TRAVERSE CITY — Christie Minervini said her heart ached when she encountered huge numbers of homeless folks in the nation’s largest cities and saw them shaking cups for money in miserable conditions.
She never quite knew how to respond. She didn’t want her donation to pay for alcohol or drugs, but she wanted to help in some way.
“I struggled with this for years as someone who is compassionate,” she said.
The issue came much closer to home in 2008 when she opened Gallery 50 in its former downtown location.
“There would be a guy sleeping on the bench as I opened up in the morning, and I thought, ‘Oh gosh, this is just wrong, and we need to do something about it.’ But I realized the ‘we’ doesn’t have to be somebody else. It can be me.”
Minervini is one of three key players in the area’s first homeless mentoring program in the Grand Traverse region. Called Street Advocate of Grand Traverse, the grassroots group is partnering with Goodwill Industries and Safe Harbor.
The group will meet Wednesday to explain the mentoring concept to interested volunteers. The core idea is that an army of mentors will help support the efforts of Ryan Hannon, Goodwill’s street outreach coordinator.
Hannon helps an estimated 80 people in the Traverse City area who are chronically homeless.
“Working with people experiencing homelessness is time-consuming,” Hannon said. “There are a lot of people out there and navigating the system for assistance is a daunting process.”
Peter Starkel is the “guinea pig” mentor; he works with a homeless man he first met at Safe Harbor, a coalition of churches that provides food and shelter during the cold months for the homeless.
“He chose me, I didn’t choose him,” he said. “He moved behind our church, and I sat down with him one night in June of 2012 and we talked for four hours. He was ready to make a life change, he wanted to get off the street.”