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Wednesday, August 27,2014

Sumptuous summit

Michigan homeless conference to be held at Grand Traverse Resort and Spa

by Kyle Melinn
The Grand Traverse Resort and Spa probably isn´t the first place you´d look to find someone needing a roof over his or her head.

Yet, in two weeks nearly 400 people whose job it is to dole out federal money and provide help for the homeless will be at the "four-season destination resort and meeting center" to bounce ideas off each other and coordinate services.

For the ninth year, the Michigan State Housing Development Authority is hosting its "Homelessness Summit" after holding prior conferences at Treetops Resort in Gaylord and the Bavarian Inn in Frankenmuth.

The accommodations may raise an eyebrow or two, particularly after MSHDA´s former executive director, Scott Woosley, hastily resigned earlier this month after expense reports revealed that he was reimbursed for limo rides and luxurious hotel stays across the country.

But organizers say the conference is not about testing out the state´s top vacation areas. Kelly Rose, MSHDA director of rental assistance and homeless solutions, said it´s important to move the conference around the state to see how different areas handle their individual homeless problem.

Being a resort town, Traverse City has a notable homeless population, so the goal was to hold a conference in Northern Michigan´s largest city. According to a Northern Express report, Traverse City has the "most robust facilities and services" in Northern Michigan for the homeless with the area´s prominent shelter, Safe Harbor projecting more than 10,000 "bed night" stays in the 2014-15 season after 5,000 was reported in 2010-11.

The issue for the summit, Rose said, was no other venue in the Traverse City area could accommodate a gathering of this size.

It´s not just finding a hotel with 350 rooms and a large conference room, either. Attendees break out into six or seven sessions to learn about different topics or specialties and your basic hotel is just not equipped to handle that, Rose said.

"We´re not luxurious. We´re not providing spa services," said Lisa Chapman, director of Corporation of Supportive Housing in Michigan, noting the conference is being held on a Monday and Tuesday, off-season, to cut costs. "We´re staying at the hotel and getting the government rate, so it´s cheap."

As possible proof the conference goers are not a collection of high rollers, an optional evening winery tour being planned at addition cost to conference attendees was scrapped due to low registration numbers, Rose said.

Between MSHDA and the Michigan Department of Human Services the state gives more than $20 million to administer programs. One of them is MSHDA´s $8.5 million "Emergency Solutions Grant," which helps people who are falling behind on their rent or mortgage to get back on their feet and prevent them from ever being forced out into the streets.

Another is the Housing Choice Voucher program, which has helped 26,000 families get into homes. It´s not special to the homeless, but those currently without housing are moved to the top of the list, Rose said.

And then there´s DHS´ $13 million program to help local homeless shelters keep the lights on.

Chapman said that having once worked for a national organization, many states provide conferences of this sort, as do regional and national agencies.

A look at some of these conferences showed a mix of the type accommodations.

This year´s Texas Homeless Network is meeting at the Four Diamond Omni San Antonio Hotel at the Colonnade, which advertises its "impeccable service and charm." Arizona´s Coalition to End Homelessness will meet in October at the snazzy Black Canyon Conference in Phoenix.

The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans was held at the Grand Hyatt in Washington, D.C. On the more modest side, "Housing Ohio 2014," was held at the Sheraton Columbus Hotel at Capitol Square. The National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth is meeting later this year at the Westin Kansas City at Crown Center.

MSHDA Homelessness Summit next year will be in Livonia.

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