City Commissioners: Stop, and Answer the Questions About Homeless Shelter Plan

By Ron Jolly

Nine years ago the Traverse City community came together to raise nearly $5 million to build the Goodwill Inn shelter. Leaders led, volunteers worked, and donors – big and small- gave! As a member of the Capital Campaign committee, I played a tiny role, but had a front row seat to watch community leaders and caring volunteers in action. In the beginning, I couldn’t imagine how that much money could be raised, but it was, and it made me proud to live in this community.

It’s disappointing to see name calling and politics creep into the efforts of Safe Harbor, another admirable group of volunteers working to address homelessness. Safe Harbor volunteers built a network of churches to provide overnight shelter and food to homeless persons during cold weather months. The program is now at or near capacity, so Safe Harbor wants to move the program to a centralized location. The City has offered a little-used warehouse at 517 Wellington, just off of Eighth Street. And, there’s the catch: the building is owned by the City of Traverse City.

Some tax-paying citizens who live, or own a business, near the proposed shelter don’t think that’s the best use of the building. Their concerns include public safety, vagrancy, and a potentially negative impact on property values and economic development. This has led to a few heated city commission meetings, and two city commissioners reportedly referred to opponents as “hatemonger” and “hateful.” I don’t recall much of that tension in the effort to build the Goodwill Inn, a project that did not involve the city, county, or any level of government where a few individuals make decisions that affect many.

At least four of seven city commissioners favor leasing the Wellington warehouse to Safe Harbor for one dollar a month. The 90-bed shelter would be open November through April. Four commissioners recently voted against going to mediation to find common ground in what Mayor Michael Estes calls “the most controversial issue” he’s seen in his years on the commission. Commissioners turning a deaf ear to concerns of neighbors have abandoned their roles as representatives and become activists, and have failed to justify their reasoning for turning over city-owned property to Safe Harbor when several questions remain unanswered. Those are:

– Economic development: The area of Eighth Street near Wellington is pegged as an economic development corridor. Is a homeless shelter more likely to attract or repel such development?

– City responsibility: To what extent will the City create policy, fund, or take positions on social issues such as homelessness, hunger, income, etc? For those who advocate using city resources out of compassion for the homeless, what will the city do if the shelter reaches its 90-bed capacity? Will it be obligated to use city resources for those left standing in line outside?

– Solution to homelessness: Will the emergency shelter reduce the homeless population, which would be a step in the right direction, or will some view the shelter as permanent winter housing? It would be nice to see if a relevant study of a similar situation exists.

– Neighboring taxpayers: The City needs to listen to the chorus of objections coming from nearby tax-paying property owners as closely as they listened to Slabtown neighbors fighting housing density, and the complaints of Old Town and Slabtown residents about festival noise.

– Other uses: A recreation group wants to use the Wellington warehouse for indoor sports – volleyball, soccer and such. They’re willing to pay up to $10,000 annually in rent. Commissioners owe it to taxpayers to give this idea fair consideration.

– Surplus property: The City could also opt to sell the building, make a profit and return it to the taxpaying rolls.

Commissioners have put many hours of work into this issue, but that’s no excuse to forge ahead while ignoring so many legitimate concerns. Safe Harbor cannot occupy 517 Wellington this winter so there should be no rush to approve a long-term lease on the building. There is a public hearing and possible vote on the matter scheduled for November 17.

Commissioners should sell the property if it’s not being used for city purposes, and leave the work of addressing homelessness to volunteers and professionals. That would eliminate the politics and some of the division.

There is a building for sale next to the Goodwill Inn that could serve as an additional shelter. It could likely be purchased and converted into a shelter for less than $500,000. That’s about 10 percent of what it took to build the current Goodwill Inn. If that money would help shelter those in need, I have no doubt the Traverse City community will come through. It has before, and it will again.

Disclaimer: I am a supporter of Goodwill Industries and the fine work they do, but I do not speak for the organization in any capacity.