TRAVERSE CITY —
Rich Tomey spent years working in homeless shelters, helping those who found themselves running out of options.
He now gives himself two months before he might need to find help himself.
Two weeks ago Tomey was fired from his Goodwill Industries of Northern Michigan street outreach position. The news "flabbergasted" Jerry Jones and others who depend on services like the Safe Harbor shelter network.
"(Tomey) has more trust among the people displaced in this town than anybody else," Jones said. "If there’s a problem, he’s the first person we’ll talk to."
Jones might not have voiced that praise 10 years ago, when Tomey kicked him out of the Goodwill Inn homeless shelter for breaking its rules. The move angered him at the time, but he grew to respect Tomey so much that he recently started a petition to support the ousted Goodwill employee.
Within days, he'd amassed close to 100 signatures. Recent estimates indicate more than 300 people in the Grand Traverse region live on the streets or in shelters.
Tomey said the support is humbling, but does not believe he'll be returned to his old position.
"I always have (and) I still support Goodwill," he said. "Obviously, I can’t do a lot with them any longer (but) I have no vendetta."
Ryan Hannon, street outreach coordinator with Goodwill, said he could comment on the dismissal.
"Unfortunately, per Goodwill policy we may not discuss (personnel) matters because of confidentiality concerns," he said.
Hannon said he is now the only Goodwill employee working street outreach. The company is looking to fill Tomey's full-time position.
The Safe Harbor network is a partnership between local churches that provide shelter for the homeless or displaced during the winter months and Goodwill Industries, which manages operations and supervises volunteers.
Tomey said Goodwill officials fired him after he arranged for a Safe Harbor volunteer to give a ride to a distraught, intoxicated female client who did not want to stay at the shelter. Officials told him the move violated Goodwill policy and created a potential liability risk.
"I was not willing to call the police on her in the situation," he said.
He contacted authorities on many other occasions for other shelter clients, but did not believe that was the best action in this case. "In the heat of the moment, I was concerned for her well-being."
Several Safe Harbor clients don't believe Tomey can be easily replaced.
"I've seen him go out in the middle of the night and take care of people who had alcohol poisoning," said Mat Albert. "I've seen him go between people twice his size at Safe Harbor to keep peace so both people could stay. I've seen him go so far on so many things it's not even funny."
Paul Enterline spent seven years in local shelters. He said Tomey helped him throughout that time, sometimes even paying for his prescriptions out of his own pocket or driving him to medical tests in Kalkaska.
"That was a part of him," he said. "It was his life."
Cary Kattelus said she was "surprised" and "devastated" to hear of Tomey's dismissal. She said it made her feel less comfortable to go to Safe Harbor.
"Rich is the heart and soul of Safe Harbor," she said. "He's the one that made me comfortable going in there. He's the one that makes us feel there's hope for our situation."
Hannon said Goodwill has "great concern" for its clients, but not about its ability to provide services, even as need increases. He said 54 people a night stayed in Safe Harbor shelters in February, up from 33 at that time last year.
Harry Hubbel, a member of the Safe Harbor steering committee, said higher shelter numbers are pushing the capacity of partner churches. He also said Tomey's termination was discussed during a recent meeting between Safe Harbor partners and it was agreed it will not affect the relationship between the churches and Goodwill.
Tomey continues to volunteer at homeless services like Jubilee House as he looks for employment. He estimates his tax refund will help him pay for his rent and car for two months until unemployment insurance comes through. He said he'll approach the future with a positive attitude and his faith.
"If this door is closed, (God) has someplace open for me to continue," he said.
Jones plans to present his petition to Goodwill soon and hopes it makes a statement.
"I don't know what will transpire out of all of this, but hopefully Goodwill will understand this man is just more than an employee for them," he said.