Traverse City Record-Eagle

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March 16, 2014

Expert: Safe Harbor shelter would increase homelessness

TRAVERSE CITY — A former Safe Harbor volunteer who works for a national homeless organization contends a proposed emergency shelter will worsen Traverse City's homeless problem.

Research shows a larger emergency shelter will attract people who have shelter but don't like their situation because of conflicts or cost, said Michael Ullman, a researcher who spent more than 15 years working on homeless issues.

Ullman said Safe Harbor's proposed homeless shelter in Traverse City conflicts with a trend that's seen government and private agencies de-emphasize shelters to focus their resources on permanent housing.

"It's not so much that Safe Harbor is a good or bad idea, but if you want to reduce the number of homeless individuals this is in the opposite direction to go," Ullman said. "It doesn't solve anybody's housing problem."

Safe Harbor of Grand Traverse Inc. proposes to convert a warehouse on Wellington Street one block south of Eighth Street into an emergency shelter capable of serving up to 100 people a night.

Ullman supports Safe Harbor efforts to combat hypothermia among the homeless, but said resources needed for a large shelter would be better used by converting the warehouse into permanent, dorm-style housing.

Safe Harbor representatives said the demand for their current program -- rotating among area churches to provide overnight emergency shelter for homeless people -- has outgrown their capacity.

"We are not building this to grow into ... we are building this building to meet an existing need," said Christie Minervini, a Safe Harbor board member. "A lot of what (Ullman) is saying we do agree with, but we know with the current availability of housing in this area we cannot take emergency shelter out of the mix right now."

Melodie Linebaugh, homeless program manager for the Northwest Michigan Community Action Agency, said area housing agency officials support a focus on permanent housing solutions. But she said the community still needs Safe Harbor because the region generally lacks housing for moderate- to low-income people.

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