Faced with a dramatic increase in homelessness, the City Rescue Mission of Lansing has been looking for additional shelter space in the downtown area.
But urban revitalization efforts have proved a barrier.
“We’ve been looking to expand for some time now, and we’ve kind of been running into this issue in a number of places that we try,” Laura Grimwood, the mission’s senior director of community engagement, said. “It’s understandable, because they’re really trying to revitalize the downtown area and had other plans for the buildings that we were looking at. We all want to see downtown revitalized, because this is our hometown too.”
Now, though, the mission thinks it has found a solution in two buildings in the 400 block of West Kalamazoo Street, between Walnut and Chestnut streets, adjacent to the Capitol Complex.
“This is probably the fourth or fifth piece of property we’ve looked at, and I feel it’s the best location,” Mark Chriss, the mission’s executive director, said, adding that the expansion would double the mission’s current capacity.
The mission operates a men’s shelter at 607 E Michigan Ave. and one for women and children at 2216 S. Cedar St.
In just two years, the demand for shelter space has increased from an average of 138 users per night to 245 through the first six months of this year. As a response, the mission would move the men’s shelter to the proposed new location and would move women without children there as well.
The new properties are at 415 W. Kalamazoo, owned by Set Seg Insurance Agencies Inc. and occupied by a law firm, and 421 W. Kalamazoo, which was sold to the Michigan Corrections Organization by Set Seg in January 2022 after Set Seg transitioned its headquarters to East Lansing. Both are about a mile from the current shelter and just under a half mile from the CATA station downtown.
The rescue mission said it has options on the buildings and plans on securing the purchase if and when the City Council approves a pair of rezoning requests for the special land use permit required to establish a sheltered care facility on the site. The city’s Planning Commission voted 5-1 on Aug. 1 to recommend the zoning change. At-large member Monte Jackson opposed the request. Jackson expressed concerns about the potential for increased foot traffic and loitering near the site.
The latest step came in a 30-minute public hearing before the Council on Monday (Sept. 18) that featured nine speakers in favor and two opposed. Afterward, the Council referred the request to the Development and Planning Committee, which meets at 4 p.m. today (Sept. 20). The Council will consider the committee’s recommendation on Oct. 2.
Were the city to grant these requests, the rescue mission would finalize its purchase of both properties in December, followed by fundraising efforts and the beginning phase of a series of renovations that are expected to last two years and cost upward of $7.3 million. Chriss said the mission can’t provide a price for the properties “at this time.”
Once the new shelter is open, the mission would move its kitchen operation from 608 W. Saginaw Street to the Michigan Avenue space. Chriss said the mission produces 125,000 meals a year. Michigan Avenue would also be used for storage and sorting donations, he said.
The rescue mission has considered a number of options in recent years. In August 2020 the mission purchased a vacant law office at 605 E. Michigan Ave. to the immediate west of the men’s shelter. The mission also looked at acquiring the property at 603 E. Michigan Ave, but those plans fell through over renovation costs.
Shortly after that, Grimwood said, the mission tried to purchase the building once occupied by the downtown YMCA at the corner of Washington Square and Ottawa Street and the former Masonic Temple Cooley Law School building on Capitol Avenue that was recently announced as the city’s choice for its next City Hall. The former did not work out because of zoning issues, and the latter because the city had undisclosed plans for it.
The Kalamazoo Street properties adjacent to the Capitol Office Complex — it is across Kalamazoo from the Elliott-Larsen Building, which was formerly the Lewis Cass Building — will give the mission considerable room to grow. The 11,452-square-foot building at 415 W. Kalamazoo sits on a 26,136-square-foot property and is listed by the Lansing city assessor’s website at a value of $715,700. The 12,216-square-foot building at 421 W. Kalamazoo is part of a 32,670-square-foot property and listed at $906,900.
Though less in the heart of downtown, one homeless man said the location may be better for him than the shelter on Michigan Avenue.
David Harris, a man in his mid-60s who has been without a home for three months after losing his apartment, said the new location would probably be an easier commute for him on most days.
“Seeing as sometimes I’m sleeping out under the Kalamazoo Street bridge and others, that’s a little bit closer for me. It depends on the bus run, to tell you the truth,” he said.
Asked if he would agree that the mission had been operating over its ideal capacity, Harris did not hesitate: “Yes. Oh yeah, it is.”
At the public hearing, nine people spoke in support of the project, many of them former occupants or volunteers at the mission.
“The mission gives us a place to go to clean our lives up, pull our lives together and become functioning members of society,” Angela Sherwood, who has used the shelter, said. It’s “a place to go to have hope, and not feel like you’re an undesirable.”
Don Morrison, owner of two apartment complexes nearby, including Executive House around the corner on Walnut, opposed the rezoning request. He called the project “basically a hotel” and expressed doubt that the mission would be able to fully staff the operation.
“There seems to be a reasonable doubt as far as adding this location to the rescue mission,” Morrison said.
Gabriel Biber, director of Haven House, a shelter in East Lansing, said that the rescue mission is one of few organizations that can meet the needs of the community.
“We’ve seen the CRM take great strides over the years to lower their barriers of entry. I think that when it comes to what’s available to us now, absolutely CRM has filled the space. They’ve stepped up, they’ve provided really quality services — some that none of the rest of us are providing. When it’s the middle of the night and none of the other shelters can take someone, CRM takes them. That’s regardless of faith or gender or other types of identities,” Biber said.
Other concerns cited at that meeting included security. Chriss said the current men’s shelter stations one security officer per 100 guests, typically two per night. A day program would be optional. He also indicated his interest in exploring the possibility of adding a patrol at Reutter Park, which is a block from the proposed new location.
The mission has said the expansion would allow people to stay inside during the day and include space for visitors to line up inside, rather than on the sidewalk as they do on Michigan Avenue.
Presenting the mission’s vision to the City Council, Randy Barton, the mission’s senior director of operations, revealed another piece of the puzzle in hopes that the Council will ultimately approve the plans.
“We’re in talks now to work on providing a medical care facility at this location as well. One of the increasing things we see within our folks that are experiencing homelessness is that they’re an increasingly aging group,” Barton said, adding that the specifics are not yet available but that they mission would make that information public once plans were finalized.
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