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'It's cold all the time': Lansing considers new solutions for homelessness

An image of the exterior of the Letts Community Center on a rainy day.
Arjun Thakkar
Lansing officials are operating an overnight warming center at the Letts Community Center on Kalamazoo Street.

The Letts Community Center opened as a warming center in December, but many say more support is needed.

Homelessness is on the rise in mid-Michigan. Lansing housing officials have been running a pilot warming center for nearly three months in an attempt to help keep people out of the elements.

But with the building's lack of sleeping accommodations, officials, residents and advocates recognize there needs to be more resources available to support the city's unhoused population.

Officials in the Capital City set aside around $250,000 to create Lansing’s first ever overnight facility to keep people warm during cold weather.

Andy Schor wearing a suit, smiling, in front of a mural
Courtesy, Andy Schor

Mayor Andy Schor said his administration picked a location that would be accessible for unhoused people already receiving support downtown — the Letts Community Center on the city's Westside along Kalamazoo Street.

The city opened its warming center at Letts in December, converting a gymnasium to allow people to stay overnight. Visitors have access to food, water and other resources at no cost. The center was put to the test in January, when a streak of snow and extreme cold weather forced officials to declare a "Code Blue" emergency and extend hours at the warming center.

“We are providing for folks who haven't had the opportunity to get out of the cold in the past," Schor said. "Whether they're homeless or whether their heat's broken or whatever, it's another option."

But residents have been quick to criticize a number of issues with the Letts warming center.

When city officials announced the debut of the center, they stated it would prioritize serving families with children. But that effort has been hampered because the building doesn't have an adequate fire suppression system to allow beds inside. The gymnasium instead has chairs, and only adults are meant to use the space.

"I hate the fact that people can't lay down in cots," Schor said. "I'm not going to break state and federal law. We wanted to have some way that people can go to get out of the cold. And that's what we have."

Lansing's City Council sits at the half-circle shaped dais.
Arjun Thakkar
Ryan Kost (third from right) serves on the Lansing City Council and has pushed for improving the city's housing as one of his priorities.

In a statement, Scott Bean, spokesperson for Schor, said the center would not turn anyone away. He added staff on site would work with visitors to find accommodations for families with children.

Many are frustrated that the space isn’t being operated as originally intended. City Councilmember Ryan Kost said the center would be difficult to reach for people who aren't already nearby.

“If it's negative 10 degrees outside and someone's down at the bus station, freezing cold, and they don't have any way to ride a bus, they're going to have to walk in that weather."

Kost said the City Council's vision was to operate warming facilities at community centers across Lansing, specifically on extremely cold days. Schor said that approach would've been more expensive than what the council allocated for the program, and there would be less support downtown where there was a need for services.

There are multiple other homeless shelters across the city, but leaders with those organizations say they frequently reach capacity.

Those concerns might be why more people are not going to the warming center at a time when homelessness is on the rise nationally. Officials say Letts has been serving an average of just over 20 people a day, with a peak of around 33 people during the "Code Blue" incident in January. The building can accommodate up to 75.

Chad Audi is president and CEO of Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries.
Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries
Chad Audi is president and CEO of Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries.

One estimate overseen by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development says Ingham County, as well as parts of Lansing and East Lansing outside of county borders, had close to 700 homeless residents in early 2023. The agency estimated there were just over 500 people without a home in 2022.

Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries (DRMM), the group contracted to run the Letts center, recognizes the accommodations aren’t ideal.

“Is it a five star hotel? No. Is it a two star hotel? No. But it is a good place people can go and stay out of the inclement weather,” said Chad Audi, president and CEO of DRMM.

Audi said he wishes his organization could manage a building in Lansing specifically designed for homeless residents. That would enable staff to expand resources and the availability for people who need shelter.

“The area needs more services, and I think we can do [a] much better job if we have a facility where we can provide 24/7 service.”

Mike Karl agrees. He was once homeless and has run several organizations to support unhoused people, including a hoteling program.

At a recent community meeting, Karl said the city should do more to prevent residents from sleeping outside in the winter.

“I think they need to invest in our community," he said. "And the way they do that is buying a building, or using a building and trying to save as much as we can to help as many people as we can.”

Karl said the Letts Community Center needs improvements if it continues to operate.

"Allow people to come there all day, not just at night when we think it's super cold," Karl added. "It's cold all the time."

A crowd sits in chairs before people at a table and someone addresses the group, holding a microphone.
Arjun Thakkar
Kimberly Coleman addresses a crowd gathered to offer ideas for supporting Lansing's homeless community members.

Lansing has resources to pursue new solutions. The current state budget allocates $800,000 for the city to develop future warming center accommodations to address homelessness.

The Capital City has been taking input and exploring a range of ideas to help homeless community members. Some suggestions have included building a "tiny homes" community of shelters as well as providing more drug rehab and job training services.

Kimberly Coleman, director of Lansing’s department of Humans Relations and Community Services, said the city will build upon its trial run of operating a warming center.

"We actually do need to have a place where people can take care of personal hygiene, where they can sleep, where they have programs and services available to them,” she said.

Coleman said the warming center was a "seasonal solution, not an answer to all of the problem."

"The Letts center did what it was supposed to do. It kept people safe, it brought people out of the cold, and I think they did an outstanding job despite the criticism that they received."

Officials are continuing to evaluate ideas to support homeless people in Lansing.

In the meantime, the Letts warming center will continue to operate through April. And the city hopes to identify a way to use the state funds to offer more support for its unhoused population ahead of next winter.

Arjun Thakkar is WKAR's politics and civics reporter.
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