Finding Solutions at Cass Community Social Services

This is Part 2 in a series from the gents at The 450 to Detroit chronicling their four-day bicycle trek through Detroit, dubbed the “D-Venture.” Check the introductory post and Part 1 for more information on their adventure.

Due to some construction on our bus route from Pontiac (The 450) and some other logistical errors, Rusty and I were 45 minutes late to our appointment with Rev. Faith Fowler, president at Cass Community Social Services, the home of our first nights foray into the offbeat corners of Detroit.  We met Faith at the front door in the rain, were immediately given a place to put our bikes indoors, and sat down in the board room.

She spread a map on the table in front of us “The Scott Building, where you are now, is named after a former employee by the name of Charlotte Scott.  She was 28 years old and bludgeoned to death by a homeless person whom she knew, who went to her home and robbed her.” The building stands today as a monument for those who do hard and sometimes dangerous work for little pay.  Whereas such a crime might be a deal-breaker for such an organization, Cass Community continued striving and building and memorialized the first residential building on campus in 2002 in the name of Charlotte Scott.

Cass Community Social Services (CCSS) opened its doors in 1988 operating solely as a drop-in center for the homeless to visit for warmth, lunch, and respite from the streets during the day for clients (homeless persons) who were both already in a shelter and those who were still on the streets.  Most homeless shelters, being strapped for resources, funds, and labor require their clients to leave the premises for 10-12 hours a day to fend for themselves.  Rev. Faith tells it like it is, “If its 5 degrees outside, or if you need to do laundry, or perhaps make a phone call you need somewhere to go to get these things done.”   Additionally, in its early stages, CCSS ran the rotating shelter for Wayne County that handled the overflow of homeless by providing a place for them to sleep at churches in the city and surrounding suburbs.  Cass Community has built its foundation and success on identifying the gaps in the current system, and finding solutions to bridge them.

Here are couple terms you might need to know to frame the conversation of homelessness courtesy of HUD (Department of Housing and Urban Development).

  • “Chronic” or “Chronically homeless” an unaccompanied disabled individual who has been continuously homeless for over one year OR has had four episodes of homelessness in the last three years.
  • “Continuum of Care” includes the full range of services available for the homeless including government services, healthcare, social service agencies and other non-profits.
  • “Client” refers to a homeless or needy individual who receives services from a shelter or other organization in the Continuum of Care

Today Cass Community is a compound made up of about 5 buildings.  Cass Community covers the full spectrum in the continuum of care for homeless and needy persons including the day-time drop-in center, emergency, transitional and permanent supportive housing.  On the west side of the city there is a center for homeless men with AIDS.  Unlike most other shelters, when there are open spots at Cass Community representatives audaciously go into the streets and recruit mentally ill or developmentally disabled  individuals by offering them the choice to accept help.

The Scott Building, which is the hub of Cass Community Social Services, offers an emergency shelter space for up to 50 women and children, transitional housing for mentally ill men, and transitional housing for men with chronic substance abuse.  One surprising but functional component of Cass Community that sets it apart from other shelters is a policy of non-separation between males and females during leisure time.  “Separation between men and women is not natural”, commented Rev. Faith Fowler. Doing things a bit differently is just the way things are done at Cass Community.

20,000 meals are served per week at the Scott Building.  The meals are prepared by a bubbly cook named Lynetta who pours her heart, soul, and time into making Cass Community what it is.  Rusty and I volunteered and made about 5,000 sandwiches with Lynetta to pay our dues for the room and board.  I realized after working with Lynnetta that great people are what make a great organization work.  Lynetta believes in what Cass Community Services is doing and had plenty of examples of and anecdotes to prove that it’s all that it’s cracked up to be.  Halfway through our servitude we stopped for a pile of seasoned steak and corn which we ate until we were bursting.  We learned that the sandwiches we were making weren’t going to feed the homeless, but to feed those who are jailed in the Detroit Police Department.  “Bottom line is if you mess up in the next couple of days on your trip” chuckled Lynnetta, “you gonna be eatin’ your own sandwich”.  Cass community sells the sandwiches to the police department as a side enterprise.

Aside from offering a full range of Services, Cass is doing something remarkable— creating jobs. Not just any jobs, but green jobs.  The state of the economy directly affects the business of homeless services.  When the economy was good, Rev. Faith explains, even a developmentally disabled person could get a job at McDonald’s.  Now, even those jobs are competitive for adults with sub-high school education levels.  The government issues developmentally disabled adults a check for 44.00/ month.  “Try doing that for a month” says Rev. Faith with a smirk.  She also emphasized that the people she is providing jobs for are rarely included in unemployment rate statistics.

The Cass Warehouse, another one of the 5 buildings on the Cass Community campus, is a Vocational Training Center housing various enterprises including the Tire-Mat Program which serves as employment for 12 mentally ill men who make mats from strips of old tires.  The old tires have been collected from illegal dumping sites around the city where they are unsightly and contribute to blight, prevent the mowing of grass, provide excellent homes for rodents, and are occasionally burned which produces extremely polluted air in the local neighborhood.  To date Faith estimates that 15,000 -17,000 found tires have been turned into porch mats.  Currently twelve men make mats with a starting wage of $8.00 per hour.  The mats are sold at craft fairs, festivals, and anywhere else in Detroit and the metro area where people might buy them.

The shredding business is a great example of finding a solution in a tough situation.  Cass community epitomizes the old adage “to make lemonade out of lemons.” The green secure shredding business leverages developmentally disabled people’s illiteracy because they aren’t able to read secure records or copy information.  The shredding program employs 40 developmentally disabled adults for 3 or 4 hours a week. The Cass Community warehouse houses a sewing micro-enterprise that makes stolls and other products out of fabric woven by women with AIDS in Ghana.

An excellent example of innovation is the Green Gym.  Also housed in the Cass Warehouse, the Green Gym provides free exercise to its homeless patrons while providing electricity for Cass Community generated from the exercise bikes that are used there.

Altogether, Cass Community employs 100 regular employees, 50 people in the green industries and other micro-enterprises, and utilizes 5,000 volunteers per year.  Spreading the message and keeping the conversation about homelessness going is a big part of the work done at Cass Community Services. Cass community offers the chance for volunteers to work with the homeless, not just provide for them, which is another way in which Cass stays ahead of the curve and progressive in its programming.

As the night was winding we sat down with Ephraim and Winston outside in the courtyard.  Both of them had previously done jail time and had struggles with substance abuse.  They stressed the point that Cass was changing their lives and providing them with the time and resources needed to get back on their feet.   After our conversation we sat in the courtyard smoking and joking with the residents.  The peaceful summer night abruptly ended with the  “PAP, PAP…PAP PAP PAP PAPPAP” of an automatic weapon in the street directly behind the courtyard wall.  In a rush of commotion, we were jolted back into reality.  We were in a dangerous neighborhood, where crime, drugs, and guns are unfortunately part of everyday life.

Still spooked, Rusty and I decided to visit Sam who is a program assistant who works on the third floor.  He asserted that he had never heard gunshots that close to Cass Community Services before.  We laughed at the coincidence of it happening on our first night ever on the CCSS campus and  our maiden Detroit voyage, the D-Venture.  While in Sam’s office, we could hear multiple spurts of gunfire in the blocks around the compound.

I woke up in the toy room (our quarters for the night) looking at the positive words like strive, hope, and love painted on the walls in little clouds. While there are many good things in the air here at Cass Community, I couldn’t help but juxtapose these bits of positivity with the uneasiness of the moments surrounding those gunshots the night before. I am reminded of a quote by the German Poet Friedrich Holderlin, which loosely translates to English as “Near and hard/ to grasp/ is the God./ But where danger lurks/ what saves grows too.” Rusty and I saw first hand that even in a very rough neighborhood there were valiant efforts to enact change.

Cass Community is a place that creates solutions to Detroit’s Problems by collaboration with Volunteers and faith-based organizations, staying ahead of the curve by rethinking the relationship between problems and solutions, and spreading the message about Detroit and the work being done here.  Talented and caring individuals like Faith, Lynnette and Sam are what this city desperately needs.  If you wonder how things will ever change in this city, come to Cass Community to volunteer and see how the experience changes your own views- volunteers are always accepted.

Click here for quick statewide data on homelessness in Michigan click on Wayne County for data about Detroit.

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