Detroit —Highway viaducts, abandoned vehicles and sidewalks were John Brown’s living quarters for much of his 60 years.
He was among more than 20,000 chronically homeless citizens in Metro Detroit.
He’s now among dozens of residents living in the $52 million transformed Michigan Bell Building. A ribbon-cutting ceremony at 10 a.m. today will mark the renovations in the 255,000-square-foot site, also known as the Yellow Pages building.
It also serves as the new headquarters for the nonprofit Neighborhood Service Organization. It owns the building on Oakman, serves the residents and places them in 155 apartments inside permanent supportive housing.
Residents moved in about a year ago and about 200 staffers settled in two months ago. Another 100 staffers work at four NSO offices in Detroit, Westland and Pontiac.
Brown sat in the spacious lobby of the apartment complex Tuesday, sharing his story and expressing gratitude. He attended Wayne County Community College and worked at Chrysler’s Jefferson Assembly Plant before becoming addicted to crack and serving time in prison for armed robbery.
“Days became months and months became years while I was on the streets and addicted to drugs,” said Brown, who received drug treatment from the Mariner’s Inn in Detroit.
“But living here is a wonderful experience. I have my own address, my own apartment number and my own mailbox for the first time since I can remember.”
The nonprofit’s CEO, Sheilah Clay, said staffers hope to transition residents from the apartments into jobs and schools, and reunite them with families.
“Permanent housing ends their life of homelessness, and the support services we offer get them back on their feet,” said Clay, who is also vice president of the Farmington Public Schools board. She affectionately calls Brown the “Mayor of the Bell Building.”
“Housing fulfills a basic human need to have a roof over their heads,” Clay said.
“Then they can begin working on the issues that may have driven them to homelessness so they can get back on their feet.”
Services offered by NSO include mental health counseling, a suicide prevention help line, gambling treatment and older adult services. The apartment complex features a fitness center, a chapel, a library and a green roof.
But the city’s bankruptcy looms amid the celebration and could affect the agency’s delivery of services.
The yearly budget is about $27 million and its government community block funding is about $150,000. The group must apply for the funding each year, but has not received any for the past fiscal year.
“We are in the same position as many other nonprofits waiting for funding. There’s always a wait. But if we receive a cut in funding, we may need to cut staff and hours,” Clay said.
Clay said cuts could translate into shorter hours in the winter, when the need for shelter is great.
Bill Nowling, spokesman for Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, did not respond to an email or phone call seeking comment.
The apartment complex has been in the works for seven years.
“We made a decision in 2006 to get into supportive housing and we were charged by Sheilah Clay to find a project that would have impact,” said Joe Heaphy, vice president of real estate development and management.
“Focus: HOPE owns this property and they were looking to develop it as part of community development.”
Clay said the building was “exactly what we wanted.”
“I was never interested in building new,” she said. “We could have looked for land, but I believed Detroit had so many buildings that just needed to be repurposed.”
Resident Lucretia Gaulden, 38, said she’s grateful to live in the building, after living in halfway houses for years.
She sat on her living room sofa surrounded by two large Winnie the Pooh stuffed animals and a pillow decorated with the word “HOPE.” She proudly showed off photos of her three children and grandchild.
“I believe that if I weren’t living here, I’d probably be living on the streets,” she said. “The doors for any kind of help you need here are always open.”