Proposed 40-unit development to offer services to accompany individuals facing obstacles to stability, chronic homelessness

DETROIT — It’s a statistic that gives Fr. Tim McCabe, SJ, pause.

Right now, there are an estimated 1,700 chronically homeless people in the city of Detroit.

That's 1,700 souls who feel forgotten, abandoned in a city that has seen a remarkable economic turnaround, yet still has sleeping mats beneath the Interstate 375 overpass.

To many observers, chronic homelessness — when a person has been living on the streets for at least a year, but usually longer — is an unsolvable problem.

But not to Fr. McCabe. He thinks the problem can be solved, and a new bridge housing development on Detroit’s east side might be part of the solution to an issue that has long plagued the city.

“When I arrived here four years ago, I was concerned about the number of people on the sidewalk and under overpasses, so I began to study chronic homelessness and what can be done,” Fr. McCabe, executive director of the Pope Francis Center, a homeless outreach facility at SS. Peter and Paul (Jesuit) Parish on Larned Street in downtown Detroit, told Detroit Catholic.

Seeking solutions, Fr. McCabe toured the country, looking at 20 homeless outreach programs in nine cities. Returning to Detroit, he and the Pope Francis Center board got to work developing the “Pope Francis Center Bridge Housing Development,” something he calls a “game-changer” in ministering to the city’s homeless.

The proposed $19 million development on Mt. Elliott and East Canfield in Detroit’s McDougall-Hunt neighborhood will feature 40 studio apartments to house chronically homeless guests for 90 to 120 days as they transition into more permanent housing.

In addition to a place to sleep, the new facility will include a cafeteria, gymnasium, library, classrooms, a health clinic, and an outdoor enclosed shelter with heated sidewalks, all designed to help guests overcome the deep psychological and medical challenges that lead to homelessness. 

A guest shaves in one of the sinks offered for use at the Pope Francis Center in downtown Detroit July 3.

Two main challenges facing the chronically homeless include addiction and mental illness, Fr. McCabe said, which is why the new facility will include amenities and social services designed to get people the help they need as they transition to permanent housing. 

“The people we are trying to reach are the hardest population to work with because of the seriousness of the issues they are dealing with,” Fr. McCabe said. “A lot of the time, they don’t want to go to shelters because they have been victims of crimes, victimized by others in the streets, and they lose trust in people, they lose trust in themselves.” 

At the Pope Francis Center, “we are known among the homeless for being that first friendly face, as people who can be trusted,” Fr. McCabe said. “They just know our center is a safe environment, a safe place. And we have a wonderful volunteer base that treats our guests with such love, dignity and compassion and really develop friendships.

“That is what makes this bridge housing facility a great chance at success, because it is about walking with people, living with people, as they overcome their obstacles to housing,” Fr. McCabe added.

Help from city and corporate partners

With the city's blessing and encouragement, the Pope Francis Center conducted a needs assessment to discover where the population is being underserved, Fr. McCabe said. 

Fr. McCabe noted many organizations serving the homeless work on a “housing first” model, but the bridge housing development is a necessary piece in a continuum of care where caregivers can accompany people through the transition from life on the streets to life in more stable housing.

“One of the things I learned during my tour was there was a certain population who, if they were put into housing too soon, they would fail,” Fr. McCabe said. “When a person normalizes homelessness, it is very hard to make that transition back to housing. So, we’re walking with them. We are building relationships with the community. Our outreach at the Pope Francis Center is what places us in the ideal position to serve this population.”

In late June, the Detroit City Planning Commission approved the rezoning request for the bridge housing facility — which has no official name as of yet.

Architectural firm Fusco, Shaffer and Pappas are tasked with building on the six-acre property, with the hope that ground can be broken this fall and construction can began in spring 2020. 

Volunteers work in the kitchen at the Pope Francis Center, which serves 170 to 200 guests each day, Monday through Saturday.

“When I arrived here four years ago, the city announced they were in the process of addressing the homeless issue in Detroit. I called and said if they were going to do this, I wanted to be a part of it,” Fr. McCabe said. “Arthur Jemison (then-director of housing and revitalization for the city of Detroit) and his senior adviser, Meghan Takashima, both came down to meet with me. We began talking about bridge housing — between living on the street and permanent housing — and they were supportive from the beginning, saying this was a need in the city.”

Fr. McCabe said the city has been “super supportive” of the Pope Francis Center's plan.

“When we presented our plan, they said they’ve seen nothing like this anywhere,” Fr. McCabe said. “The goal is not just for this to be a housing facility, but a campus.”

Rather than just a place to sleep, the new development will provide personalized, one-on-one attention to identify a person's needs, whether it's addiction counseling, access to medication or support from social services to overcome barriers to permanent housing.

Fr. McCabe expects many of the initial guests to the bridge housing facility will be current Pope Francis Center guests, making the already existing work of the center all the more vital.

“Because of what our center has done over the years, because we don’t register people when they walk through the door, it allows people to tell us their story on their timeframe when they are ready,” Fr. McCabe said. “Because of this, we have built great relationships with these folks and can talk with them about moving from the street into housing.”

Fundraising for project under way

In addition to the $19 million needed for construction, an estimated $3 million will be needed to make the bridge housing facility sustainable. The group has raised $5 million so far, including a $1 million grant from the Ford Motor Company Fund, the philanthropic arm of Ford Motor Company.

Ford and the United Auto Workers have been supporters of the Pope Francis Center since 2013, giving millions to renovate the current location, said Jim Vella, president of the Ford Motor Company Fund.

Fr. McCabe said the Pope Francis Center seeks to be a place where individuals can find friendship and a listening ear. “We are known among the homeless for being that first friendly face, as people who can be trusted,” he said.  

When Fr. McCabe and the Pope Francis Center presented plans for the bridge housing facility, it was like nothing they had seen before to combat the city's homelessness problem, Vella told Detroit Catholic.

“We always start at the Ford Motor Company Foundation by looking at the needs of the city,” Vella said. “While there is great expansion and revitalization happening in Detroit, not everyone is experiencing it. This project changes lives by addressing chronic homelessness.”

In addition to the $1 million grant, the Ford Motor Company Foundation was the presenting sponsor of a fundraising dinner in May that gathered philanthropic communities in southeast Michigan to talk about the root causes of chronic homelessness.

“I think it helps to know other members of the community are participating,” Vella said. “When you have places like Ford and Magna International coming together with the city of Detroit and the great leadership of the Pope Francis Center to make this happen, it really is a community effort. Now we need to raise the money to execute the plan.”

As the fundraising continues, Fr. McCabe and the Pope Francis Center continue to serve 170 to 200 homeless guests each day, Monday through Saturday.

“When I talk to our volunteers, those who stop by to help, we are in awe of the bravery, the challenges our guests face,” Fr. McCabe said. “We stand in awe of the cross they carry. That is the recipe for all the work we do, all the work we will do with the bridge housing facility: to be there to walk with people, as they continue on in their journey of life.”