Peter Hatas, a former engineer who is homeless, sits in one of the rooms in the building he hopes to rehab just north of downtown. Mr. Hatas sleeps in his van and eats at local soup kitchens.
He sees a once-great Midwestern city in ruins, struggling to meet the needs of its people -- many of whom are homeless military veterans.
"They've already served us. We've got to help them in return," said Mr. Hatas, a 55-year-old engineer who is homeless himself. "They're out on the streets, and that's wrong."
Mr. Hatas' dream is to turn the old St. James and an adjacent building into a soup kitchen large enough to serve 400 people twice a day.
Within those same structures, he wants to create efficiency apartments for 35 military veterans, a corner grocery market, and a thrift shop. Revenue from the latter two would help pay for operations and utilities. The plan also calls for a jobs-for-hire kiosk, where those in need could get odd jobs and temporary work that area businesses and private property owners might offer, from shoveling snow to moving furniture.
It's admittedly a big dream, one that cannot be fulfilled without the community's support.
But since the former Good Samaritan Outreach Center in South Toledo closed on Sept. 30, Mr. Hatas' vision for such a project has come together -- and he's taken it a step or two beyond the dream stage.
Within weeks, he secured a purchase agreement for the buildings at a fraction of the listed prices, formed a nonprofit group called the Homeless and Travelers Assistance Corp. to run day-to-day operations, filed for federal 501(c)3 status so that the corporation can receive donations, and got some people thinking about serving on the group's first board of directors.
"It sounds like a great idea," Toledo Planning Director Calvin Lawshe said. "I'd like the opportunity to talk to him and see what he's got."
The project is the vision of a homeless man who defies the stereotype. Mr. Hatas -- whose name is on seven industrial patents granted from 1988 to 2006 -- sleeps in the same van in which he keeps two adopted, caged ducks and a dove, exercising them daily at area cemeteries.
He eats at local soup kitchens and uses public computers at local libraries for his digital communication and research.
"He's a really eccentric guy, but he's a genius. And I've been around a lot of smart guys. He's just unbelievably talented," said Dean Weaver, a former Toledo corporate lawyer who now makes a living boarding and training horses in Temperance.
The two struck up a friendship while working together in the late 1990s at Technology Concepts Products Inc., where Mr. Weaver was general counsel and chief administrative officer.
Mr. Hatas impressed him with engineering skills that are "beyond reproach," with a sense of empathy to match, Mr. Weaver said.
"He has a heart of gold," he said.
Mr. Weaver said he would consider being on the group's board of directors.
The same goes for Debbie Vas, executive director of the Toledo Seagate Food Bank. "I support his vision. It's something that is needed in the community," Ms. Vas said. "[But] money is very tight, no matter where you look for it."
The Toledo Seagate Food Bank could be the shelter's primary food supplier, she said.
Ms. Vas said she knows Mr. Hatas is determined to make the project work, and that his motives seem sincere. "It really is a doable project," she said. "I do not believe he is in this for himself."
Mr. Weaver, who practiced law for about 15 years, said the project ultimately "succeeds or fails based on its merits."
"If the community steps up, it'll do it. He can be the catalyst. At some point it'll be bigger than him and he recognizes that," he said.
Another person Mr. Hatas has approached as a possible board member is Paula Smith of Sylvania Township, whose 40-year career included jobs as a systems analyst, program manager, and others in the computer industry.
Ms. Smith also once chaired the Toledo Neighborhood Housing Service, which provided zero-interest and low-interest loans to urban property owners.
Born in Germany shortly before World War II, Ms. Smith said she has empathy for the homeless because of her experiences sleeping in barns as a child. She and her family were trying to emigrate to the United States, which they eventually did in 1946 when she was 8. They made it to the United States in January, 1947.
Two properties on the corner of Lagrange and N. Summit that Peter Hatas, a homeless engineer who holds at least a couple of patents, hopes to make into a homeless-helping-the-homeless project.
He told her how he couldn't find employment as an engineer and was living off the streets.
"He really touched my heart," she said. "He's trying to use the talents God gave him. He's a smart man and seems very sincere."
In December, Mr. Hatas filed paperwork with the state of Delaware to create the Homeless and Travelers Assistance Corp. He produced a copy of an employer identification number assigned to him by the Internal Revenue Service.
Then he drafted the purchase agreements -- $75,000 for the St. James, owned by the American Maritime Officers Union, and $2 for the smaller building, owned by the Hotel Restaurant Employees union.
The agreed-upon price for the St. James is a fraction of the $345,000 price listed by the building's real estate broker, CBRE/Reichle Klein. The firm's vice president, Nancy Lehmann, pointed out that the figure does not include a little more than three-quarters of an acre along the Maumee River that had been part of a package.
Jose E. Leonard, the maritime group's national secretary-treasurer, signed the St. James purchase agreement on Jan. 4.
Mr. Leonard said he was impressed by Mr. Hatas' plans for the historic structure. He also said he's motivated to sell because of some break-ins that resulted in copper piping being ripped out.
"From what we know of the project, it would give some sense of purpose to the building," he said.
The maritime organization moved out several years ago, when it moved dormitories housed there to a new building on Water Street.
"His intentions are certainly admirable and played a role in our decision to sell it to him," Mr. Leonard said. "We wish him luck."
Mr. Hatas said he knows a lot people on the street eager to do volunteer work. Others he would like to pay, to help restore their self-esteem and give them the ray of hope they need.
"Most homeless people just want to go back to work," he said. "If we've got to put them to work building soup kitchens and homeless shelters, we'll do it."
He figures the project would create 23 permanent jobs.
Peter Hatas checks out a former attorney's office on the first floor of the building. 'Most homeless people just want to go back to work,' he says. He plans to enlist their help on the rehab project.
Built in the 1800s, when Summit Street was a brick road and horses were used for transportation, the St. James was a centerpiece of Vistula, Ohio, a tiny village established in 1833. Vistula merged with its rival, Port Lawrence, and the two helped form Toledo in 1837.
The hotel is in the heart of the Vistula Historic District, Toledo's oldest neighborhood and part of an overlay district that city planners want beautified with better landscaping, streetlights, and sidewalks.
Mr. Hatas has proposed a project that could blend well into the city's vision. It would probably need a special-use permit, but not a zoning change, according to Mr. Lawshe.
Overlay districts generally do not restrict how buildings are used. The emphasis is on exterior designs, Mr. Lawshe said.
The St. James is 21,000 square feet, with a finished basement, large dining area, and a wide, spiral staircase with a thick, walnut bannister.
Mr. Hatas wants to use the first floor of that building to serve two meals a day to 400 to 450 area residents, and convert the second, third, and fourth floors into 25 efficiency apartments for homeless military vets. He said he will charge nominal rent, but ideally not exchange any cash. He said he would rather have the rent credited against their Veterans Administration benefits.
The market and thrift store would be on the first floor of the adjoining building, with an additional 10 efficiency apartments for homeless military vets in the upstairs of that structure.
The first matter at hand is raising $75,000 to acquire the St. James, then about $800,000 more to gut-and-rebuild the facility, stock the kitchen with food, and buy other supplies.
Mr. Hatas said he has applied for 18 grants. Four have been turned down because of the economy, he said.
"The banks will not touch this until it is operating for three years with a full set of financials," Mr. Hatas said, adding that he is relying on community support.
America has about 107,000 veterans who are homeless on any given night, including 4,397 in Michigan and 2,363 in Ohio, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Toledo -- a city ranked by the U.S. Census Bureau as the nation's eighth most impoverished -- has economic woes tied to the decline of the American auto industry and manufacturing in general that set it apart from other parts of the country.
According to the Washington-based National Coalition for the Homeless, founded in 1990 to lobby on Capitol Hill for homeless veterans, 23 percent of the nation's homeless population are veterans and 47 percent of those came from the Vietnam era. A third of all U.S. homeless males have served in the military, most for three or more years.
Historic photo of the St. James Hotel, corner of Lagrange and Summit streets.
They stay in abandoned houses, abandoned garages, and wooded areas along the Maumee River, he said.
Mr. Hatas is not a veteran himself, but worked as an engineer years ago for defense subcontractors. He said he's homeless because he's been "downsized," and he's seen countless others forced out on the streets because of the economy.
The project means a lot to him personally. It will enable him to put his engineering skills back to use and get Toledoans to take another look at their homeless brethren.
"I want to change peoples' perceptions of us being drunks and drug addicts," Mr. Hatas said.
Contact Tom Henry at: email@example.com, or 419-724-6079