TRAVERSE CITY — The first lost her life on March 3.
Another followed March 24, and by May 4, the total was three. A man joined them two days later, and then in April, a woman. More came April 22, June 20 and Aug. 25, and like autumn leaves, another four fell by Halloween.
November passed with mercy, and December claimed one more — a 34-year-old.
All 13 on the list were homeless, and all 13 died in 2020, according to Ryan Hannon, Street Outreach coordinator for Goodwill Northern Michigan.
None of them needed to.
“I used to go to memorial services that were held,” said Mike McDonald, a longtime volunteer and board chair for nonprofit homeless shelter Safe Harbor. “I’ve been to far, far too many.”
Those deaths were mourned and memorialized Monday by a nation together — the first day of winter each year heralds mourning, vigils and events to remember.
In Traverse City, mourners and advocates gathered for a socially distanced walk and vigil.
About 50 attendees, bundled in parkas, hats and wrapped-close scarves, strolled silently through Traverse City’s mostly empty streets.
The mist-heavy air and midnight blue-gray swirl of sky proved punctuated only by the distant car and a squish of 100 snow boots on slushy sidewalks.
Remembering is vital.
“It’s a horrific experience every time (we get that news),” said Ashley Halladay-Schmandt, director of the Northwest Michigan Coalition to end homelessness. “(What’s) most terrible is that it usually can be prevented.”
“External causes” spur the most deaths among homeless populations, according to a National Institute of Health study. Trailing closely at second and third are cancer and digestive disease.
Inconsistent meals, exposure, poor sleep, lacking health care and massive stress are a damaging combination for the human body, Hannon said.
“There’s always a sense of uncertainty and (being) unsafe,” Hannon told the vigil’s crowd. “As human beings, your body goes into fight or flight mode — that really wears down our immune system.
“People experiencing homelessness are in that state far longer than a human body should ever be in.”
The key is frustratingly simple — give people an affordable place to stay. But in Traverse City, where “long-term rental” seems a dirty word and rental prices stretch even middle-class budgets, it’s a complex problem.
“The only cure for homelessness is housing,” Hannon said, his voice falling over the crowd like the snowflakes dusting their hats and shoulders.
A murmur of agreement moved through the group, who whispered their eagerness to get home to replace their sopping socks and dripping boots.
An estimate puts Michigan’s homeless population at about 8,500 on any given day, according to a January 2019 U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness report. More sobering is the 950-some who suffer chronic homelessness — something Hannon and fellow advocates know is a deadly path.
Grand Traverse County’s affordable housing options — like the income-dependent, fixed-rent Riverview Terrace complex — come with years-long waits, said Tony Lentych, Traverse City Housing Commission executive director. Housing choice vouchers are just as scarce, Lentych added, noting Traverse City Housing hasn’t pulled anyone from that waitlist for two-plus years.
There simply isn’t room.
Danielle Cornish, who died in April, had one of the sought-after vouchers in pocket when Traverse City Police found her body. She was huddled under a blanket in the woods.
McDonald knew her — he knows most of the faces who pass through Safe Harbor.
The voucher, state-supported assistance given to low-income individuals to help them meet rent, proved useless to her, he said.
The hard-to-stomach truth is that those vouchers have a maximum allowable rent — for a one-bedroom, it’s about $780.
In Traverse City’s inflated, short-term focused rental market, many exceed the limit.
It paints a bleak picture — in Michigan’s Cherry Capital, some are too poor to live.
And like Cornish, every year, they die.
Sometimes the count is as low as four, Hannon said. Other years have neared 30.
Cities have the ability to essentially subsidize existing housing, as previously reported, and Traverse City too could meet landlords willing to work with vouchers somewhere in the middle.
Yet, in an April interview about the Cornish’s death, Mayor Jim Carruthers told the Record-Eagle the city “only has so much money,” especially saddled with uncertainty of a pandemic.
Local criticism came swift and harsh against the perceived apathy, but months later, the cyclical conversation has again failed to spur much change.
It’s a paralyzing problem, Lentych said.
“People talk about it a lot, they’ve looked at it, they want to do something,” Lentych said.
Money proves an end-all, be-all — sustainable funding, massive development and a wealth of integrated social services would be a true solution, he said. And not a cheap one.
“You can house people, but at some point you have to start addressing the underlying issues that make people homeless in the first place — due to domestic violence, due to substance abuse. A primary one would be mental illness,” Lentych said. “You don’t even know where to start.”
Even those who survive the months-long waits for a home affordable enough to accept vouchers, Hannon said some succumb weeks, months, even a year after being placed.
Homelessness does damage.
And the damage lasts.
To one spending their holidays curled up on the couch or seeking respite from an afternoon of sledding, homelessness might feel far off. The brink, however, is much closer than many realize.
One missed paycheck, a payroll issue or unexpected furlough could mean the same fate for as many as 80 percent of working Americans, let alone those they support, according to an August report from the Washington Post.
Four-fifths of working Americans live paycheck-to-paycheck — and an equally concerning Federal Reserve report shows almost half couldn’t scrounge up enough to handle a $400 emergency.
In Traverse City, where many clinics and mental health resources logjam with long waitlists, a cocktail of losing a job, a relationship, a home — all during a pandemic — could send any of them to the streets.
“There’s a lot of mental illness up here,” said Norm Schmidt, who with his wife Cathy attended the Monday memorial walk.
They’re Detroit-area transplants — Norm, retired after years on the board of the Coalition on Temporary Shelter Detroit.
“There, it’s more poverty,” he said.
“People always think it’s some big-city issue,” Cathy said. “It’s not.”
It’s something of a chicken and an egg — do substance abuse and mental illness increase one’s chances of landing on the streets? Or, McDonald asks, does hitting one’s lowest low crush hope and spur desperation for anything to take the pain away?
He doesn’t have an answer.
Many of those seem to be lacking — especially when the question is “Why?”
“Why didn’t that person have a house, what didn’t that person have a voucher? We just don’t have the answers,” Lentych said. “Sometimes, the system’s just broken.”