Traverse City Record-Eagle

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December 11, 2013

Sheriff's dept. closes lobby — 'last resort' to homeless

TRAVERSE CITY — For years, the Grand Traverse County Sheriff’s Department's lobby informally served as the “last resort” for a small number of street homeless people too belligerent and drunk to stay at church shelters.

But in mid-September, Sheriff Tom Bensley approved jail staffers' request to lock the lobby doors after daytime hours. Now with the wind chill dropping to sub-zero, he stands by his decision.

“I’m trying not to be a Grinch about this, but they could go to Safe Harbor if they followed the rules, OK?” Bensley said. “It’s just that simple. They choose not to follow those rules. And now they are somehow our responsibility? I don’t see that connection.”

Safe Harbor is a coalition of area churches that shelter homeless people each night on a rotating basis during the colder months. There were 67 such people sheltered on Monday. The shelter accepts the vast majority of the street homeless, even those who have been drinking. But there's a group of six or eight belligerent and aggressive people who can't stay there, though they still need refuge, said Ryan Hannon, Goodwill's street outreach coordinator.

"Even if it's only one person, it's dangerously cold. Their blood is thinner with alcohol, and it can get pretty scary. The lobby was their last resort,” Hannon said.

Bensley said he approved a request to lock the doors after hearing of problems.

"Let me paint a picture for you," said sheriff's Capt. Bob Hall, the jail administrator. "We had an average of four to eight people every night in varying degrees of intoxication and belligerence. They would urinate on the floor, one gentleman had diarrhea run down his pants and onto the floor, they'd fight each other, one gentleman took his underwear and scraped feces onto the water fountain that the public uses and over the floor. They'd spread their clothing on the floor and pass out drunk, vomit on the floor, fight with themselves and break wine bottles."

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