Weekly Meeting - March 4: Building a "Campus"of Social Services in Detroit

Speaker: Rev. Faith Fowler is both the pastor of Cass Community United Methodist Church and the Executive Director of Cass Community Social Services, a nonprofit agency that provides food, housing, medical/mental health, and employment programs for people living in the inner city of Detroit. She has held these positions since 1994. In addition to her work at Cass, she has served as a Board member of the Cass Corridor Neighborhood Development Corporation, an Advisory Board member of the Detroit Area Agency on Aging, and a Board member and Trustee of the General Board of Church and Society of the United Methodist Church. Rev. Fowler received her Master of Divinity Degree in 1986 from Boston University School of Theology. She holds a Master of Public Administration degree from the University of Michigan-Dearborn and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Albion College in 1981. She currently is a Trustee of Albion College.

The Breakfast at St. Andrew’s began in 1982 when a small group of parishioners at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church here in Ann Arbor, responding to the distress caused by the 1982 Recession, decided to feed the hungry in our community. Encouraged and supported by the Rev. Earl Lewis, then its Rector, they started preparing and serving a hot breakfast three times a week in the parish hall.That soon expanded to every day as more volunteers joined them. For 38 years now, between 90 and 150 meals are provided every day of the year by more than 100 volunteers.

Cass Community Social Services had a similar genesis. In the 1930s, Cass Community United Methodist Church opened a soup kitchen during the Great Depression. Rev. Lewis Redmond greatly expanded the Church’s outreach during his tenure as Pastor from 1959 to 1979. He reached out to people with developmental disabilities. Many such individuals lived in group homes in the Church’s catchment area, and they had need of  life-skills and recreational activities after years of institutionalization; the Church began an evening program that met many of their social needs. The Church also initiated a casework program for homebound senior citizens. The Cass Corridor neighborhood in Detroit has many older people whose age and economic status leaves them vulnerable to exploitation by individuals who charge excessive fees for support services; Project Scout helps them remain independent, and the Church’s Senior Center offers a safe place for social interaction.

Rev. Edwin Rowe built on this foundation  during his time as Pastor from 1979 to 1994. The Homeless Drop-In Center and the Interfaith Rotating Shelter were both started in 1988. Of particular note is the Drop-In Center. A client-driven program, it provides homeless people with a safe place to avoid the elements while they look for jobs or permanent housing, take a shower, do laundry, use the restroom and telephone. It fills a critical need even for those who manage to find overnight accomodation in a shelter; most shelters do not not permit clients to remain on the premises during the day. The Church also did more than seek to ameliorate homelessness by such concrete measures. In 1991, Governor John Engler proposed substantial cuts in the state welfare budget. The Church responded by setting up a “tent city” on the lawn of The Marie, a abandoned apartment building next door to its physical plant. Hundreds of people gathered at the site around the clock for a month to draw attention to the fact that the cuts would dramatically increase the number of homeless people in Michigan. This “consciousness building” was a main reason why the Detroit News named Rev. Edwin Rowe a 1991 Michiganian of the Year.

Since our speaker succeeded Rev. Edwin Rowe as Pastor in 1994, the Church has continued to expand and strengthen its community presence.

In 2002, just as the Breakfast at St. Andrews in recent years incorporated as a separate non-profit organization to deepen and expand its funding sources, the social service programs of the Church underwent a metamorphism into Cass Community Social Services. 2002 had seen the Church acquire the adjacent Scott Building. That property, with its large commercial kitchen, now houses many of Cass’s homeless outreach programs. Cass also has added health services, Mom’s Place I and II, Oasis Detroit, Target Homes, and the Warehouse.

In 2016, Cass started taking direct action to house some of Detroit’s impoverished population on a permanent basis. Inspired by the “tiny house’ movement, it began building twenty-five 250-400 square feet homes in the Lodge Freeway/Monterey area. These are not cookie-cutter houses. “Every home is different,” our speaker told WWJ-TV in May of 2017, “so there’s a Cape Cod, a colonial, a Victorian, a Tudor, an environmental house; each has a distinctive feature so the residents will have a sense of pride in their home.” The houses are being built by both professional trades people and volunteer teams who also manage such “finishing” jobs as tiling, dry walling, painting, building decks, and erecting fences. “There is no mortgage,” our speaker continued. “So it gives a chance for really low-income people — people who make $10,000 a year or $12,000 a year — to become a homeowner, with all the dignity and pride that implies, … [and acquire an] asset … that most poor people get locked out of.”  The houses will be rented to formerly homeless men and women, senior citizens who qualify based on income, and students who have aged out of the foster care system. After seven years of paying rent (of a dollar per square foot) and utilities on time, title to the property vests in the tenant.

Our speaker recently sold her historic Victorian house in the Corktown neighborhood in order to live and interface with people residing on the Cass campus and in the tiny homes community. She will tell us about  this transformative experience this afternoon.