TRAVERSE CITY — Nearly 100 people are chronically homeless and on the street in Traverse City, and their numbers are growing each year.
Safe Haven, a volunteer church effort to house the homeless at night, along with other free meal and day-time shelters, provides support to homeless people from the five-county area. In 2013, Goodwill Industries of Northern Michigan helped 13 people permanently move off the street, said Ryan Hannon, street outreach director.
Hannon said a majority of those people — an estimated 84 percent — suffer from mental health problems. Some are arrested for drunk and disorderly behavior or home invasion, and end up in jail. Each arrest costs taxpayers roughly $55 to $60 a night on top of expensive medications, said Grand Traverse County Sheriff Tom Bensley.
“There are a lot of people with mental health issues in jails, and that’s not the place for them,” he said.
The growing number of homeless is often blamed on the closing of the Traverse City State Hospital more than two decades ago. But Roger Dunigan, former executive director of Great Lakes Community Mental Health, believes it was the right thing to do.
With the advent of drug therapy, most patients could safely live in the community or group homes, and the state generously funded the transition, he said.
“At that time, we’d pay property taxes or mortgage payments or rents so people could maintain their own home. We had money to put people wherever they needed to go,” he said. “And even doing that, we had a couple of people for whatever reason, probably because of their mental illness, who would refuse to take advantage of that. At that time, it was four or five people, not the huge number of people we have now.”
Over time, state funding was almost wholly replaced by inflexible, federal Medicaid dollars. Northern Lakes Community Health no longer has funding to pay for housing.
“The cutting back of the resources, and primarily making it a Medicaid program, took away opportunity and care away from those who were severely chronically and mentally ill,” Dunigan said.