Cold Weather, Staffing and COVID Impacts on Homeless

Advocates for the homeless will say the struggle persists in Traverse City.

“We know that the lack of affordable housing and economic conditions create a perfect storm for homelessness here,” says Ryan Hannon, a community engagement officer for Goodwill Northern Michigan.

There are 260 people in the greater Grand Traverse Area that are experiencing homelessness. This includes people who lack a fixed regular place to sleep.

This coupled with severely cold temperatures, COVID-19 protocols and staffing shortages creates obstacles for Grand Traverse Basic Needs Coalition. The coalition includes Goodwill Street Outreach and Central United Methodist Church, Jubilee House, Salvation Army, St. Vincent de Paul, the Father Fred Foundation, the Thomas Judd Care Center, and the 5Loaves2Fish meal program.

Warming Shelter

Several times over the last few months they’ve had to initiate “code blue.”

“Code blue is an alert that we put out when temperatures are 10 degrees or below or the wind chill is 10 degrees or below or where there’s a blizzard warning issued in our area,” says Hannon. “That initiates the the Basic Needs Coalition to coordinate a place to be warm for people who are experiencing homelessness 24 hours.”

During a code blue suspensions are lifted for those in need of shelter who would otherwise be turned away. The team will coordinate to make sure at least one location is open during the day.

Monday through Friday Central United Methodist Church is open for breakfast and showers. Monday through Thursday Jubilee House is also open. That leaves gaps taken over by The Salvation Army who has a warming shelter open midday. Safe Harbor will also be open earlier hours.

Locations still struggle to keep the shelters staffed.

Warming Center

“All the member agencies have short staff, short volunteers so we’re all struggling,” says Hannon. “We brainstorm and get together and and talk about how we can pull it off to where there’s something open.”

Hannon says there’s a potential for there not to be a place to go if they don’t have more volunteers.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 has remained an additional challenge for the coalition.

Hannon says the coalition works with Traverse Health Clinic and Munson Family Practice to do ongoing testing.

They also provide spaces for quarantine and isolation at the Goodwill Inn.

“A shelter within a shelter if you will,” says Hannon. “What we do is we’ve taken three family rooms, which are like mini apartments, where multiple people can be quarantined together. We set those aside to be able to use when people test positive. We have it in a in a way that’s near an emergency exit so we can use that door for in and out purposes and really keep people truly isolated that need to be isolated.”

They are also partnering with a local motel.

“We have six rooms that we pay for to have on hand and currently have four of those rooms filled right now on top of the family rooms we use for isolation at the Goodwill Inn,” says Hannon.

COVID Restrictions

Pastor Jane Lippert of Central United Methodist Church says the need for services has continued to grow despite the challenges to keep up.

Fifty-eight people alone came to the church, Wednesday, just for the mail which is free for people to do if they have no other address.

“There are so many new people,” says Pastor Lippert. “We have a mail service, and just this month I’ve signed up 25 people to receive their mail here which means they fell through the bottom of housing or they’re living in their car or they lost where they’re living or their couch surfing somewhere else.”

And over the last few years people have been dying from exposure in colder temperatures. One individual died just before the start of the pandemic.

“No matter how many people use it if it kept six people from getting a life threatening illness or dying it’s worth it,” says Lippert.

Hannon says that the community can be a part of the solution through volunteering and advocating for those who are homeless.

“Take a stand and say homelessness is not okay in our community. There are ways that we can end it and we need to work together to do it,” says Hannon. “People experiencing homelessness do not choose this they are working as hard as they can to stay alive, survive and get out of homelessness.”