Emily Huhman: Homelessness: A tale of two cities

Wednesday, October 11, 2017 - 5:03pm

I grew up in Traverse City. Ask any University of Michigan student from Traverse City about their hometown, and they will describe the beautiful beaches, bustling downtown and Moomer’s, our town’s treasure (it’s the best ice cream in the United States). While these are all a part of what makes Traverse City what it is, one thing is often left out in the conversation surrounding the city: homelessness.

Homelessness is an issue that is prevalent in Traverse City and Ann Arbor, but the issue is relatively invisible to those who are unaffected by it. 

Out of the 15,479 people who live in Traverse City, about 94 people experience homelessness. Traverse City is not considered a hub for the homeless; therefore, the city is not given adequate funding from the state and federal government to help deal with the homelessness problem. As a result, it has been up to nonprofits to try to care for the homeless in the city.

I began to volunteer at Safe Harbor, one of the nonprofits serving the community’s homeless. There, I learned about the problems facing my hometown’s homeless population. As the main organization working to serve the homeless, Safe Harbor is a collection of churches that makes meals and provides “bed-nights,” or overnights in one of its participating churches.

In the winters of 2011 and 2012, Safe Harbor provided 5,540 bed-nights and more than 11,000 meals to 158 different homeless folks. Though Safe Harbor provides much help and services to the homeless, the help is only temporary — nothing they provide is permanent. Rather, federal and state programs are necessary to provide permanent solutions to Traverse City’s homelessness issue.

Of the 364,709 people living in Washtenaw County, 342 of those people experienced homelessness on a given day in January 2016. Unlike Traverse City, Washtenaw County has taken a much more active role in reducing homelessness. While Traverse City relies almost solely on private nonprofits, Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County have implemented governmental programs to curb homelessness in their communities. 

In 2015, Washtenaw County implemented the Zero:2016 program, now called Built for Zero. This is a national program that aims to help communities develop and utilize existing resources to help those on the streets. The program has seen a lot of success in Ann Arbor — 172 homeless veterans and 158 of the chronically homeless were able to get off the streets. If Traverse City’s government implemented this type of program, it could likely reduce homelessness.

In addition, a lack of affordable housing in Traverse City contributes to housing insecurity and homelessness. As wealthy retirees have begun to settle in Traverse City, housing prices have increased substantially. Some downtown apartments and condominiums are on the market for more than $1 million. These prices are outrageous; middle-class citizens cannot afford these apartments, let alone the working homeless. As a result, homeless people in the area are often in danger, either because of cold winters or vicious beatings by other homeless people or local teenagers.

Many attempts have been made to build affordable housing units in Traverse City, but these projects have faced considerable pushback from some portions of the community. In 2016, Traverse City’s city commission sold an unused government building to Safe Harbor for $50,000 after two years of debate. This building will be turned into a permanent home for Safe Harbor and open as a shelter in 2018.

Critics wondered if building a homeless shelter was the best use of the land. Others worry that the increase in services will lead to more homeless people moving into the area. However, statistics show this has not happened. In Traverse City, 74 percent of the homeless are from Grand Traverse County and 93 percent are from Michigan. As a result, in the deal with Safe Harbor, city commissioners stipulated that if a housing proposal comes along within 10 years, part of the property will be used for housing the homeless.

Ann Arbor has faced a similar problem with affordable housing. Listing prices have increased 10.6 percent from April 2016. Now, the average listing price in Ann Arbor is $320,335, a price that is impossible for low-income individuals to afford. Officials in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti have said they plan to add 3,137 affordable renting units. While this is a great step, it can still be difficult for extremely low-income people to afford these units. Additionally, funding cuts have forced a shelter to cut 27 beds. More affordable housing and homeless shelters are needed to further reduce homelessness in Ann Arbor.

The homeless in the Traverse City area have also been working to become more visible. In 2011, the first issue of “Speak Up Magazine,” a magazine written by homeless folks about issues affecting them, was released in Traverse City. People can submit articles, short stories, poems or artwork to the magazine. Once published, the homeless can become vendors after going through an interview. The vendors can keep any profits they receive. Though “Speak Up Magazine” does not solve the systematic problems of homelessness, it has provided a look into the lives of Traverse City’s homeless population and given them a voice.  

Ann Arbor’s “Groundcover News” is a comparable publication. You might see these vendors in yellow vests around Ann Arbor — feel free to stop by and pick up a copy.

I am so grateful to have grown up in Traverse City. However, the city can do a lot more to help the homeless people in the area. While visibility for the homeless in Traverse City may be increasing with “Speak Up Magazine,” more can be done by local leaders to help those in need. Ann Arbor has been able to implement some governmental solutions. Traverse City can take a cue from Ann Arbor and implement more city-wide programs and actively look for affordable housing solutions.

Emily Huhman can be reached at huhmanem@umich.edu.

Correction: The column initially noted Traverse City receives no funding from state and federal government to help aid the homeless. Traverse City in fact receives funding from the state to aid the homeless in the city. Corrections have been issued to reflect the fact the city receives this funding.