By Pam Wright
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
A plan to turn Chatham’s vacant St. Agnes School into a supportive housing complex came to be because of an invitation.
Jeff Neven, the CEO of Indwell, a non-profit agency that specializes in creating housing for people in need of a leg up, said Indwell decided to expand in Chatham-Kent because the community support is already here.
Neven, and Scott Brush, the newly appointed launch manager for the Chatham project, were part of a team inspecting the Croydon Street school last week.
They outlined what the organization has planned.
Based in Hamilton, Indwell was formed in the early 1970s, as part of a Christian response to the province’s closure of psychiatric facilities and hospitals.
The closures put many on the street; people without the capacity or the life skills to care for themselves.
Neven likes to remind people that every life has “inherent worth” and Indwell’s creed is to offer “dignity, hope and love.”
Providing housing and support to the vulnerable is a way of demonstrating that, he said.
“It’s a critical need for people to have stable housing and health supports,” Neven explained, adding he has yet to meet anyone who’s lived under a bridge say that was a good time in their life.
“At Indwell, we offer an invitation for an opportunity to find a new way of living,” he said.
Depending on the plan, St. Agnes will be able to house between 35 to 45 residents. Because a community is best served by a spectrum of housing supports, Neven said Indwell is looking at establishing 150 affordable units in the municipality.
Chatham-Kent is the farthest west Indwell has ventured in Ontario and St. Agnes is the first school that’s being repurposed.
However, the non-profit has established supportive housing in both big city and small town markets.
“We’re taking what we’ve learned in each area and nuancing it to the local community,” he said. “That approach works really well, especially when it’s led by an invitation from a group like NeighbourLink.”
Brush has deep roots in social justice. The Belle River resident previously worked for the Ray of Hope charity in Kitchener-Waterloo, helping troubled youth at the street level.
It showed Brush the value of the Indwell model.
“From that experience, I realize that supportive, affordable housing is a foundational part of success for people who are struggling,” Brush said.
“They need that building block,” he added. “Having a safe place to live is life-giving.”
Both Brush and Neven say Indwell has “incredible support” from Chatham-Kent council and municipal staff, giving special praise to former staffer Chantal Perry who has gone on to work on a national homelessness initiative.
The local work has begun.
NeighbourLink has already raised more than $100,000, and Chatham-Kent council has kicked in another $100,000 towards the project.
Another factor, said Neven, is support from other non-profit agencies in Chatham-Kent.
The purchase of the property is the first step, he added. Next comes continued fundraising, the building’s redesign and then construction, which usually takes about 18 months.
Finding funding for the bricks and mortar phase, as well as money for the supportive housing piece are the twin challenges facing each project.
Anyone who would like to discuss the Chatham build can contact Brush online at firstname.lastname@example.org.