WHEN SHE’S TRAVELING around her north-central Detroit neighborhood, Lucretia Gaulden likes to carry her digital camera with her.
The 39-year-old lifelong Detroiter trains her lens at scenes that represent health—such as an outgoing person she admires, for example—as well as images that represent sickness and danger, such as vacant buildings.
That’s the assignment she’s working on in her photography class at the Bell Building. Until Lucretia came to the Bell Building 17 months ago, she never had a chance to participate in a photography class. When she was homeless, attending a weekly class of any type, even owning a camera, might have been out of reach.
Orphaned at 13, pregnant at 16, she found herself in prison at 25 after being convicted of being an accomplice to a crime committed by an old boyfriend. When she got out, she bounced between halfway houses and friends’ couches.
But since she’s arrived at the Bell Building, she’s been able to focus on what’s more healthy for her. In compliance with her lease, Lucretia pays rent every month on her own furnished one-bedroom apartment. She serves as a floor captain, with responsibilities for maintaining order and community among her immediate neighbors. She’s also part of the building’s Tenants Advisory Council and is a member of the speakers bureau, a group of residents who do public presentations and speak with the press. Their work is meant to help put a human face on the issue of homelessness.
Homelessness is an enormous problem these days in Detroit. As many as 25,000 of the region’s residents are chronically homeless. But when someone like Lucretia arrives at the Bell Building, just like that, the ranks are reduced by one.
Each of the 155 Bell Building residents has a safe, secure apartment that he or she can call home for as long as it’s needed. They each have an address that comes with a key to a mailbox. And they have a lot of help: assistance with transportation, literacy support, and job readiness, counseling, and even cooking and art classes.
Their newly renovated building contains a library, a fitness room, a clinic, a chapel, and a lounge where residents can play pool. Neighborhood Service Organization (NSO)—the social service agency that developed the building—even hosted housewarming parties for the residents, pairing them with donors who helped purchase items such as towels, silverware, and DVD players.
A year and a half after arriving, Lucretia said it still thrills her to have a keycard to her own apartment and a key to a mailbox.
“I have something I can call my own,” she said. “Now I can just lay my head down and not worry for a while. I don’t have to worry about where my next meal is going to come from and if someone’s going to steal my things.”
THE NSO BELL Building represents a bold new way of thinking about the problem of homelessness in Detroit. Traditionally, treatment of homelessness has focused on overcoming underlying issues such as addiction and mental illness. Housing is often considered a reward for achieving sobriety or obtaining work.
But an approach known as Housing First turns that idea upside down. The Housing First philosophy views housing as a human right rather than a reward. Secure housing, it asserts, is a necessary prerequisite to addressing the underlying problems that prevent an individual from acquiring stable housing in the first place.
The Housing First model was pioneered by Pathways to Housing in New York City in the early 1990s, although some people say some of the fundamental concepts were being used in Toronto centers as far back as the 1970s. The concept is now becoming widely accepted. Centers treating homelessness in places as diverse as Columbus, Ohio, and Long Beach, Calif., are using the Housing First model.
For Sheilah Clay, president and CEO of Neighborhood Service Organization, this concept was something of an epiphany.
With a $27 million annual budget, NSO is one of the largest social service providers in Detroit—and it has decades of experience dealing with the problem of homelessness. Since the 1970s, NSO has operated the Tumaini Center, a support center for the homeless. Tumaini serves about 3,000 individuals a year, providing emergency food and clothing, treatment for substance abuse, and case management.
But around 2006, Clay experienced what she calls a “defining moment” and realized that she was “managing [homelessness], not ending it.”
Clay then traveled around the country exploring Housing First programs. She became convinced that it was the way forward.
“Housing First was an expansion of the direction we were already headed in,” she said. “We were the safety net. We provided mental health services. We could refer you to other places that were doing housing.”
But there was never enough housing for the people who needed it.
“When you house someone, that’s when you end their homelessness,” Clay stated.
NSO undertook an extensive survey of the city’s homeless population. The survey team interviewed 211 homeless people about how they ended up on the streets and the trials they faced there. About half of this population, the survey revealed, struggled with substance abuse or mental illness. Some 15 percent had grown up in foster care. Another 13 percent were veterans.
And the survey revealed something else important: Homelessness is expensive. That’s one of the key tenets of Housing First: Housing homeless individuals tends to exert less cost on society than the expensive interventions that might otherwise be required. For instance, the 211 people that NSO interviewed reported 456 emergency room visits, and 149 trips to jail, over a period of three months. Those expenses can add up to more than $50,000 a year in public costs for each homeless person.
Clay understood what needed to be done. And leaders of a nonprofit partner called Focus: HOPE on Oakman Boulevard recommended a place they thought would be perfect for launching a Housing First project—the dilapidated 10-story former home of the Michigan Bell Telephone Co., long known for its iconic “Find it Fast: Yellow Pages” sign.
Deborah Fisher, a director at Focus: HOPE, saw the potential in the Bell Building. Focus’ Hope Village—a supportive community modeled after the Harlem Children’s Zone—is located right down the street. The Bell Building being the way it was—namely large and vacant—was a drain on the neighborhood.
By teaming up, the nonprofits agreed they could be a stabilizing force in the low-income neighborhood. NSO was able to reach an agreement with Focus: HOPE to acquire the building. “This building wasn’t on its own; it was part of a bigger picture,” Fisher said.
But when NSO obtained it, it looked like too many buildings in Detroit. The windows were broken out. Many people thought it was beyond repair.
Clay had a difficult time convincing her board of directors that it was a worthwhile financial risk for the organization. Beginning in 2007, she was also up against bad timing: a housing market collapse and an extreme retraction in the credit markets. “Someone said this is a really bad time to do this,” she recalled. “I said, ‘Tell that to the 155 people I’m trying to house.’”
Part of the initial challenge, said Clay, was finding a champion in an important public position. But a breakthrough came in 2007, when Clay was able to convince the deputy mayor to take a two-day trip to New York City to see a Housing First project in action. “He came back here like Moses with the tablets,” Clay said. So just like that they had their City Hall champion.
Then there was the funding problem. For two years, architects, government officials, accountants, and NSO staff met monthly to plan the project and develop a financing scheme. The Novogradac Journal of Tax Credits wrote in 2012 that “some less committed developers would have given up.”
What they arrived at was a kitchen-sink approach. The project received $1.9 million from federal tax credits and another $5.5 million from state brownfield redevelopment funds. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development contributed a $400,000 grant. The City of Detroit chipped in $5 million in federal community development grants. Another $22 million came from low-income housing tax credits. The Kresge Foundation and the McGregor Fund also contributed, as did the Local Initiatives Support Corporation. Bank of America provided an $18 million loan. Thousands of individual donors came through as well—significantly increasing NSO’s total donor base.
Eventually, the organization was able to cobble together the $40 million it needed to begin the $52 million renovation.
When NSO broke ground in 2011, hundreds attended. Mayor Dave Bing cut the ribbon.
Perhaps what supporters find so gratifying about this project is the way it blends the repairing of physical infrastructure with restoring individual lives. The neighborhood—Oakman Boulevard, or north-central Detroit, near the border of Highland Park—is already starting to see the benefit, said Fisher.
Next door to the Bell Building is a half-collapsed former confectionery. NSO was planning to redevelop the site for a sports center and perhaps additional housing. But the property was recently purchased by a private developer who is interested in partnering with NSO to bring the property back to productive use.
“It’s becoming sort of a whole confluence of activity there,” said Fisher.
SINCE SEPTEMBER 2012, when the first residents moved in, the Bell Building has already witnessed 39 people move on to apartments and houses of their own.
Lucretia Gaulden hopes to someday get there herself. Since she arrived at the NSO Bell Building, one of the most important lessons she’s learned, Lucretia said, is to ask for help.
The staff—200 of whom have offices in the building—help her with résumés and job searches. She’s received help signing up for federal disability payments and is working on getting health insurance.
“I have that support now that I needed,” she said. “I’m one of them type of people that didn’t want to ask for help. I like to try to do it on my own.”
To someday do her part to help others, she said—that’s her highest ambition.
“Doing it on your own will get you nowhere,” she noted. “We all need help.”
Angie Schmitt is a Cleveland-based writer and activist who specializes in urban affairs.