Traverse City is home to a significant number of homeless, an issue the city commission has been wrangling over for the past year or so. The city has banned alcohol from a couple of city parks where homeless individuals tend to gather and is looking for ways to clamp down on panhandlers.
It's a contentious issue sure to get more attention when warmer weather arrives and contacts between the homeless and others increase.
That debate hasn't stopped the 24 area churches that make up Safe Harbor of Grand Traverse, a program that offers a mat, a meal, and — in the bone-cracking cold that has enveloped the region this week, — basic survival to Traverse City-area homeless.
Doug Burwell, 59, who is homeless, is handling the bitter cold by turning to the Safe Harbor program. On Monday night Burwell and 65 other homeless individuals got out of the cold at Central United Methodist Church on Cass Road. That was a record number.
Safe Harbor spokesman Ryan Hannon said the shelter program, which rotates from church to church during the winter months, has never had more people who sought overnight refuge since it began in 2003.
"I'm afraid some people might freeze to death if we weren't here," he said.
He's probably right.
At least two homeless individuals have died from exposure in the past few years, and it's easy to believe that without shelter more may have succumbed, particularly in a cold snap like this one.
"Luckily, we are prepared and we've got extra mats," Hannon said. "The program has grown with the (homeless) population, and we wouldn't turn anyone away even if we didn't have a mat. We have 70 mats."
Safe Harbor isn't alone. The Goodwill Inn on North Keystone Road, which has rooms for families and single men and women, is nearly full; there are a few spots open for women, said Ruth Blick, Goodwill's director of marketing.
Homelessness is a problem here as it is just about everywhere, and there are no quick and easy solutions.
Some people want to be on the street and others have drug or alcohol problems; but there are many who want nothing more than a permanent home.
To the good people who run Safe Harbor and Goodwill Inn, what counts right now is ensuring that those who need shelter from the cold, a warm place to sleep and something to eat won't be turned away.
"It's an awesome place," said Burwell said of Safe Harbor. "It's run by people who care."
Indeed it is.