Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Turning toward Home

Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Turning toward Home

Article excerpt

Once an abandoned structure, the Bell Building offers "housing first"- and hope-to Detroit's homeless * by angie schmitt

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 HOachieving sobriety or obtaininMg work. E

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. …

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