Catholic Charities eager to move ahead on housing project for Detroit's homeless

A homeless man rests near the Renaissance Center in downtown Detroit. In 2019, Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan was chosen as one of five agencies to partner with Catholic Charities USA to develop affordable housing aimed at reducing negative health outcomes for homeless individuals, with plans to build 46 units of mixed-income housing in the former school building of St. Matthew Parish on Detroit's east side. (Photo by Bill Pugliano | Getty Images)

Site of former St. Matthew School on city's east side chosen for planned development of 46 units of mixed-income housing

DETROIT — In 2019, Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan received exciting news: Detroit had been selected by Catholic Charities USA as one of five cities to implement its "Healthy Housing" initiative, which aims to ease the health impacts of homelessness by providing permanent housing for homeless and low-income individuals.

“Housing is the first strategy to break the cycle of illness and death, which is associated with chronic homelessness,” Paul Propson, CEO of Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan, told Detroit Catholic. “And without health solutions, the outcomes for individuals who were formerly homeless may not improve.”

Now, that project is moving ahead with the help of an east-side Detroit parish.

When those without housing become ill, they typically have no path to wellness, and thus their health issues remain or worsen. Without access to regular care, the chronically homeless must resort to repeated emergency room visits, Propson said. Once released from the hospital, they cannot afford prescriptions and return to an environment where healing and recovery are unlikely. When placed in permanent housing, however, individuals are more receptive to health care and social services, as well as mental health and substance abuse intervention.

Representatives from Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan tour the former school building of St. Matthew Parish on Detroit's east side. Plans call for the development of 46 units of mixed-income housing at the former school as part of Catholic Charities' "Healthy Housing" initiative. (Courtesy of St. Matthew Parish)
Representatives from Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan tour the former school building of St. Matthew Parish on Detroit's east side. Plans call for the development of 46 units of mixed-income housing at the former school as part of Catholic Charities' "Healthy Housing" initiative. (Courtesy of St. Matthew Parish)

“God intends for all of us to have a home," Propson said. "Without one, people are poor in many ways. including physical vulnerability, which causes health to deteriorate rapidly. We have fully embraced affordable housing as a foundational strategy for helping all God’s people experience the full potential of the gift of life that God has given them.”

By 2025, the goals of the national Healthy Housing initiative are to reduce chronic homelessness by 20 percent, decrease hospital readmission rates for homeless individuals by 25 percent, and to connect 35 percent of newly housed individuals to primary care and behavioral health services.

Along with Detroit, Catholic Charities agencies in St. Louis, Las Vegas, Portland, Ore., and Spokane, Wash., were chosen as part of the national pilot program.

Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan will help provide 46 units for mixed income individuals in the former school buildings of St. Matthew Parish on Detroit's east side. Catholic Charities partnered with Ascension Health, the Archdiocese of Detroit, and other organizations through the initiative.

In order to make the project financially viable, Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan applied to the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit Program through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and will learn whether the application was approved in July. The federally authorized program is designed for nonprofit and for-profit developers to plan, construct and rehabilitate affordable rental housing for those who qualify. If granted the tax credit, Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan and its partners will move ahead on the project immediately and hope to welcome residents in 2024, Propson said.

Fr. Duane Novelly, pastor of St. Matthew, believes the housing project is a perfect fit for his parish. The reaction from the parish community has been positive, he said.

Fr. Duane Novelly, right, pastor of St. Matthew Parish in Detroit, gives Catholic Charities officials and other partners a tour of the former school building, which has been vacant since 2008. (Courtesy of St. Matthew Parish)
Fr. Duane Novelly, right, pastor of St. Matthew Parish in Detroit, gives Catholic Charities officials and other partners a tour of the former school building, which has been vacant since 2008. (Courtesy of St. Matthew Parish)

“They’re excited about it. Since our school closed its doors (in 2003), we’ve gone through long, dry days of trying to market the buildings to charter schools,” Fr. Novelly said. “But the city has a great need for affordable housing, and we can help with that. On the east side, we don’t have anything for people who need help getting affording housing.”

Fr. Novelly sees the project as an opportunity — one that changes the mission of St. Matthew. For 70 years, the parish was focused on parish life and education in its school. Now the community will pivot to providing outreach and ministry to those living in the new development.

“There’s a grace that’s palpable on the St. Matthew campus,” Propson said. “When you’re there in the church and you experience the celebration of Christ’s resurrection, not only is that the hope that keeps us coming back for Mass, but also the hope that prompts us to serve people who are in need. It helps us know and believe that a future with God is a future with a home, both here and in eternity. Through our work in collaboration of our partners, we want to give those who will live there a feeling of the embrace of heaven, in an apartment that is their own.”

St. Matthew was one of several sites considered for the housing development. The school buildings, which have been vacant since 2008, sit at the intersection of Detroit’s MorningSide, East English Village, and Cornerstone Village neighborhoods. The architectural team will leave the outside of the buildings untouched to maintain the architectural beauty of the campus.

Other partners in the project include the city of Detroit, the Tersigni Family Foundation, the Capuchin Ministries of Detroit, Enterprise Community Partners, the Weingartz Family Foundation, Cinnaire, and Ethos Development Partners.



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