Anthony Ciccone, brother of pop star Madonna, is living on the bitter cold streets of Traverse City, MI–a place the homeless flock to because of the city’s exceptional network of services for people on the street.
In an interview with Michigan Messenger, Ciccone explained why so many homeless people from throughout the region have flocked to the northern town of about 14,000.
“This is a unique system with the churches here,” Ciccone, 55, said over a roast beef dinner served by volunteers at the Faith Reform Church on Front St. “You won’t find this in too many places.”
The churches in town have collaborated to put on a meal each night that is free and open to anyone in the community. There is a church-run house that provides warmth, showers, laundry, food, computers, telephone and other services for four hours most days, and in the winter the churches take turns hosting people who need a place to sleep. They also provide breakfast.
“This is one of the only places where there is a meal every night,” said Richard Tomey, a street outreach worker for Goodwill Industries. His mission is to help the homeless survive.
In late September, he said, there were several dozen, if not a hundred, homeless people sleeping outdoors in Traverse City.
“The word getting out about Traverse City attracts a lot of people … [from] Ypsilanti, Detroit, Grand Rapids, where they are getting hit real hard and there’s only two type of people on the street, the predators and the victims.”
“They’re coming up here,” Tomey said, “and we are trying to do the best we can.”
Ciccone said he’s been among the city’s homeless for a year and a half since losing a job at his father’s vineyard and winery in Suttons Bay. He said that it annoys him that some people are amused that a person from such a high profile family would end up sleeping, as he does, under the Union St. bridge.
“My family turned their back on me, basically, when I was having a hard time,” he said. “You think I haven’t answered this kind of question a bazillion times — why my sister is a multibazillionarie, and I’m homeless on the street?”
“Never say never,” he said. “This could happen to anybody.”
“I don’t have any income, I’ve got to go collect bottles and cans, do odd jobs.”
Despite the uncommon community effort to help the homeless here, there are gaps, and Ciccone was among several locals who got cold-related injuries last winter.
“They can’t do everything all the time for everybody, they just don’t have the resources,” he said. “These people that run these things are all volunteers, they don’t get paid to do these things.”
In the cold seasons the church shelters usher people out at 8 am and city rules against camping and camp fires make staying warm difficult.
“Where do you go at 8 o’clock on a Sunday morning and you have no money in your pocket?”
If you spend enough time on frozen concrete without proper insulation you will get frostbite, he said. “You have no idea how gruesome it is.”
“You get nerve damage. That’s the milder stage, in the severe stage you have tissue damage, that is when you lose parts of your body.”
“I got frostbite on my feet last winter, Ciccone said. “A friend of mine lost all ten toes. Several have died of hypothermia.”
“You go and find a place to stay warm like the lobby at the jail, or you take a walk to get your feet warm and go to Meijer’s and sit in the lobby there.”
This situation has developed at a time when Gov. Snyder and the Republican-led state legislature have slashed funding for social services and reduced the number of people eligible to continue receiving public assistance. Cuts in local revenue sharing have also forced local municipalities to make deep budget cuts.
As more and more people become ineligible under new rules government unemployment benefits, food stamps, cash aid and heating assistance, the number of people struggling to stay off the streets is only likely to increase.