Cheryl Lorton turned the handle yesterday and walked through the front door of a small one-bedroom apartment in the near-downtown Toledo area, saw the admittedly modest furnishings, and was deeply impressed.
"I was totally surprised and elated," the 44-year-old said shortly after signing her lease at Safe Haven, a housing center opening today for those with mental illness who have been chronically homeless.
"I was like, 'Whoa!' "
Ms. Lorton was among the lucky first tenants of the new $1.6 million facility in the 200 block of 21st Street. Safe Haven will hold an open house from 1 to 3 p.m. today.
With its brick facade, metal roof, and decorative fencing, the 12-unit apartment complex looks more like an upscale medical complex than a building designed specifically to help those who have the most trouble helping themselves.
And that's exactly the way John Hoover wanted it to be.
"We wanted the front facade to emulate 'high-end,'•" said Mr. Hoover, executive director of the nonprofit Neighborhood Properties Inc., which developed the property and will run it.
"These folks should be able to tell that we care about where they live and how they live."
Each of the dozen one-bedroom apartments surrounds the landscaped central courtyard of the complex and is furnished with a couch, easy chair, small dining room table, dresser, and twin bed.
Each unit also has a refrigerator and a small microwave in its kitchenette.
Leases are on a month-to-month basis, and rents are based on fixed percentage of an individuals' income.
Ms. Lorton, for example, will pay $245 to live there 30 days.
"I've been homeless many, many, many, many times," she said, standing in what will be her new living room.
Though she has no complaints about her surroundings, Ms. Lorton admitted she was nervous about living there.
"It's kind of scary," she said. "It's fear of the unknown, fear of change."
Safe Haven was conceived by Neighborhood Properties four years ago as a way to serve a local population that struggles with both chronic homeless. The goal, Mr. Hoover said, is not so much to end homelessness as to help those with the best chance of escaping it.
As it opens today, Mr. Hoover said, there are about 100 people on a waiting list for one of the complex's 12 apartments.
"Our focus has been to work with people who have a long history of not succeeding in our county," Mr. Hoover said.
Safe Haven staff is reviewing its potential tenant pool carefully. "We want it to be successful, so we're looking at people who have the best chance to be successful," Mr. Hoover said.
From a financial standpoint, the building starts operating from an admirable footing: It has almost no debt and a stable source of operating revenue for at least the next five years.
The $1.6 million price tag for its construction was covered by a variety of federal, state, local, and private grants, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development has guaranteed Safe Haven $150,000 a year in operating funds for the next five years.
While some may balk at the tax dollars involved in the nonprofit project, Mr. Hoover said studies have shown that society pays a cost of between $30,000 and $40,000 a year to "keep a person homeless," with emergency room visits, incarcerations, and treatments.
Safe Haven's round-the-clock staff will work with tenants to achieve manageable goals, providing encouragement and support, and just a little structure.
"We have found that putting normal expectations on our clients leads to frustration - on their part and on our part," Mr. Hoover said. "Success has different definitions for everyone. For some people, it might just be getting up at 8 instead of 11 each morning."
Mr. Hoover said Safe Haven's staff will help clients try and break the cycle that often traps people with mental illness on the streets by first giving them back their dignity.
"Just start treating them with respect. That makes a huge difference. It's that old 'Golden Rule' thing," Mr. Hoover said.
Contact Larry P. Vellequette at: email@example.com or 419-724-6091.