Impactful message

Letter from our board chair

March 5, 2024 

Dear Mayor Shamroe, City of Traverse City commissioners, and Grand Traverse County Board of commissioners, 

There has been a lot of public discourse on the topic of Safe Harbor changing its operations to becoming a year-round overnight shelter. I would like to take this opportunity to explain how we got to this point in the conversation, correct some misconceptions about our operations, and to clarify Safe Harbor’s position and intent going forward. However, before doing so I think it would be useful to bring some context to the broader discussion of homelessness. 


Those experiencing homelessness extend beyond the unsheltered who live on the streets. There are many in our community – family members and friends – who live on the margins of becoming unsheltered each day. Most are dependent on the kindness of family and friends, living paycheck to paycheck unable to earn a living wage. Many work in the service industry making our lives safer, more comfortable, and convenient. 

The availability and affordability of housing is the main cause of the rate of homelessness in a given community. Homelessness is not caused by drug use, mental illness, poor health or poverty. They are, however, significant factors related to homelessness but not the main reason. 

The consequences of homelessness negatively impact the person experiencing homelessness, their families and the entire community. 

Being homeless is not illegal; it is a tragic human circumstance that many find themselves in and few are exempt from the possibility of falling into. Those experiencing homelessness are endowed with the same human dignity and deserve the same respect as ALL members of society. 

Crisis in our community 

The tragic and dangerous living conditions of those experiencing homelessness in Traverse city came to light in the summer of 2023 in what has become known as the “crisis in the Pines”. The number of people, squalid conditions, and criminal activity (by some) of those living in the Pines has drawn both compassion and frustration. The reality is that this tragedy has always been with us; perhaps, more dispersed in the surrounding areas, and out of sight in the past. 

A majority of those experiencing homelessness are from this region. Data collected by the Coalition to End Homelessness, our intake data at Safe Harbor, the use of a regional Coordinated Entry system for those receiving services and diversion efforts by all involved bear this fact out. This is a regional problem that happens to be concentrated in Traverse city. 

Solving this problem will require a comprehensive regional plan. The long-term goal of that plan must be the availability and affordability of housing (supported and unsupported) in our region for both the sheltered and unsheltered persons experiencing homelessness. In addition, other services such as diversion efforts, access to addiction and mental health resources, healthcare, overnight and day shelter, and a comprehensive public safety plan, which includes the Quick Response Team “QRT”, are essential to deal with the other significant factors related to homelessness such as addiction, mental health, and criminal behavior (by a few). 

Solving this issue is possible. It first requires an understanding of the problem that is based on data and research. It will require significant resources. It will require public and private partnership, community engagement, and civic leadership from both local and regional governing bodies. 

Ignoring this issue will not cause it to go away. Driving those who are experiencing homelessness out of our backyards simply shifts the problem elsewhere. This issue needs to be addressed and we have to begin somewhere – even if it means taking small steps. It will require making difficult choices, compassion, and civic leadership. 

Timeline and Safe Harbor’s involvement 

Safe Harbor (“SH”) currently operates an emergency winter shelter. The operation of the shelter is governed by the terms and condition of a Special Land Use Permit or SLUP. The permit allows the shelter to operate from October 15 through May 15 each year. SH’s current operating schedule is from October 15 – April 30. 

SH mainly operates with a small seasonal staff and the generosity of hundreds of volunteers from our faith-based community and community at large. It is truly a unique community-based organization that is dependent on its volunteers and generous donors.
From the beginning, SH has been focused on operating a winter emergency shelter and going year-round has not been a goal of the organization. In July of 2023, the SH board updated its 2023-25 Strategic Plan and, while acknowledging the need in the community for a year-round shelter, there is no mention in that plan that SH should advocate to be that solution. 

Beginning in August of 2023, SH and others were invited by the city to informally exchange ideas to find a solution to the crisis in the Pines. The focus of the discussion was narrow in scope to finding a place for those experiencing homelessness to stay overnight that was safe, clean, and humane for all including service providers and first responders. This would provide a humane short-term solution allowing time and discussion to formulate a long-term strategy. 

Various ideas were discussed – purchasing vacant land elsewhere, campgrounds, a different building/location. It soon became apparent that the most cost effective and expedient solution to help the situation in the Pines was to explore the feasibility of SH becoming a year-round operation. This would require a significant amount of planning to determine if this was possible. Facility improvements, an operating plan, funding mechanisms, a comprehensive public safety strategy, community engagement, and a new Special Land Use Permit were all topics that needed to be addressed. 

A Memorandum of Understanding (“MOU”) between the City of Traverse City, Grand Traverse County, Safe Harbor, and the Coalition to End Homelessness was drafted to allow the parties to evaluate the feasibility of SH going year-round to help with the community crisis. On January 22nd the SH board approved the MOU to continue discussions and has not, to date, been presented with a proposal to approve going year-round. 

Neighborhood concern and safety 

Since the MOU became public, I am saddened to say that SH has become the target of frustration and anger from some in our community. Our staff have been harassed; trash has been dumped on our property. Misinformation has been circulated as to our intentions and role in this matter and culpability for some of the problems in the neighborhood. 

SH operates under strict guidelines as it relates to the safety of our guests, staff, and volunteers. 

Not all who experience homelessness shelter at SH.

SH has a limit on how many guests can be sheltered each night. We have dedicated resources and work with other partners to do our best to ensure that those who stay at SH are shelter appropriate (in other words, don’t have alternative resources) and are from this area. 


When we become aware of guests who are from outside the region we work with our partners to facilitate them going back to their hometowns where they can be best served. This is a priority for the entire homeless response system.

We are a low barrier but dry shelter. We do not allow the use of alcohol or narcotics on our property. We do not hold illegal substances on behalf of our guests. We have to be low-barrier to comply with our mission of being an emergency shelter during the winter. 


We have a check-in process that has safety measures incorporated to make the shelter a safe environment as possible.

Guests are even required to check-in their personal medications upon arrival at the shelter. 


Inside the shelter we have guest/volunteer/and staff expectations that ensure all are treated in a respectful manner. We don’t allow threats, abusive language, or violent/dangerous behavior of any kind.

If a situation develops, and they often do, our staff and lead volunteers are trained to deescalate the situation. Those who cannot be deescalated or refuse to comply with our expectations may be prohibited from staying at the shelter for a period. Serious violations can result in a season ban, or when warranted a lifetime ban. 

Safe Harbor understands that some experiencing homelessness suffer from substance abuse and mental illness disorders and that these conditions can negatively impact the surrounding area as guests travel to and from the shelter. We remind our guests on a frequent basis to be respectful of private property, not to congregate in the area prior to check-in, and frequently have one-on-one conversations to encourage good behavior. 

On Thursday, February 22nd SH held its community meeting at the public library to update the community and listen to concerns. We are sympathetic to the many concerns voiced by those who live, work, own businesses, and function in our neighborhood including the public library which bears the brunt of incidents during the day. Those are fair and reasonable concerns that need to be heard and addressed. SH as an organization is committed to listening and working with our neighbors to ensure a safe environment as possible for all who live and work here. 

Safe Harbor’s commitment 

The crisis in the Pines will most likely repeat itself in 2024. The conditions and safety of all, including healthcare providers, first responders, and those sheltering there is very concerning. Those experiencing homelessness need someplace safe to shelter overnight during the summer months when SH is closed. This is a basic human need and deserves a thoughtful and compassionate response. 

Appropriate places for those experiencing homelessness to go during the day are also critical. Central Methodist church and Jubilee House are invaluable resources in our community. In addition, the public library bears the brunt of having to de facto function as a day shelter for many. 

In order to resume operations, SH will require approximately two months’ notice to hire and train staff in order to implement year-round operations. This will also require a new SLUP from the city. We have developed an operational plan and a budget that will need to be funded should we be asked to function as a year-round shelter. It is also critical that the concerns of the neighborhood are heard and addressed via a public safety plan. 

Whether Safe Harbor being open year-round is the appropriate response that will help de-escalate the situation in the Pines is a decision that the community at-large and its elected officials need to make

In order to allow sufficient time for that decision to be made, in a thoughtful and orderly manner, Safe Harbor has decided to postpone submitting a SLUP at this time. 

Our community and those experiencing homelessness are facing a crisis. Being a year-round shelter is a big task for us as we are largely dependent on volunteers operating as a non-profit organization. Our mission is to serve those experiencing homelessness and our community. We are willing to help, in whatever capacity, if the community at large believes this is the best course of action. 

Kind Regards, 

Christopher Ellalasingham
Board Chairperson
On behalf of the Board of Safe Harbor