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Michigan homeless shelter offers wintertime housing help

November 11, 2018

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) — The blue-brick walls, simple bunks and warm dinners are aren’t home — but they’re a welcome shelter from a frigid November night.

The Safe Harbor Homeless Shelter in Traverse City recently opened its doors to 26 guests as temperatures cooled and winter neared.

Several days of rain and snow are expected soon, and nights may dip as cold as 29 degrees.

“As it gets colder, more and more people come in,” Safe Harbor Board Chair Mike McDonald told the Traverse City Record-Eagle . “Most of our guests sleep in their cars or out in the woods in the summertime. They come in when that becomes unfeasible.”

Safe Harbor, in its 15th season, opens November through April to provide temporary shelter.

Its second goal — an important one, McDonald said — is connecting guests with help to find more permanent living conditions.

Last year, about 40 northern Michigan homeless people found a new home through Safe Harbor. In 2016, that number was about 50.

The shelter averages about 57 guests a night and runs almost entirely on volunteers, with a little help from Goodwill Industries. Most return each season.

“They get involved, they see the need,” said Sandra McDonald, Mike McDonald’s wife and a longtime shelter volunteer. “They come back to help.”

Volunteers clean the shelter spaces, prepare meals, brew coffee and simply sit and talk with guests to keep them feeling welcome, she said.

“They’re like any other people — some are shy, some are very outgoing. Some are withdrawn, some want to interact,” Sandra McDonald said. “Once people come in here and work, I think they see that these are our neighbors in need of some extra help.”

Front offices of the Safe Harbor shelter stay open through the day, and homeless people are welcome to stop in to meet with coordinators for housing programs and other services.

Goodwill is a major part of that — the nonprofit both supplies staff to help keep the Safe Harbor shelter running, and coordinators for more permanent solutions.

“We help people get to the right resources at the right time,” said Ryan Hannon, Goodwill Street Outreach Coordinator.

It’s an important effort.

“Homelessness is really bad for your health — people are in survival mode,” Hannon said. “Shelters provide safety, not only from the weather, but from people who would do bad things to people experiencing homelessness.”

For its second year, Safe Harbor operates in a new facility on Wellington Street.

The new, permanent shelter space offers 82 beds — up from 72 last year — a warm evening meal and hot showers. The space also boasts an entertainment room, Wi-Fi and public computers, a laundry room and an optional bible study space for anyone interested in attending.

Guests sign in between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m. each evening, and after having bags checked for weapons, alcohol and drugs, are assigned a bunk, blanket, locker and storage tub.

Lights out comes at 11 p.m. and guests must leave by 8 a.m. the next morning, after coffee and a light breakfast.

A dedicated space makes things easier, Mike McDonald said. Before the shelter’s opening, Safe Harbor operated in local churches, rotating from place to place throughout the winter season.

The program began in 2003 through the Church of Nazarene, which started opening its doors to the homeless on particularly cold nights after a homeless man drowned in the icy Kids Creek. The word spread and the program grew quickly.

“We had a really busy year where we’d have over 50,” Mike McDonald said. “That’s when we came to realize that housing them in the churches wasn’t going to work long-term.”

The permanent shelter opened last November — a project several years in the works. The McDonalds worked with city officials to make the construction possible and spent several months renovating after purchasing the space just off Eighth Street.

Local churches — 23 in total — continue to help by coordinating volunteers and hosting evening meals at the shelter. West Side Community Church volunteers prepped and served a recent evening’s grilled cheese sandwiches, soup and sides.

Community volunteers are just as welcome — 139 shifts need to be filled at Safe Harbor each week. About 95 percent of volunteers come back, the McDonalds said.

“People go away feeling that they’ve helped people, they’ve changed people’s lives,” Sandra McDonald said. “You get so much out of it.”

Mike McDonald expects more guests as the weather cools — and with that, more volunteers are only a boon.

“We’ll probably see it grow this week — it’s going to start raining at night,” he said.

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Information from: Traverse City Record-Eagle, http://www.record-eagle.com

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