JACKSON, Mich. — The Jackson United Way wanted to convert the Ethnos 360 Bible Institute into a place to house the homeless.
But United Way officials are now going back to the drawing board after they could not come up with $7.5 million to purchase the former missionary school at 1210 E. Michigan Ave.
“The public had more questions around what is the extent of the problem and how long will it last and a whole lot of research questions that are good questions that we couldn’t answer very clearly,” Jackson United Way CEO Ken Toll said.
Toll said they were not able to put together an initial funding package that would have allowed them go forward and run a capital campaign to purchase the whole facility.
Some of the surrounding homes owned by Ethnos 360 were let go in negotiations but, the religious organization was still looking for $6 million, according to Toll.
“The initial reception I got from other funders was either, ‘We’ve already contributed our money for the year, we’re kind of tapped out,’ and/or ‘We need to know a lot more about the true extent of homelessness,’ which is really tricky because everyone defines homelessness with different nuances,” he said.
The goal was to provide stability to the homeless using a method drawn from Oregon’s Helping Hands Re-Entry Outreach Centers. Homeless individuals are given housing first and then guided through individualized treatment, counseling and other services.
“We saw this resource, this very large facility which we thought might come in very handy as a COVID pandemic unfurled so we tried to move quickly to secure the building,” Toll said. “It turns out we just did not have enough data to convince other funders in the community to take that approach.”
Toll considered the building move-in ready with beds enough to house up to 300 people temporarily, a large commercial kitchen and a working auto shop.
“We saw it as being a facility that could incubate work skills and get people working and get more stable income,” he said, "not just provide housing and that was part of United Way’s core mission.”
In July, the United Way of Jackson and the city hosted a neighborhood meeting to get input from neighbors.
“A lot of residents didn’t support it and a lot did,” Toll said. “That just reinforced what we know about the community that folks just don’t understand the issue well enough. There’s always a bit of a ‘not in my backyard’ mentality and that’s something I think we could have overcome or come to grips with but clearly that meeting showed us that we needed to do a lot more homework.”
What does homelessness look like in Jackson? Toll says it’s hard to get exact numbers.
The U.S. Census reports 14 percent of Jackson County residents live below the poverty line. That jumps up close to 29 percent within the city.
“It’s still a huge problem,” Toll said. “I believe it remains our number one resolved issue. There’s certainly some positive things going on in developing more affordable housing units for families. We’ve seen this trend happening for a while.”
Toll says they plan on taking a step back and looking at different ways to address homelessness in the community.
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