Rising library incidents sparks new conversations about local roaming
The situation of the homeless in Traverse City is increasingly dire. According to local experts, the number of people homeless in the region has been steadily increasing since last fall. Worse yet, the local services that exist to help the homeless are strained by the same shortage of staff and volunteers that other organizations face. These factors have caused the problem to spill over into public places, with dozens of recent incidents at the Traverse Area District Library (TADL) sparking new conversations about how to lend a hand when everything from prizes. housing to the pandemic, gets in the way.
âSince this same time last year, we have seen an increase in the number of homeless people,â says Ashley Halladay-Schmandt, director of the Northwest Michigan Coalition to End Homelessness. “Last year at this time the number was around 225. And now we’re between 250 and 260.”
Safe Harbor, which opened for the winter season from November 1, is seeing these higher numbers firsthand. The property is open from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 a.m. nightly until April 30 and can accommodate a total of 90 people per night. According to Mike McDonald, Chairman of the Safe Harbor Board of Directors, the maximum number of people the facility has hosted overnight so far this season was 62.
âUnderstand that our numbers start low in November,â notes McDonald. âThey climb until December, peak in January and February, then start to fall again.  is a pretty high number for November. We’re a little worried about what’s going to happen in January and February.
What is causing the increase? The Coalition isn’t sure, but Halladay-Schmandt says it’s probably a variety of things: the pandemic; âThe persistent lack of affordable housing in our regionâ; the Supreme Court’s decision in August to end a national moratorium on evictions.
Statistically, homelessness is also on the rise in the United States. In March, the Department of Housing and Urbanism (HUD) reported that “580,466 people were homeless in the United States on a single night in 2020, an increase of 12,751 people, or 2.2%, from 2019.”
In Traverse City, the number of homeless people has increased as homeless services have been hampered by COVID-19. Most of these services had to go out of business during the pandemic’s early shutdowns, and although they have since returned online, many have yet to regain their full power.
âBefore the pandemic, during the winter, the Central United Methodist Church – which serves breakfast and showers – would be open every morning from 8:30 am to 10:30 am, seven days a week,â says Ryan Hannon, coordinator of the community engagement for Goodwill North Michigan. “And then the Jubilee House [an outreach ministry of Grace Episcopal Church] would be open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday to Friday.
These hours, Hanno says, gave homeless people a place to go during winter mornings and early afternoons. Safe Harbor and Goodwill Inn, meanwhile, covered the night time hours. That left the 2 to 6 p.m. window, during which Hanno said a lot of people would go to TADL, “because it’s public, it’s hot, and it’s a safe place.”
Due to the pandemic, this consistent daily schedule has largely disappeared.
âWhen the pandemic first hit, everything was closed and there was nowhere to go,â says Hannon. âAs we learned more about the pandemic and tested, and vaccines became available, Central United Methodist and Jubilee House slowly reopened. But again, this winter, rather than seven days a week, Central is only open five mornings a week; they don’t have enough volunteers to stay open every seven days. And the Jubilee House now, rather than 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday, it’s 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Wednesday. And it’s because of the same thing: the lack of volunteer capacity.
With nowhere to go, more and more homeless people are spending more time in the library. That fact alone, according to TADL director Michele Howard, is not a problem. âLibraries have always been really welcoming places, and it’s part of our mission to make sure people are welcome here,â she says. The teleprinter.
However, as the library has become a de facto day shelter, it is the responsibility of TADL staff to deal with some worrying situations.
âSometimes what we’re seeing – and what we’re seeing this year much earlier than in previous years – is an increasing number of people struggling to comply with the rules of behavior in the library,â Howard explains. âSometimes it’s drinking. Sometimes it’s just being really strong or using colorful language. Sometimes it’s drug use or smoking when we walk in. This year these things have been a lot worse than the other years for us. “
Traverse City Police Department (TCPD) Chief Jeffrey O’Brien said TCPD received 32 calls from TADL in the past two months alone. 20 of these calls were simple âproperty inspectionsâ or situations where TCPD agents walked around the library to help TADL staff defuse situations with customers. Some appeals, however, are more severe. Howard reports a recent incident where a homeless man set toilet paper on fire in one of the bathrooms. She also had to call ambulances to help people “so intoxicated they couldn’t wake up”. And O’Brien recalls instances where TADL staff had to use naloxone, the drug that reverses opioid overdoses.
What are the solutions ? Most important, according to Halladay-Schmandt, is affordable housing. But progress on this front is slow, especially during a high-demand real estate boom like the one Traverse City has experienced in recent years.
“There are a lot of housing developments going on, but I think that among those I know, only one will have units reserved for people who are homeless,” she notes. âSo that’s not good. We would like to see units put aside whenever a development occurs.
In the shorter term, Hannon trains TADL staff on how to handle incidents with homeless people in a safe, positive and empathetic manner. And Jim Perra, rector of Grace Episcopal Church, says he’s “doing a recruiting drive right now,” hoping to get enough volunteers to add on Thursdays (and hopefully Fridays too) on the Jubilee House program for the new year.
The Coalition, for its part, strives to “unite all our partners around the issue of day shelters,” according to Halladay-Schmandt. “We want to find solutions around where people can go during the day, and more support for them.”
For his part, Chief O’Brien hopes that the growing visibility of homelessness in the community will inspire more people to volunteer to help, especially the younger generations.
âGenerally speaking, the volunteer system is made up of seniors,â says O’Brien. âAnd a lot of these people don’t want to come in and expose themselves because of COVID. I think that’s really the breaking point, and that’s why we’re where we’re at. So how do you get young people interested in volunteering, getting involved and trying to help people? [that are experiencing homelessness]? “
âAt the end of the day, we need more volunteers,â confirms Perra. âAnd we probably need more public partnerships. If COVID continues to worsen, we will need the help of civic authorities to do what we are doing. “