Traverse City Record-Eagle

October 3, 2012

City wants homeless out

Commissioners try to move homeless away from park

BY BRIAN McGILLIVARY
bmcgillivary@record-eagle.com

TRAVERSE CITY — Traverse City officials said they'll look for ways to address problems with homeless people in downtown public places on the heels of a chorus of constituent complaints.

Commissioners this week voiced frustration with the number of street people who drink alcohol and sleep in public spaces. Their comments came amid a vote to ban alcohol at the Jay Smith Walkway downtown and they instructed city staff and police to confront what some referred to as growing problem.

"I'm not talking about families where they've lost a job and were forced out of their house; I'm talking about the drunken bums, people who are dope heads, alcoholics," said Commissioner Michael Gillman.

"It's not becoming very family friendly in town and it's becoming a problem," Gillman later told a reporter.

An alcohol ban at the Jay Smith Walkway off Front Street will push homeless elsewhere, including already-troubled spots, Commissioner Jim Carruthers said.

He cited the volleyball courts near the Open Space, the Boardman Lake Trail, and parks near bridges on Cass and Union streets leading into the downtown as problem areas.

"It's an emerging problem. We are having more issues with crime, there is slowly becoming more issues with violence," Carruthers said.

City Manager Ben Bifoss said he will meet with the city planner and police and fire departments to discuss ways to address problem behavior.

"Some of the panhandling is fairly aggressive, there does seem to be some verbal abuse, and we have had incidences of public urination," Bifoss said. "Anecdotally, there seems to more aggressive behavior towards women."

Corinne Slosnerick crossed the Union Street Bridge south of State Street on Tuesday afternoon and said she doesn't consider street people to be a significant problem. Just below her a man sat and stared at the river, a mostly empty alcohol bottle at his side. Another man slept in the grass nearby.

"I've heard a little bit about problems, but nothing has ever happened to me," she said. "Compared to other cities, I don't think it's bad at all."

City police Capt. Brian Heffner said officials estimate there are close to 700 homeless people in Grand Traverse County, but only about 10 percent of those are people the public may tend to associate with the homeless. Of those 70, perhaps only as many at 10 cause most of the problems, he said.

"We find these are the people we are arresting over and over again," Heffner said.

Homeless people frequently are attracted to the downtown because of kindness extended by some city businesses and individuals, Heffner said. Churches in and near the downtown provide warm food, showers, and other services in close proximity.

"These are programs that are getting bigger and bigger because of the people providing services to the homeless, so the public sees more people," Heffner said.

Seamus Shinners, president of the Central Neighborhood Association, said he's heard similar concerns about the homeless population during recent neighborhood meetings.

"There are neighbors across the area that are concerned, and some view it as out of control, but that assumes you can control it and I don't know if you can," Shinners said. "I think it's fair to say ... there is a concern that the neighborhood doesn't know what to expect any more in the terms of safety."

Gillman said he doesn't presume to have a solution to the problem.

"I'll wait and listen to suggestions, but I don't think it's something we should be ignoring," he said.