Traverse City Record-Eagle

February 16, 2014

Shelter prompts debate


---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Boardman neighborhood resident Mike Dow favors the “right answer” regarding a homeless shelter that’s proposed for a building just a few blocks from his home.

But Dow said he needs more information before he takes a personal stance. He plans to attend one of two upcoming meetings to learn more.

“I’d generally be in favor of the shelter unless they are doing something stupid,” Dow said. “Poor implementation can ruin the best of ideas.”

Safe Harbor of Grand Traverse is a group of 23 churches that provides overnight shelter on a rotating basis. The group wants to convert a 9,600-square-foot building on Wellington Street one block south of Eighth Street into a permanent shelter.

The facility would provide year-round services for people who live on the street, including a “drunk tank” for those who arrive under the influence of alcohol.

Organizers arranged a Monday meeting to explain the project, and they’ll discuss specific concerns with the Boardman Neighborhood Association on Wednesday. Both meetings are open to the public and will start at 6:30 p.m. at the Traverse Area District Library Woodmere Avenue branch.

Dow has children at home and said neighborhood safety will be one of his primary concerns, as it is for many of his neighbors.

Sharon Neumann said too many homeless people already congregate in the neighborhood.

“I feel for the homeless, but to put it in a concentrated area with a lot of young families with children is just asking for trouble,” Neumann said. “We already have two churches in our neighborhood that are feeding the homeless and to add a shelter where they will sleep is a little bit disconcerting, to say the least. The whole thing needs to be spread around.”

The homeless shelter proposal has split the neighborhood in unprecedented fashion, said Elizabeth Whelan, Boardman neighborhood president.

“I’m trying to calm the waters, but it seems to be black or white. There doesn’t seem to be any middle ground,” Whelan said.

Resident Gloria Janka, though, said she has mixed feelings about the plan and will try to attend a meeting to learn more.

Peter Starkel, Safe Harbor’s spokesman, said he believes the majority of neighborhood residents are similar to Dow and Janka; they just want more information and answers.

“There are some legitimate concerns that people have and then there are those questions I think are just there to create panic,” Starkel said.

Parents should always have concerns for their children’s safety, but the notion of rampant attacks by street homeless on children is not supported by studies or their history in Traverse City, Starkel said.

“This is not going to create significant changes in the way the city operates because we are not changing anything other than the location,” Starkel said.

Safe Harbor operates well and efficiently, but is running out of space as the number of homeless grows. The organization has looked for a base site for three years, and considered the Grand Traverse Commons, Woodmere Avenue, and other areas of the city. Buildings either aren’t available long-term or are too expensive, Starkel said.

Neighborhood resident Marc Fenton said he generally supports the shelter, but heard concerns from his neighbors.

“I think it’s going to be important to get the conversation going,” Fenton said. “I’m sure there are various points of view and everybody needs to be heard.”