TRAVERSE CITY — Christie Minervini said her heart ached when she encountered huge numbers of homeless folks in the nation’s largest cities and saw them shaking cups for money in miserable conditions.
She never quite knew how to respond. She didn’t want her donation to pay for alcohol or drugs, but she wanted to help in some way.
“I struggled with this for years as someone who is compassionate,” she said.
The issue came much closer to home in 2008 when she opened Gallery 50 in its former downtown location.
“There would be a guy sleeping on the bench as I opened up in the morning, and I thought, ‘Oh gosh, this is just wrong, and we need to do something about it.’ But I realized the ‘we’ doesn’t have to be somebody else. It can be me.”
Minervini is one of three key players in the area’s first homeless mentoring program in the Grand Traverse region. Called Street Advocate of Grand Traverse, the grassroots group is partnering with Goodwill Industries and Safe Harbor.
The group will meet Wednesday to explain the mentoring concept to interested volunteers. The core idea is that an army of mentors will help support the efforts of Ryan Hannon, Goodwill’s street outreach coordinator.
Hannon helps an estimated 80 people in the Traverse City area who are chronically homeless.
“Working with people experiencing homelessness is time-consuming,” Hannon said. “There are a lot of people out there and navigating the system for assistance is a daunting process.”
Peter Starkel is the “guinea pig” mentor; he works with a homeless man he first met at Safe Harbor, a coalition of churches that provides food and shelter during the cold months for the homeless.
“He chose me, I didn’t choose him,” he said. “He moved behind our church, and I sat down with him one night in June of 2012 and we talked for four hours. He was ready to make a life change, he wanted to get off the street.”
Six months after that first conversation, Starkel began meeting with “Brian” to set some goals. It wasn’t easy. Brian would miss meetings or show up in no shape to talk. But Starkel helped him navigate the services he needed, even finding a temporary place to stay.
“Once he came off the street, hope was restored. That was the turnaround,” Starkel said.
The growing homeless population has sparked concern over the last couple of years. City commissioners voiced frustration in a meeting a year ago about the number of street people who drank alcohol and slept in public spaces.
The average number of homeless people seeking overnight shelter at Safe Harbor increased from an average of 37 in 2011-12 to 44 in 2012-13. The biggest single night increased from 46 to 54 people, but the majority — 84 percent — have lived in the area for more than 10 years, Starkel said.
Brian still has no permanent home for a number of reasons, including an acute shortage of affordable housing and his troubled history, Starkel said.
Minervini said her group began meeting with the network of nonprofit and governmental agencies in the summer of 2012.
“We wanted to help, but help in the right way,” she said.
They learned that permanent, affordable housing is a huge issue, but mentoring one-on-one was an immediate need, she said.
A mentor will meet once a week with their mentee, she said. A secondary group will provide additional support, such as providing transportation to a grocery store, Minervini said.
Wednesday’s meeting starts at 6:30 p.m. at the Minervini Group offices, Grand Traverse Commons, 830 Cottageview Drive, Suite 1011, directly above Trattoria Stella. Training will begin in 2014.