Safe Harbor, Partners Look To Offer Day Center Starting This Fall

Safe Harbor of Grand Traverse will present a proposal to Traverse City commissioners Monday to operate a day center for individuals experiencing homelessness starting this fall – a project that would be supported by partners including Central United Methodist Church, Jubilee House, Goodwill Northern Michigan Street Outreach, and the Traverse City Police Department. The goal is to provide a safe place for guests to access laundry, shower, phone-charging, and other services during the day – instead of only having access to overnight shelter – and to reduce security incidents that have occurred in the surrounding neighborhood, including at the Traverse Area District Library.

Safe Harbor is seeking to amend its special land use permit (SLUP) with the city for its facility at 517 Wellington Street to allow for limited daytime hours. Commissioners will discuss the proposal in a Monday study session before voting on the request at an upcoming regular meeting. Safe Harbor currently operates as an emergency overnight winter shelter for individuals experiencing homelessness from November 1 to April 30 between 6pm and 8am daily. The proposal seeks to keep Safe Harbor open on Saturdays and Sundays during its winter season from 8am to 6pm, essentially offering 24/7 service on weekends. Central United Methodist Church and Jubilee House would help cover the remainder of the week for day center hours, operating Monday-Friday 8:30am-10:30am at the church and Monday-Friday 10am-5:30pm at Jubilee House.

“The goal is to continue to provide a safe place for those experiencing homelessness to have laundry and showers and other services during the day, which are very critical,” says Safe Harbor board member and spokesperson Joshua Brandt. “The need was just felt. It was clear that there needs to be a place for individuals to go that isn’t just the library.”

Traverse Area District Library (TADL) staff and board members expressed concerns this spring that the library’s Woodmere branch was becoming a “de facto day shelter” for individuals experiencing homelessness as well as those struggling with addiction, since Safe Harbor requires guests to leave during the day. The library reported a “documented rise in behavior policy violations” stemming from individuals using drugs and alcohol including “expletives, verbal threats, bodily fluids, and excessively intoxicated individuals (some who are on the floor and unable to leave the library on their own) ,” according to a TADL memo.

The Traverse City Police Department (TCPD) responded to 43 calls for service at the library during Safe Harbor’s 2020-21 winter season. That number climbed to 102 calls for service during the most recent 2021-22 season. The library board approved a $33,000 contract for increased security services in December, but said those funds should be going to books and programming instead. TCPD Chief Jeff O’Brien tells The Ticker that the department went through an internal problem-solving process to identify strategies to reduce incidents at TADL and in the surrounding North Boardman Lake District (NOBO), with a day center emerging as an early recommendation.

“We support it, and this is one of the answers we came up with in cooperation (with the other partners) to try and reduce the numbers of incidents happening in that area,” O’Brien says. The TCPD is also in the process of assigning a community police officer (CPO) specifically to the NOBO neighborhood – two internal candidates are being vetted for the role now – as well as hiring a social worker/coordinator for a quick response team, a multi – Disciplinary team that will respond to substance abuse and overdose issues, including areas of mental health and homelessness. O’Brien expects both of those new roles to be filled before the start of Safe Harbor’s fall season.

Safe Harbor’s proposal describes a multi-pronged approach in which – in addition to the day center – the NOBO CPO will work “proactively” with residents and businesses to address concerns that arise and take a “holistic approach to law enforcement encounters with persons experiencing behavioral and physical health challenges.” The TCPD social worker/coordinator will “assess needs and implement treatment plans to address people dealing with homelessness, mental/chronic illness, substance abuse, job loss, poverty, and criminal behavior,” as well as “focus on assertive community outreach and interventions with unhoused people.” Goodwill Northern Michigan’s Street Outreach Worker will also provide support, reaching out “to people experiencing homelessness and (offering) resources to help them find a safe and secure home” and providing emergency assistance to “ensure needs are met while helping connect people to long- term solutions for ending homelessness.”

Project partners say their goal is to reduce neighborhood incidents while also better serving individuals experiencing homelessness and connecting them to long-term services – treating guests with compassion and respecting their humanity rather than simply putting them in jail. “Criminalizing them is not going to solve anything,” says Brandt. “If someone has a mental health issue and gets arrested and spends a night in jail, it doesn’t improve their future situation. It doesn’t provide a pathway forward for them that might lead them to a better place.”

TADL Executive Director Michele Howard says library staff were part of a committee that looked at neighborhood solutions and are supportive of the proposal. “Hopefully this will create more places for people to go that are staffed with people who can help them, because librarians aren’t really trained to do that,” she says. “Everyone is welcome at the library; we just hope the awful incidents will be reduced so that everyone feels safe to walk through the doors. It’s a whole community effort to create better touchpoints for people who are vulnerable and unhoused. They’re going to need more volunteers and funding (to make the day center successful), but I think we’re a caring community, so hopefully we’ll all be able to come together to make it work.”

Operating a day center for the upcoming winter season is a pilot project that will gauge how well the program works and if enough staff and volunteers are available to properly maintain it. It could eventually lead to a “year-round safe haven for those experiencing homelessness in our community during certain daytime hours,” according to a memo from Safe Harbor Board Chair Christopher Ellalasingham to City Manager Marty Colburn. He added: “The health and safety of homeless individuals has been compromised by lack of appropriate housing in our community, and Safe Harbor is happy to participate in this private/public partnership to help alleviate this community need.”

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