Traverse City Record-Eagle

January 30, 2014

Volunteer urges hotels to open empty rooms to homeless

BY ANNE STANTON astanton@record-eagle.com
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — On New Year’s Eve, a volunteer at Third Level Crisis Intervention Center received a frantic phone call on the crisis line. A mom feared she and her two children would freeze to death.

The family huddled in a running van to stay warm, but the gas tank was near empty. The temperature outside was a frigid four degrees, and they had nowhere to turn.

The mom told volunteer Kathy Kelly that shelters run by the Women’s Resource Center and Goodwill Inn were full. Her children, ages 10 and 12, were too young to stay at Pete’s Place Youth Shelter. Safe Harbor of Grand Traverse provides emergency overnight shelter for adults only.

“My colleague said to tell her to go to Meijer and stay active and walk around all night,” Kelly said. “All I could picture was trying to tell my two kids that they couldn’t go to sleep and have to be mobile all night long. I started to cry. I said, ‘I can’t call her back and tell her that.’”

Just then, Goodwill Inn called Kelly to say they could give the family a hotel voucher.

Kelly, the general manager of Sleep Inn in Acme Township, wondered why she’d never heard of the voucher program. Now that she has, she wants the rest of the hotel and motel community to know about it, too.

“My goal is to get these families in warm places,” she said. “If hotel operators can step up from November through March when we have a lot of empty rooms, we’ll have no more homeless in the winter months.”

Kelly is working to connect her world of hotels and motels with that of Third Level and Billie Hedglen, the housing specialist for Northwest Michigan Community Action Agency.

Hedglen gives out short-term hotel or motel vouchers to families as a “last resort” — when they’ve exhausted all other options, such as shelters, family or friends.

The vouchers are funded by the state Department of Human Services, and pay participating hotels or motels an agreed upon amount, typically less than what they would normally charge.

In summertime, families must often camp because hotels and motels are typically full and the voucher cap is just a fraction of the going rate, Hedglen said.

Hedglen said she averages a phone call a day from a homeless family and turns to a motel or hotel about once a week. The family is asked to come up with a plan of where they’ll go after the motel stay.

“Their stay is usually very short-lived. We like to say five days is the max,” she said.

But until Kelly got involved, only the Crestwood Motel, also in Acme Township, and Econo Lodge in Blair Township participated.

Kelly talked the owner of Sleep Inn into accepting homeless families. He also donated a $100 fee so that Hedglen’s agency could join the Grand Traverse Hospitality Association.

Kelly also persuaded Doug Dornbos of Cherry Capital Cab to pay the association fee so Third Level could join. Dornbos agreed and did one better: His cab helps out Third Level with homeless people who need a ride.

“It’s our town, too,” Dornbos said.

Third Level and community action agency officials will attend the hospitality association’s February meeting to present details of the voucher program. Kelly hopes they can draw even more participants.

Meanwhile, AmericInn in East Bay Township also volunteered to accept homeless families.

“Once the train gains momentum, people are going to want to step up and help. I don’t think a lot of people are aware of what our hotel operators are doing,” said Kelly, adding that a homeless mom and her son stayed at the Sleep Inn for 16 days while waiting for an apartment to open.

Hedglen said the story just begins with finding emergency housing. Her agency helps families solve long-term problems with support ranging from budgeting and family relations to providing bus passes and gas cards.

“Right now, we’ve given them all out. It’s been really, really difficult this year. There are more people with the long winter. It’s so cold,” Hedglen said.

Hedglen praised Kelly for her work in strengthening the voucher program.

“She’s been wonderful,” she said.