Barb Bynum and her husband, like a growing number of senior citizens, are newly homeless after they lost their home this year.
Now, Bynum spends much of her days near the corner of Michigan Avenue and Howard Street in Lansing, where she looks to good Samaritans to help them stay afloat as winter sets in.
“We’re staying with my friend right now, but it’s only temporary because they’ve already got a full house,” Bynum said. “After that, we’re just not sure.”
Bynum, who has used warming centers before, said there is a clear need in Lansing for additional facilities to serve those who would otherwise freeze in the cold this winter.
“I walk downtown a lot, and I see people sleeping up against buildings, sleeping in alleys. A lot of them are out there because they choose to be, but many of them have no choice,” Bynum said.
For these individuals, a new warming and cooling center at the Letts Community Center, 1220 W. Kalamazoo St., is on its way, the city has announced.
This will be the only city-operated warming center, city spokesperson Scott Bean said. There are four others, but they are all privately operated, he said.
Initially, the center, which will be managed by the Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries, was to accept families with children — with a provision that seniors and disabled individuals would also be welcomed, but only during “code blue” scenarios, when the temperature drops to 32 degrees or below, including wind-chill.
On Monday, the day the center was slated to open, Mayor Andy Schor’s office sent out a press release saying that the center would pivot its focus from families to just adult individuals. Now set to open Monday (Dec. 4), the center will offer warmth and shelter, but not beds, for about 75 people per night, seven days a week, from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. This season, it’s set to remain in operation through April 30.
These changes were made after City Council members and residents expressed concerns at the Nov. 13 Council that the center was focused only on families. “The majority of people on the street right now aren’t families. I just don’t see them, and I see homeless people on the streets almost daily,” said Luna Brown, a resident.
Council members were worried that, by excluding a large subset of the homeless population from the center, the city could be opening itself up for potential legal concerns. Council member Patricia Spitzley also saw a potential issue with the Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries’ status as a faith-based organization.
“We’ve heard that some people are uncomfortable with going to that type of situation, and so we did not hear our residents when they asked to have options, another place to go that wasn’t faith-based,” Spitzley said.
Council President Carol Wood wanted to know more about funding and the arrangements made in the contract with the Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries.
Kim Coleman, director of the Human Relations and Community Services Department, explained that the city hasn’t received an $800,000 apporpropriation from the state yet that is supposed to fund the center, but her department was going to “move forward with this plan using the $103,000 that was budgeted in our budget, along with the $151,000 provided to us by Council from the mayor’s budget.”
Another matter that has raised some eyebrows is the city’s own acknowledgement of a “lack of appropriate fire suppression systems” at the Letts Community Center, an issue which also went on to play a role in the decision to not allow children at the center after all.
Mike Karl, a formerly homeless man who has since become a leading regional advocate as the founder of Cardboard Profits, cited this as the biggest problem with the new center.
“I’ve had multiple hotels in the city, and the city wouldn’t let me shelter anybody if the fire suppression system wasn’t working,” he said, referring to the time he spent operating homeless hotels at the Magnuson Hotel and Burkewood Inn between 2014 to 2017. “It blows my mind that we’re going after other organizations to make sure they’re up to code, but it’s OK for us to turn a blind eye when the city is doing it.”
Without the proper systems in place, the city had to designate Letts as a warming and cooling center, rather than a shelter, even though it will be operating overnight. In its original format, children would have been offered cots, but not adults.
“We thought maybe kids could sleep if the adults were awake,” Bean said. “But we can’t allow people to lay down and sleep under the law. No beds or cots. We are only allowed chairs.”
“The city is sending a message that it’s OK to burn up our adults, but the children can’t be in here,” Karl said.
Karl noted that he is pleased to see another option for those in need, but he said the $800,000 in state funding could have been used to do more. One idea he had is to purchase the former Shabazz Public School Academy and rehabilitate it.
“I ran a hotel with 124 rooms, all the power, all of that for $90,000 per year from the community. Why couldn’t we invest $400,000 into Shabazz? We could then use the other $400,000 for the next four years, at $100,000 a year, to maintain a shelter. From there, we could find long-term fixes instead of just paying someone to manage our problem,” Karl said.
Still, the new warming center is good news to homeless residents.
Sitting on a steam vent at Reutter Park on Tuesday morning, one homeless man who identified himself only as Roy said he used to go to Letts to stay warm, “but they stopped it.” He wasn’t aware of the new plans.
Will he use it when it opens?
“Oh yeah, without question,” he said. “I’m waiting on my Section 8 papers, and so every day I can get off the streets for a while is another step closer for me.”
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