, it contains 17 large round tables, each spread out so that there at least six feet of space between them. The tables sit on a plywood floor, and on a recent morning, the air inside the tent was warm, despite the temperature outside hovering around 30F degrees outside. Hannon said the heat is provided by Crystal Flash propane company.

The tent is open until noon each weekday. Although erecting a common area under a tent might seem counterintuitive during the pandemic, Hannon said that Safe Harbor felt a shelter for their guests during the coldest parts of the day was truly needed; since some of the usual day-time safe places — options like community meals at local churches and the day shelter at the nearby Jubilee House — have opted to stay closed this year due to the pandemic.

“The idea is at least to have coverage in the coldest periods of the day,” Hannon said.

McDonald said the safety precautions were the result of a task force that worked through multiple challenges and potential problems to find a plan that would allow the shelter to remain open, come what may. In doing so, they worked through a number of solutions and often made compromises until they could settle on one that did the most good.

A prime example: Upon first inspection, the task force determined that it would be unsafe to have guests sleeping on top of one another in bunk beds. Safe Harbor, they concluded, would have to remove the top of each bunk in order to create more space between sleeping guests. 

“Their initial reaction was, ‘You’ve got to get rid of all the top bunks,” McDonald said. “Well, if we would have done that, it would have cut our capacity in half, and we just didn’t feel we could do that.”

MacDonald said he expects to see the shelter operate at capacity this January and February. (Capacity is 72 this year; typically, it would be 82, but top bunks have been removed from beds in three smaller rooms. In the event of an emergency, Safe Harbor could make room so three or four more people could sleep inside the facility, albeit on the floor.)

THE SIX-HOUR STRUGGLE
While the new tent solves the problem of where the guests can go for part of the day, there will still be a six-hour gap where they will have to make their own way.

The tent is supervised, and Hannon said he still hopes to hire more staff to run it so that its hours can be expanded to weekend mornings. He is look for tent attendants who can work four-and-a-half-hour shifts in the morning; the job pays $15 per hour.

Even if the hours can be expanded to include weekends, that leaves six hours in the middle of each day when Safe Harbor residents will have no place to go; in addition, many of the places they would go in a normal year — a local café or the BATA station lobby — will not be open to them this year.

“We’re concerned that they don’t have a place to go, but there is a limit to what Goodwill and Safe Harbor can do,” McDonald said.

It is during these daytime hours that bring Safe Harbor into conflict with some neighbors who complain that some of the organization's guests, after checking out in the morning, start drinking and get rowdy in the alleys behind their homes and elsewhere.

McDonald said that Safe Harbor residents are told to obey the law and to be good neighbors themselves, but there is only so much that the Safe Harbor administration can do to manage what its guests do when not under the facility's roof.

“We emphasize that with our guests,” McDonald said. “Probably 90 percent of our guests comply. There’s a few that don’t. We can’t force them to do anything.”

McDonald noted that Safe Harbor meets quarterly with neighborhood groups and a Traverse City Police liaison. McDonald said neighbors are urged to call the police — not Safe Harbor — if they see illegal behavior.

“If they’re violating the law, then [the people who witness it] need to call the police, you know? Safe Harbor can’t supervise people outside of our grounds,” he said. “Keep in mind: If Safe Harbor wasn’t here, they’d be somewhere. They wouldn’t just disappear. Most of these people are from Grand Traverse County.”

Michele Howard, director of Traverse Area District Library, expects that once Safe Harbor gets up and running closer to full capacity, and once the weather gets cold enough that it’s uncomfortable to be outside, the library will fill up during those six afternoon hours when the Safe Harbor population has no place else to go.

In past years, that’s caused the library some problems, and its staff has adapted and gotten better at managing the influx.

This year, because of the pandemic, there is a two-hour limit for visits to the library. (That’s more generous than a lot of libraries in the state, Howard said. Many have not opened at all; others offer only drive-up service; others still have visit time limits of one-half hour or one hour.)

The time limit so far has not really been enforced, but Howard said it will be if it becomes necessary.

One of the challenges that comes with the homeless population is keeping intoxicated people out of the library. It’s not a part of the job that most librarians signed up for or expect, but it’s become a necessary part of the day. Howard said TADL has made room in its budget this year to hire a door greeter who can work afternoon shifts; that way intoxicated patrons can be spotted on their way in and asked to leave before they get settled.

“It’s something all libraries deal with,” Howard said. “It’s not the most glorious part of the job, but it’s part of being a part of the community.” 

ULTIMATE GOAL: A PERMANENT HOME
Ashley Halladay-Schmandt, director of Northwest Michigan Coalition to End Homelessness, an agency that works across 10 counties to find permanent housing, said that across the region, shelters and health departments have worked to make sure the homeless guests they serve are healthy. So far, there hasn’t been a COVID case among the 10-county homeless population the coalition serves.

“As of last week, we’ve done over 400 tests of people who are unsheltered or who are staying in shelters right now, and everyone had zero positives, so we know that what we're doing now to help mitigate the spread is working,” Halladay-Schmandt said.

She admits, however, that keeping homeless people and families safe will get far more challenging as the population responds to freezing temperatures and moves from makeshift camps in the woods to shelters, but she said homeless people tend to stick together and tend not to interact with a lot of other people, making them less vulnerable than an average person.

“They’re not going into the community the same way other people are,” Halladay-Schmandt said. “They are very focused — as they have to be — on survival. That takes up most of their time.”

Still, she said her ultimate focus remains on finding permanent housing for people who don’t have it. Despite the shortage of housing that’s been going on for years, Halladay-Schmandt said there still hasn’t been much progress made.

“I’m not confident that we’re going to have enough permanent housing solutions for folks, because it keeps getting harder,” Halladay-Schmandt said. “The rental market in our community doesn’t seem to be catching up with the need.”

Some progress has been made this year, however, she said. They’ve found housing for 13 individuals in Traverse City, plus housing for another 13 families, all since March. She said that was spurred by something called the “100-day Challenge,” a push to find housing for 20 families by Dec. 1. Halladay-Schmandt said she believes that goal is within reach right now because the challenge has gotten several agencies to work together.

The pandemic has made her field of work more difficult, but it’s also added a sense of urgency, she said.

“I think it’s weighing on people, especially people on the front lines of this work,” Halladay-Schmandt said. “We know every winter how hard it is to be homeless, but I think this year is just creating a different urgency among people.”

“WE’RE IN THIS TOGETHER”
Dan Buron, CEO of Goodwill Industries, said that he believes one of the factors that will have the most impact on whether the virus takes root in the homeless population is how prevalent the virus becomes in the community at large. If there is a massive outbreak in the Traverse City area this winter, that will very likely put the homeless population at greater risk.

“We’re all kind of in this together. It’s just the way it is,” Buron said. “They have a responsibility, as we have a responsibility to each other.

The responsibility is a great one, because if Safe Harbor is forced to close this year, say in January or February, the consequence will almost certainly be lost lives.

Golubovskis noted that a woman who had been staying at Safe Harbor last March died of exposure on the street just days after the shelter closed.

“The fact of the matter was, we were outside, and Danielle Cornish died a few days later,” he said.

Cornish, 41, died of exposure on April 5.

“I didn’t know her. I knew of her,” Golubovskis said. “She was for me the George Floyd of the homeless community here in Traverse City. … It always happens in the shoulder season. It seems like every shoulder season, someone dies in the street.”

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