Work on homelessness progresses

ESCANABA – A group of concerned citizens, in cooperation with the city of Escanaba, is progressing on its goal of addressing homelessness in the area.

The Homeless Task Force, formed in December 2012, will request city council amend Escanaba’s zoning ordinance to allow transitional housing for homeless in multi-family districts. The amendment will add transitional housing to “principal uses” in the city’s multi-family zones, explained City Manager Jim O’Toole. Transitional housing is defined as housing which contains self-sufficiency training and human services offices, he said.

The addition of transitional housing as a principal use will allow for existing buildings to be used for the homeless without going through an individual public hearing process. Building renovations and new construction will need regular zoning permits from the city as well as any required county permits.

Nisha Coolman, coordinator for the Delta County Coalition Against Homelessness, described the proposed ordinance as “great” because it will maintain client privacy rights, keeping personal information confidential.

Beth Graham, chair of the homelessness coalition, described the proposal as a “fantastic step forward” because it could provide improved opportunities for direct service providers to serve customer needs.

Mary Busick, of Lutheran Social Services Voices for Youth Program, said Tuesday’s proposal “definitely addresses” the task force’s goal to define areas in the city as transitional housing zones.

The task force was developed in December after a group of concerned citizens from Escanaba approached council to designate wide-spread districts within the city for transitional housing.

The group met last month when an overview of homelessness in the area was presented including statistics, facility needs, and current zoning requirements. Tuesday’s meeting produced the proposed ordinance amendment.

With the group’s consent, the proposal will be presented during a public hearing of the planning commission on Feb. 14 and public hearings during two council meetings in March. Council will then consider approval of adding transitional housing to the multi-family zoning ordinance.

Other issues discussed during Tuesday’s task force meeting included finding shelter for the homeless, raising community awareness of homelessness, increasing job opportunities in the community, and having affordable housing for those starting out.

Coalition member Bobbie Stacey, also member of the social action committee of the Unitarian Universalist Bay de Noc Fellowship, said area churches will be invited to attend an upcoming meeting to help the homeless. Plans will be made to organize sleeping quarters for the homeless at local churches on a rotation basis, she explained.

Jim Rettig, member of the Unitarian Universalist, praised O’Toole for addressing the zoning issue with the proposed amendment which was drafted by the city attorney.

Last year, there was an estimated more-than-1,200 homeless individuals in the county where there are only 41 beds available for transitional housing and emergency shelter.

Agencies which provide shelter in Delta County include St. Vincent de Paul in Gladstone and Escanaba, the Salvation Army of Escanaba, the Alliance Against Violence and Abuse, and Lutheran Social Services Voices for Youth.

Some law enforcement agencies have vouchers to provide emergency shelter. Some churches also provide assistance for a night in a motel.

Vouchers are also available to veterans for housing for up to two years but only 10 are provided within the Upper Peninsula. Harbor Tower has a waiting list for shelter; the elderly and disabled take precedence over single people.