TRAVERSE CITY — It was the last week of March and Laura Matkovich was determined to prepare herself well for the closure of Safe Harbor.
She’d overheard acquaintances say they planned to use their stimulus check for an extended hotel stay which, truth be told, sounded inviting.
Instead, Matkovich bought a tent, camping supplies, a 15-day reservation at Traverse City State Park and an inflatable air mattress.
Matkovich is among the approximately 900 people in the 10-county area who, data from a housing nonprofit show, experienced chronic homelessness in the past three years.
Once someone is without secure housing, said Ashley Halladay-Schmandt, director of the Northwest Michigan Coalition to End Homelessness, it is often extremely difficult for people to re-obtain the security others take for granted.
Solvable problems — signing a lease or scheduling a much-needed medical procedure, for example — can be insurmountable, local housing advocates say.
Matkovich had a plan, though.
She figured she could use the camping supplies over the summer, and maybe even into the fall, until a subsidized apartment became available or Safe Harbor’s emergency shelter re-opened in November.
There was only one problem — “The ground is cold, the air inside the mattress is cold and tonight its supposed to get down to 31 degrees,” Matkovich said. “The cold is the hardest part. That and the rain. And the snow.”
A woman with plans
Matkovich also has a long-term plan: move into a one-bedroom unit in Riverview Terrace, an apartment building on Pine Street and one of five properties managed by the Traverse City Housing Commission.
She’s been on the waiting list since 2017, she said, moving up from 187 to number 13.
In the meantime, paying for a temporary campsite in a state park within walking distance of a BATA bus stop, seemed like the least bad choice. Safe Harbor closed April 10; Matkovich’s reservation started April 9.
“Riverview is the perfect place,” she said. “It’s on the river, I don’t have a car and it’s right downtown so I will be able to walk anywhere I need to go.”
She meets two of the three qualifications for occupancy — the $866 a month she receives in Social Security Disability Insurance is considered low income and severe arthritis in her knees, a torn rotator cuff and a back injury contributed to an SSDI disability determination.
There’s only one problem — the 10-story building with 115 units is about to undergo a $7 million renovation and in preparation for the project, TCHC staff said all new leases have to be put temporarily on hold to accommodate construction.
Riverview Terrace rehab
“It’s going to be a complete rehab of a building that was built in the mid 1970s and that we’re trying very hard to secure for the next 40 years,” said Tony Lentych, executive director of the TCHC.
“She’d be moving up the list a little faster if not for the project, but it would be too costly any other way,” Lentych said. “There’s just not a way for us to relocate residents somewhere else.”
Lentych said five apartments are currently vacant, though double that number need to be open when construction begins later this year. Ten apartments will be completely gutted to bring them up to Americans with Disabilities Act standards, he said, though before that happens they’ll be used to temporarily relocate current tenants as necessary.
Financing from Housing and Urban Development and the Michigan State Housing Development Authority is scheduled to close in September, Lentych said, with construction expected to last 277 days.
Riverview Terrace will get a new roof, new energy efficient windows, new elevators, the exterior brick will be sealed and the interior will be spruced up with new kitchen floors, fresh paint and other much-needed improvements, Lentych said.
“I’ll take a remodel,” Matkovich said, expressing approval — and anticipation — about the rehab’s results. “I’ve waited this long and everyone knows they’re fair about who moves up the list.”
Its about 110 days between now and September, Riverview Terrace may have 10 open apartments when construction is supposed to be completed 277 days after that, which means in 387 days, if everything goes as planned, Matkovich could move up to number 3 on the waiting list.
This, said Ryan Hannon, Goodwill Inn’s street outreach coordinator, is how time passes for people who are without shelter and seeking permanent housing.
“It’s one of the fastest moving lists in our area for folks to get low-income housing,” Hannon said. “But it’s still not that fast. It’s one of the fastest, and yet it’s still very slow.”
Moving from place to place has taken a toll on Matkovich’s health. She needs knee replacement surgery, which her Medicare and Medicaid insurance will cover, but there’s a problem.
The hospital won’t schedule the surgery, she said, until she has a stable place to recuperate.
Federal funds that may — or may not — come north
April is National Fair Housing Month, a way to mark the 1968 passage of the Fair Housing Act, a federal law that prohibits discrimination in the sale, rental and financing of housing based on race, national origin, religion or gender.
Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge made mention of that earlier this month when she announced $5 billion in additional funds would be sent to states as part of the American Rescue Plan Act’s new HOME allocations. The money can be used to provide permanent housing for the chronically unsheltered and data shows about $145 million is headed to Michigan.
“Generally these grants are not providing capital for supportive housing,” Fudge said, during a remote press conference April 8. “Other programs are provided through competitive grants. We wanted to use a formula that would get the resources out quicker.”
There’s only one problem — none of those funds are specifically allocated to Grand Traverse County.
In fact, HUD data shows, none of the funds are yet attached to any community in northwest lower Michigan, or for that matter, any community north of Muskegon.
“That’s the downside of being in a more rural area,” Lentych said. “We’re competing against a lot of communities with higher populations. Some of those funds will probably be parked at a state agency, they’ll be redistributed and so could come north that way.”
HUD says $63,793,681 of the $145 million headed for the state are categorized as “MI Non Entitlement” funds, meaning not tied to any specific municipality, and it is a portion of these funds Lentych referenced.
CARES Act funding to address homelessness did arrive up north — $1.5 million spread across 10 northern lower counties, said Halladay-Schmandt, of the NWMICHCOC.
Much of that, she said, paid for cleaning and staffing of shelters and to cover hotel vouchers for those who were either without shelter when seasonal facilities like Safe Harbor closed, or for people who needed to be quarantined because of COVID-19.
Another $8 million in CARES Act funds went to eviction prevention, to keep people in their homes who might otherwise be in danger of joining the more than 900 people in the region — singles, families and children — who as of 2020, had experienced homelessness, NWMICHCOC data shows.
“Eviction assistance is important to our community as a preventative, but we also want to see that type of urgent dedication to people who are experiencing street homelessness,” Halladay-Schmandt said.
It may be too soon to know whether any, or how much, of HUD’s “non entitlement” HOME funds — soon to be in the hands of MSHDA —will make their way north, housing advocates in the region say.
On Tuesday, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services announced $17 million in emergency shelter program monies — $11.4 million from the state’s general fund and $5.8 million from Temporary Assistance to Needy Families — will be awarded in October.
Living paycheck to paycheck
Matkovich, who for two decades worked as a nurse’s aide — including four years at Munson Medical Center — said she was accustomed to living paycheck to paycheck.
Then she lost her job, her apartment, her car and her driver’s license after several alcohol-related charges, some of which were later dismissed, but ultimately led to a five-month stay in Grand Traverse County’s jail in 2017.
Matkovich served her time, she said, paid her fines and completed probation — all she wants now is to cook a meal indoors, stay warm and dry, watch television and clean her own apartment.
“I’m here until Thursday,” she said, “then my reservation is up. I had planned to go to the Goodwill Inn, they said they would do an intake for me, but there’s only one problem.”
On Friday, Matkovich said staff with the Goodwill Inn told her they were temporarily pausing new arrivals, after several residents at the emergency shelter tested positive for COVID-19.
Dan Buron, Goodwill’s chief executive officer, confirmed the cases and the pause, which he said is in effect until Friday, though clients now have a 70 percent vaccination rate with the help of staff from Traverse Health Clinic.
Matkovich said she’ll likely have no choice but to relocate to “Tent City,” an encampment in the woods on Keystone Road, near Goodwill Inn.
Her long-term plans are the same — wait for Riverview. Short term, she’s said she’s just hoping for an early spring.