Traverse City Record-Eagle

December 10, 2012

City aims to find a solution

Commissioners attempt to tackle issue of homelessness


TRAVERSE CITY — City commissioners will attempt to find a solution to a problem that's eluded most of the nation: how to get homeless people off the streets.

Commissioners want to respond to complaints from residents, neighborhood associations, and business owners. Concerns have ranged from apparent homeless people who occupy park benches to overly aggressive panhandling, harassment, and other disruptive behavior.

Officials expressed an interest in both increased prosecution against troublemakers and better coordination of services for the homeless.

"It seems to me we do a lot of things where it's not coordinated, not a comprehensive approach, but I don't know," said Commissioner Barbara Budros. "I haven't studied it. I sure would like to learn if there is more that we could be doing, or a better job at what we are doing."

Commissioners will start their education at a study session today at 7 p.m. in the Governmental Center.

Homeless advocates and city police said the commission's concern involves a very small percentage of the homeless, and addressing the issue of street people is difficult because each person has unique problems.

"For the most part these are people down on their luck, and in many cases they have mental health problems that are controlled, but makes it very difficult to find work ... or hold down a job long-term," said Mike McDonald, who works with the homeless as a volunteer through Central United Methodist Church. "I don't know where these people are going to go when they are homeless; they can't just disappear."

Mayor Michael Estes said the city needs to define what it wants to accomplish.

"It's not really a problem with the homeless; many of our homeless are fine citizens who just elect to live a different lifestyle," Estes said. "The issue is public safety."

Estes wants to examine how city ordinance violations are enforced and how penalties are assessed.

Most problems are caused by about a dozen people that are on a first-name basis with police. An estimated 99 percent of the problems are rooted in alcohol abuse, city police Capt. Brian Heffner said.

"There are services for every one of those individuals we see on the street," Heffner said. "They choose not to take advantage of those services."

Often the people have concurring issues, such as mental health and substance abuse in addition to being homeless and jobless, Heffner said.

"You need the commitment from these individuals to buy in, and it's difficult," he said.

Not all street people cause problems, Heffner said, and police don't go around waking people who sleep in parks or on beaches because they appear to be homeless.

"If individuals are in the park and not causing a disturbance, we focus our attention in other places," he said.