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Clay Apartments ready to house the homeless in Detroit

Candice Williams
The Detroit News

Detroit – Needing a place to live after leaving an abusive marriage, Niccala Lee found help from the Neighborhood Service Organization. For two years she lived in the nonprofit’s housing and received therapy and other support services before moving into her own home in the city.

The Neighborhood Service Organization will celebrate Wednesday the ability to help more clients like Lee, with the completion of the new Clay Apartments on Detroit’s east side. The 42-unit permanent housing at 3364 Mack is the first of two phases of a $20 million Healthy Housing Campus that will eventually include an emergency shelter and health care services.

Linda Little, President and CEO of the Neighborhood Service Organization, shows one of the units at the new Clay Apartments on Detroit’s east side. The 42-unit permanent housing at 3364 Mack is ready to open.

“This building is going to be such a blessing to so many people,” Lee, 47, said during a tour of the development. “The face of homelessness is not the stereotypical person you see with the buggy or bags.

"I did everything within my power to avoid being homeless," she said. "I want people in our community, Detroit to know you have someone there that’s going to help you. You have an option. You don’t have to feel judged. You don’t have to feel degraded or belittled. They will help you every step of the way.”

The Neighborhood Service Organization says it answers 90,000 housing crisis calls each year. It places 4,000 people in shelters and provides housing for 500 individuals. It says its housing retention rate is at 98%. And the need is great: In 2018 it was estimated that nearly 11,000 experienced homelessness in Detroit. That's not counting those who are staying on a friend's couch or sleeping in their cars.

Lee said that when she returned from Columbus, Ohio, to Detroit, where she grew up, she had nothing — no clothing, car or job. She said her family did as much as they could and a friend referred to her NSO. She was put on a waiting list until she received a housing unit at the Bell Building on Oakman Boulevard, which offers 155 fully furnished, one-bedroom apartments for formerly homeless adults.

“Once I got to NSO they let me know the services they had,” she said. “And these were services I needed well before I was homeless as far as mental health."

Niccala Lee lived in the Neighborhood Service Organization's housing for two years after she found herself homeless.

NSO broke ground on the Healthy Housing Campus in June 2019. Clay Apartments is named in honor of Sheilah Clay, NSO’s previous president and CEO who retired in 2018 after 22 years with the organization.

Clay Apartments is outfitted to serve those who walk in with nothing, said Linda Little, president and CEO of NSO. The one-bedroom units are furnished and have a kitchen and bathroom as well as toiletries. There's also a spacious community room, a lounge with foosball table, library, computer lab and fitness center.

“When they come into this apartment, their home for the first time, they will have everything that they need,” Little said.

The project received support from the city of Detroit and the Michigan State Housing Development Authority. The city's support included selling land for the campus at a significantly reduced price and providing $1.9 million in federal HOME funds, officials said.

“This incredible new facility is an example of our strategy to help more people stay out of homelessness, as opposed to just providing temporary overnight shelter,” Mayor Mike Duggan said. 

Exterior of Clay Apartments at 3364 Mack.

NSO has a list about 70 homeless individuals in the pipeline for housing at Clay Apartments and move-ins are expected within the next few weeks, Little said.

Fundraising is underway for building Phase II of the campus that will include a 56-bed emergency shelter for single adults. Little expects it to be complete in 18 months.

The target population will be individuals with complex medical needs as well as women. There will be 15 medical respite beds to provide the homeless a place to recuperate after being released from hospital care.

The complex will also have a primary care and behavioral health clinic, pharmacy and dental services. The city’s housing and revitalization department has conditionally approved a community development block grant for the second phase. 

"It really is to focus on promoting health care and access for the homeless for quality health care as well as housing solutions," Little said. "And then helping with all of those wraparound services. I always say homelessness is just the tip of the iceberg. There's so much going on underneath that goes unaddressed if you just find them a place to live. You have to address all those other things."

Lee is now a behavioral health technician working with children in the court system or those that have mental health issues. Although she moved out of the Bell Building this past summer, she still uses the therapy and peer support services.

“I know that I’m not out here by myself…,” she said. “My coping skills have changed because I have support. I have a team.”

Contributions can be made to NSO by visiting www.nso-mi.org.