Traverse City Record-Eagle

January 22, 2013

Record number at homeless shelter program as temperatures fall


TRAVERSE CITY — Doug Burwell has a place to go when the temperature drops to zero degrees and the wind chill tumbles even lower.

Burwell, who's homeless, said this week's glacial weather leads him to Central United Methodist Church on Cass Road, where the Safe Harbor of Grand Traverse shelter program offers a mat, a meal, and most importantly, survival.

"It's an awesome place," said Burwell. "It's run by people who care."

Burwell was among a record 66 homeless people who took shelter at Safe Harbor at the church on Monday night. Safe Harbor spokesman Ryan Hannon said the shelter program, which rotates from church-to-church during winter, has never had more people who sought overnight refuge since the program's inception in 2003.

"It's because it's so cold outside," Hannon said. "I'm afraid some people might freeze to death if we weren't here.

"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."

Cold temperatures are expected to hit 0 degrees again tonight into Wednesday morning. Some inland areas were forecast for overnight wind chills approaching minus-25.

Wednesday's temperatures should climb a bit, with the high reaching 17 degrees and the low approaching six degrees. Lake effect snow is expected to continue.

"It's the coldest air of the season," said Meteorologist Nick Schwartz, of the National Weather Service in Gaylord. "It's something we haven't seen this winter."

The brutal weather means the homeless in and around Traverse City find survival where they can.

Betty Ives slept in her van Monday night in the Wal-Mart parking lot, vehicle engine off to save gas, while she waited for her boyfriend, Santiago Martinez, to finish his new job working the third shift. The couple can't afford $680 a month rent in Traverse City right now, so they mostly sleep in their van, then head to Central United in the morning for breakfast and warmth.

"It's scary," said Ives. "I just get under the covers and try to stay warm. Last night was the worst. It was so cold."

Safe Harbor offers overnight stays for the homeless thanks to the generosity of 24 area churches. The program also works with Goodwill Street Outreach.

"(Safe Harbor) is a rotating emergency seasonal shelter for those experiencing homelessness on the streets and who have nowhere to go," said Hannon, who is also a Goodwill Street Outreach coordinator.

At the Goodwill Inn on North Keystone Road, the shelter's family rooms and mens' rooms are full. There are a few spots open for women, said Ruth Blick, Goodwill's director of marketing.

Burwell, 59, said he's thankful for the shelter offered by Safe Harbor. He said he used to work as an engineer for General Motors, but downsizing cost him his job several years ago. Now he's trying to rebuild his life.

He's in between jobs and does not want to have to try and survive a night outside in frigid weather.

"I do have a snowmobile suit, but I haven't had to use it yet," he said.