When Sheilah Clay became CEO of Neighborhood Services Organization 16 years ago one of her goals was to end homelessness as we know it. She’s making progress and other organizations are also picking up the momentum and developing some spectacular solutions.
“We are working to rapidly re-house the homeless population to break the cycle of poverty and minimize and treat the long term risk of mental illness and substance abuse,” Clay says.
Detroit has more than 16,000 people without a roof overhead they can call home. NSO serves 2,000 individuals at its emergency shelter and houses and places more than 200 people in permanent housing across the city of Detroit with 155 residing the historic NSO Bell Building.
Now in its 60th year of operation, NSO operates on a $26 million annual budget. This nonprofit human services organization provides mental health, addiction treatment, crisis intervention, youth leadership development, violence prevention, workforce development, support for seniors and children and adults with developmental disabilities, and more. It most visible outreach is to the neediest citizens – the homeless.
“If I don’t let you come into our shelters, I have lost an opportunity to save a life. I’m driven to help in every way possible,” Clay says.
Her most ambitious project is on its fourth year of active service – extending clean, attractive housing where people can stay as long as they desire for affordable rent. This is the game-changing, $50 million, award-winning transformation of the Yellow Pages Building into the NSO Bell Building.
Permanent housing affords people a chance to put down roots so they can deal with the myriad of problems they face and begin to rebuild their lives from a safe landing place. It ends homelessness.
Putting together the template for low-income housing for the most indigent population NSO served was a daunting task, says Karla Henderson, who was director of Building, Safety, Engineering and Environmental Dept. for the City of Detroit when she met Clay. The project was fraught with worry – and the need for angels acute.
“This was the first big project I worked on when I was at the city and I rode the waves of successes and pitfalls along the way,” Henderson recalls. “Oil tanks under the building, new market tax credit search. The sheer determination of a nonprofit doing a very complicated development project in a city where even the seasoned developers fail because … well you know … everything falls through. You name it … she overcame it.”
Then it got worse.
“Sheilah told me the first tax credit application fell through followed by one of the investors not being able to step forward as anticipated,” Henderson says. “Four million dollars was the shortfall. Four million dollars??? A number of us had to reach deep to locate the funds but we did. Gosh!!! Just thinking about it gets me emotional.”
Mayor Dave Bing waived all permit and inspection fees for the project. Not a big deal in terms of dollars … $250,000 … but a big deal to financial institutions that saw the city and the mayor’s support behind the project.
“I don’t think the building department has ever done that before or after,” she says. “That’s the impact Sheilah has on folks. She makes us all believe we have a role to play in ending homelessness.”
Today the Bell Building is a thriving hub of activity for people moving throughout the hallways whether walking or riding in motorized wheelchairs. Clay greets tenants by name and gives them a hearty handshake, listening to any concerns they have. She stops into the office to learn if any tenants had to be evicted for disruptive behavior or nonpayment of rent. The list of leasing terms is enforced, not only by building management, but also by the Tenants Council who represents the residents. The pride of living here is evident on their faces.
The floors are clean, the rooms bright and cheerful. Volunteers host housewarming parties among their friends to buy kitchen, bath and bedroom accessories so the units are more welcoming to tenants and truly move-in ready. Buses take tenants grocery shopping, local chefs teach how to prepare healthy, affordable meals, and more. The building has a long list of people who want to move in. Some tenants call it the Taj Mahal for the homeless.
Now that the Bell Building is thriving, Clay concentrates attention on finding a buyer for the homeless shelter located at Mack and Third Avenues. As Midtown advances in popularity and a completed Red Wings stadium nears, the property could fetch a dandy price.
NSO has already earmarked a site Gratiot and Mack Avenues on the east side. This new development to transition people out of homelessness will have easy access to bus transportation in two directions, a partner church across the street, a nearby soup kitchen, and other supportive community partners and residents.
“Homelessness is a multidimensional issue. Some people work jobs that don’t pay enough to keep a roof overhead. NSO works to move and keep people out of poverty, helping them thrive, not just survive,” Clay says.
Indeed, several new projects are underway to help the homeless with semi-permanent and permanent housing options, drawing upon NSO’s mission to end homelessness.
Grace Centers of Hope in Pontiac opened the William A. Davis Women and Children’s Center in Pontiac with 106 beds and 25 semi-private rooms for homeless women and children in May. The Cass Community Social Services is raising funds to build safe, clean, affordable houses in the Dexter-Linwood neighborhood. Within the last year Southwest Solutions opened the Piquette Square for Veterans, a 150-unit apartment project in the North End section of Detroit with comprehensive support services. The building is a renovated Studebaker car factory.
Even as these solutions arise, innovative fundraising efforts are made to address the problems of homelessness.
Ride a bike: NSO’s Handlebars for the Homeless fundraiser takes place August 7, targeting its Homeless Recovery Services unit. A 17-mile tour takes people through Detroit’s most beautiful neighborhoods and emerging hot spots. You can register online. Please click here.