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."
Hall said he was bombarded with complaints from people who came into the lobby to post bond or inquire about an arrest.
"It was a nightmare," Hall said. "We had to do something."
Peter Starkel, a Safe Harbor steering committee member, wonders what happens now. Historically, police drove a belligerent homeless person to the lobby if there was nowhere else to go.
“Are they suggesting they’ll remove the person from the shelter and turn them loose on the street where the temperatures are too cold to survive?" he said. "I feel it is (the sheriff's) responsibility to protect citizens from freezing to death. He has put six cameras in the waiting room and he has staff there at night. That seems to be the solution to the problem, not locking the doors. If they see somebody is breaking the law, arrest him.”
But Bensley said it’s no more the jail's responsibility to provide shelter than any other governmental entity, such as the fire department. But he doesn't know where the belligerent homeless will go.
Traverse City Police Captain Mike Ayling said police won't leave anyone out on the street.
"Everyone is different. Some might have a medical emergency, some might have a relative they can stay with, some might have broken the law," he said. "We're looking for a long-term solution."
Greg Stone said a future option — still at least a year away — is "Dann's House," a permanent, supervised home for chronic, homeless alcoholics.
“Sometimes it's the tragedy that has to happen even more than once for us to do something," he said, choking up. "I don't know how many times that has to happen. I don't."
Allen Barkovich, who is homeless, said Safe Harbor has a deadline of 7 p.m. after which people are turned away.
“Sometimes it’s self-inflicted (when they're late). They know the time. Sometimes you have trouble getting there,” he said. “(The lobby) was a good, safe place so they wouldn't be left out in the cold."
Hannon said the real issue is a critical lack of housing for the nearly 100 chronic homeless on the streets. An estimated 84 percent suffer from mental illness, often on top of substance abuse, he said.
Given that statistic, Bensley wonders if Northern Lakes Community Mental Health can step in. Or maybe there could be a "high security Safe Harbor" or a wet house.
"This is a mess," he said. "I don't think our facility is the proper use of our resources, but I'm happy to work with people."
Greg Paffhouse, CEO of Northern Lakes CMH, said his agency helps those with severe mental illness, but doesn't get funding for emergency housing.
"We'd want to be part of the conversation to help those persons with serious mental illness," he said. "I'm surprised (Bensley) shut it down like that with the cold weather."