Few scenes are more beautiful than a frigid February morning in the woods of northern Michigan.

In the moments before sunrise, when temperatures dip subzero, any moisture lingering in the crisp air suddenly freezes into the most powdery snowflakes of the season. We have witnessed a few of those mornings recently as the weather took a decidedly wintery turn.

But along with that beauty comes grave danger for some of our region’s most vulnerable residents. Each year the stretch of weeks between mid-January and the end of March present extraordinary risks to the dozens of people in our community who are homeless.

Many spend their nights throughout the year hunkered in the beautiful, wooded, snow-covered fringes of Traverse City. They form small encampments comprised of tarps and tents stuffed with blankets and heaters.

And for much of the year, those essentials are enough shelter to survive.

It’s not enough during this midwinter window when polar air dips down to the mitten and plunges our region into a deep freeze.

That’s where the staff and volunteers for several local nonprofits, churches and service organizations come into play. They come together to staff 24-hour services at one of our region’s more important resources for the people who live on our streets: Safe Harbor.

The emergency shelter typically is only open seasonally, and most of the time only to provide overnight accommodations, some food and shower facilities.

But in the depths of winter, Safe Harbor converts into an essential, life-saving haven. A warm place that protects our vulnerable neighbors from exposure to weather that could injure or kill in a matter of minutes.

This year, as many of our essential services have in the midst of the pandemic, the 24-hour operation faces new challenges — both staffing and logistical. Duties ordinarily filled by an army of volunteers have become tasks fulfilled by a combination of employees and staffers from other nonprofit organizations like Goodwill.

That type of cooperation to ensure an essential, life-saving service is available for some of our community’s most vulnerable members is something many of us probably too often take for granted.

It’s the kind of selfless contribution that transcends politics, age, gender and socio-economic status. It’s an ethic we find in nearly every corner of our slice of Michigan.

It’s also the kind of rallying around a universal good our local leaders should emulate as they are confronted with future decisions that could move people off the streets and save lives.

Homelessness is a persistent problem in the Grand Traverse region, one that likely will worsen as housing prices continue to rise.

It’s also a problem we won’t overcome without thoughtful, caring collaborations.

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