Volunteers board up vacant houses in Detroit neighborhood

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Detroit -- The house at 7225 St. Mary's, just north of West Warren Ave., didn't prove much of a challenge for the horde of a half-dozen of AmeriCorps volunteers on Saturday.

As Keith Dexter, 21, boarded up the home's front and back doors, others, clad in lime-green t-shirts, collected trash in black bags and swept the front and side lawns.

Within 20 minutes of their arrival, the home was still in less-than-ideal circumstances, but, with the start of the 2017-18 school year just weeks away, at least the structure would pose no threat to who pass by.

Multiply that effort by nine and that's how several dozen volunteers spent the early part of their day on Saturday. They would've boarded up 10 houses, said Reba Neely, community organizer with AmeriCorps' Urban Safety Project at the Center for Urban Studies at Wayne State University, but one house had already been demolished before the group arrived. 

"Makes the day that much easier," Neely joked.

Saturday’s effort comes at a time when the city of Detroit has announced intentions to board up some 11,000 vacant homes over the next two years. Saturday’s work might have aided in that mission, but was a separate project, and was funded by the Skillman Foundation, Neely said. 

Dexter, who is studying at Henry Ford Community College and plans to someday enroll at Wayne State en route to becoming a registered nurse, said he's helped board up "well over 300" homes this year. "Probably more than that."

Each door board gets at least three nails per side, and more may be necessary depending on the home, Dexter said. 

Breanna Lockhart, 24, a coordinator with the urban safety program, helped shepherd the group's work. Her job was to keep volunteers

and volunteers on track as they tried to complete the scheduled assignments. When work slowed or people on site seemed aimless, Lockhart would remind that there's always more cleaning that could be done. In addition to the houses slated for boarding, volunteers would clear 12 lots. 

Lockhart's words -- there's always more cleaning to do -- proved especially true after 7225 was squared away, and the group headed north, as St. Mary's approached Tireman. 

Next up was a group of homes starting in the 7700 block. There was a four-property stretch of vacant properties and trashed front yards from 7775 to 7799 St. Mary's. Some would need boards, which were left ready by the advance team. All would need TLC, including trash that needed to be thrown out and shrubs that needed to be cut. 

And those four homes weren't the only vacant ones on the block. Not even close. After a relatively easy go of it at the first site, the needs of the 7700 block would take much more time.

That's part of the tough reality volunteers face every time they visit a neighborhood in Detroit, said Anthony Brown, 25, a community organizer with AmeriCorps. 

"We can't come here and think we'll be superheroes and fix everything," Brown said. 

He passes this wisdom on to new co-workers or volunteers who might believe that showing up is as good as solving a problem. Showing up is only the start, he says. 

"Like everything in life, the good stuff isn't easy," said Brown, who's been with AmeriCorps since February. 

Brown explained that in addition to its board-up team, AmeriCorps has a home safety assessment team.

Say a neighborhood resident approached the volunteers who were out Saturday, and said he didn't have a smoke detector at his house. AmeriCorps would make an appointment, arrive and install a smoke detector, completely free of charge. This is true also of carbon monoxide detectors and even security alarms. 

AmeriCorps' sector teams, in each precinct, do community patrols in their assigned areas, and try to get Detroiters to start block clubs in their neighborhoods, Brown said. 

Detroit Police Commissioner Lisa Carter was among the volunteers. She became an AmeriCorps member in 2013, after retiring from the Wayne County Sheriff's Office. 

"We have a lot of issues to address in communities in the city of Detroit, and today we're going to address nine of them," Carter said. "One house at a time."

Securing homes is as much about safety as the appearance and feeling of safety, participants said on Sunday. The start of the 2017-18 school year is just two weeks away. 

"When schoolchildren have to walk by these houses, they feel a sense of security when the houses aren't open," Carter said.

The day started just before 11 a.m. at the home of Lynn Hausch, 53, president of the Warren Avenue Community Association. Hausch lives across the street from Gardner Elementary School, and expressed concern about students passing vacant structures on their way to and from school. Hausch allowed the group to lay out its materials for the day, giving the group a home base as it progressed in its work, which was scheduled to run from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., with a break for lunch.

Hausch's passion is for urban gardening, but her larger vision for the neighborhood is a community so vibrant with activity that "the criminals are the ones afraid to go outside." 

"It makes me sad," seeing kids walk through danger to get an education, Hausch said. 

AmeriCorps collaborates with the Safe Routes to School program, Lockhart said. Vacant homes along designated "safe routes" are boarded up, and community patrols provide a watchful eye as children pass. 

"That's a big factor as to where we board up, where we clean up, and where we take special action," Lockhart said. 

Neely added that children in the community would also help, assisting in the painting of kid-sized footprints on the sidewalks along their routes to indicate that this is a path children travel. 

"Our job is to show people we're here to get things started," Brown said. "It comes down to residents seeing us doing the work, and letting them know they're not the only ones who care. The more people show up and think they're going to come in and save the day, and everyone's going to come with welcome arms, that's not going to happen. You have to earn that trust."