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Elkhart County agencies team up to build apartments for the homeless

By Marshall V. King Tribune Columnist | Nov 11, 2019

ELKHART — The brick building going up at 2725 Benham Ave., is actually a bridge out of homelessness.

Lacasa and Oaklawn are teaming up to provide 11 single apartments for people transitioning out of homelessness.

For the past six years, the housing/neighborhood development agency and the mental health provider have been partners to provide both shelter and services. Two multi-family buildings in Goshen and a duplex in Elkhart have tenants. This one will be for single adults.

The new 8,255-square-foot building is going up on an acre plot on the corner of the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. They bought the plot from the seminary with the intent of constructing the new housing.

Each tenant will have his or her own entrance to a 550-square-foot, fully furnished apartment. The residences will include energy-efficient heating and air cooling systems designed for small spaces. Utilities will be included and in most cases, rent will be covered.

“When they do have income,” Greaser said, “they pay a portion.”

Oaklawn staff will help identify potential residents who are at Faith Mission or Goshen Interfaith Hospitality Network, living in tents or vehicles, or couch surfing. Angela Rosenbrock, housing manager for Oaklawn, is already at work on that process. Once the building is finished this spring and tenants sign a lease, they’ll move in by May 2020.

Oaklawn and Lacasa staff will help them make the transition to their own place with walls, furniture and a kitchen. There will be accountability and support, as well as activities, including tenant meetings, carry-in meals and even movie nights in a community room.

Federal and state grant money helped pay for the project of at least $1.5 million. The Corporation for Supportive Housing trained members of both organizations two days a month for seven months in Bloomington. During that time, they talked with each other and heard from those working on other projects.

“There’s really good training and really good info from folks who have been doing this housing for years,” Greaser said.

During those sessions, according to Rosenbrock, they planned and designed the Benham Avenue project.

People are usually homeless for a reason, said Kari Tarman, manager of marketing and communications for Oaklawn. As many as 25% of homeless battle mental illness, according to a 2017 study by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Some who work with the homeless would put that figure even higher.

The organizers have heard criticism over the project helping only 11 homeless people at a time, but defend its approach and cost.

“Homelessness costs more than that,” Rosenrock said of the societal costs.

“This housing reduces the costs to the community,” added Greaser.

How much is it worth for someone to have a permanent address, a refrigerator in which to put their insulin, a place that’s walkable to a nearby grocery store?

Building a bridge out of something like homelessness is rarely simple or inexpensive. Not all bridges look identical, and this one uses an approach that wouldn’t work for everyone who finds themselves in that situation. Yet in the other places where Oaklawn and Lacasa are coming together, it’s helping people.

These two organizations made a commitment not just to build it, but to work with those who live there over the long term.

“We’ve had people say,” Greaser said, “this was the stable piece they needed.”