JACKSON, Mich. — The United Way of Jackson wants to turn the former Ethnos 360 Bible Institute building into housing for the homeless.
“We’ve got a real issue with housing and instability in Jackson and knowing that our mission to get people financially stable is something we should pursue,” said United Way CEO Ken Toll.
Toll approached the Jackson Interfaith Shelter to see if they would be willing to purchase the building and expand their services. They declined.
“United Way took the lead and said let’s just convene a group and explore this,” Toll said.
The building has space for 300 people, a full kitchen and dining room, a basketball court, a weight room, apartments and offices.
“We’re looking at replicating the Helping Hands model, which is a group that started in Oregon many years ago working on what’s called a ‘trauma-informed’ approach,” Toll said. “That takes into account a lot of people have been through severe trauma. Just one or two instances can really impact how you see the world and how you react.”
“The Helping Hands model sees more than 80 percent of its clients stably housed and operating self-sufficiently a full three years after treatment," he said. "There’s nothing like that around here so we know it can be done."
The approach will allow people struggling to use their housing as a one-stop shop, he said.
“They will first get assessed for medical needs. If they don’t have health insurance, we’ll sign them up on medicare or medicaid and get them to the doctor because a lot of folks have untreated health needs. Then, we’ll do their behavioral health and substance abuse assessment. If they need those services we already have the commitment from LifeWays to bring in counselors and treat those people,” Toll said.
According to a 2021 city of Jackson homeless survey, there are 233 people living in the city considered to be homeless.
“I think the pandemic has really showed us a lot of the gaps that we have with respect to housing across our community and across our county and state,” Mayor Derek Dobies said. “That’s why I think you see the city taking a leadership role working with the United Way to address it because we feel like it’s only going to get worse. We are making our way out of the pandemic but some of the economic hardship is going to last far beyond this year.”
The United Way has yet to have their purchase agreement approved. Toll is asking for the city for “significant support.” He says they are also talking with donors and partners who may use the facility.
“For example there’s a group called Welcome Home, Veterans... that’s been trying to build their shelter in Jackson for veterans. I met their director and said, ‘What if a wing of our shelter was available for veterans. How cool would it be to have your support systems interlaced with other needy folks in the community and have them working together?’ and they said they’re on board with that,” Toll said.
He says they hope to not have to run a community capital campaign and that, once the property is secured, the day-to-day operations are “relatively cheap.”
“We’re talking about by my calculations $4,000 to $5,000 per person to live there and leave there with a job and bright future. It’s actually less than an ER visit and, if you know anything about homeless people, they tend to visit the ER very often and leave our community with uncompensated bills,” Toll said.
There have been no formal plans from the city yet in terms of money to fund this project.
“I think we have a lot of different options," Dobies said. "I think that’s something the city and United Way are working on now and figuring out what the model looks like and what sort of services we can provide to address the housing instability we face.”
Not everyone is on board.
A neighborhood meeting was held Wednesday at the Boos Center to discuss the project after Council member Freddy Dancy heard complaints from the residents.
“If this project goes through, it will destroy the neighborhood, lower our property values and all of us who have lived here for 30, 40, 50 years will not be able to afford a house equal to what we have now to move anywhere in the city because the housing market is so restricted right now,” resident Steve Duke said. “This project is being driven by the building totally. It's got nothing to do with the best and highest use for the property or that type of use to begin with. Why would you locate that right on your main drag with 30,000 cars a day coming into the city adjacent to a hospital and right next to a park they’re currently renovating?”
Toll said that "unfortunate" rumors had been spread on social media.
"Someone sent them off and said basically the United Way plans to move in drug dealers and convicts and everyone’s property values will be destroyed,” Toll said. “As a homeowner I’d be concerned if I heard that too. You don’t want drug dealers in your neighborhood. It’s just not good. That’s not what we plan to do.”
Business owner and resident Julie Koleszar is for the project and believes it’s time for the city to look progressively at helping the homeless population.
“There’s too many people that think not in my backyard. Why does it have to be here? Well, it has to go somewhere. If we start now, helping our neighbors everyone does better. It raises up the whole community,” Koleszar said.
Toll did address security concerns and commented on how people would pay to live there.
“This would not be a barrier free shelter like the Jackson Interfaith Shelter where people can just come in and have shelter and do whatever you want. People will have to engage in programming to come into this shelter so, when you come in there will be an intake process," he said.
Toll says as of now there are no hard deadlines to get this project up and running but that “time is of the essence” to secure the building.
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