When a purchase agreement on a former church was reached six months ago for Columbus’ first permanent supportive housing complex for the homeless, organizers said they expected opposition.

But when nearly 100 people showed up for a Nov. 6 meeting regarding the proposed complex at 17th Street and Home Avenue, the size of the crowd was surprising, Thrive Alliance Inc. executive director Mark Lindenlaub said.

Many neighbors voiced concerns after learning that people with a substance abuse or mental health disorder will be targeted to live in what’s proposed to become a 20- to 25-unit complex.

“None of us are opposed to helping these people,” said neighbor Vicki Stover, who resides a block east of the former Faith Victory Church building, 1703 Home Avenue. “But we are concerned possible felons will be moving in. We don’t want them placed smack dab in our area.”

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Built in 1922, the blonde brick building selected to house the Victory Apartments was home to Faith Victory Church until the congregation moved to the city’s far west side in May 2016.

It’s located three blocks east of Donner Park, right across the street from the McKinley Apartments in a residential area that Stover says is mostly owner-occupied.

One of the homeowners is retired police officer Tom Watts, who maintains no one has given him assurances that tenants will be required to remain drug free.

Although it’s been six years since he left the Columbus Police Department, Watts says his 29-year law enforcement career gives him insight into different types of homeless people.

Many have psychological issues that can result in crimes ranging from violent outbursts to break-ins and burglaries, Watts said. He described his two major concerns as the safety of children and the possibility of plummeting property values.

There’s also resentment among others residing in the area that the people who chose the location don’t live in the neighborhood, Watts said.

It will likely be a number of months before closure of the sale between Thrive Alliance and the church, which owns the building, would take place, Lindenlaub said. That’s because there are a number of contingencies in the purchase agreement that are still being worked out that include obtaining financing, he said.

Besides Thrive Alliance, other partners involved in the proposed 18,696-square-foot facility at the former church are Centerstone Behavioral Health and the city of Columbus.

The extent of the city’s involvement in the Victory Apartments has still not been fully determined, Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop said.

“We have interest in the programming, so there may be further participation,” the mayor said.

Up to 20 neighbors expressed a willingness to serve on an advisory council regarding the project, which will have its first meeting Feb. 5, Lindenlaub said.

“We plan to continue to stay engaged with the neighbors, and do whatever research is necessary to address their concerns,” Lindenlaub said.

Other options?

The Victory Apartments proposal is not a done deal, stakeholders agree.

“It’s still considered a potential site, and we are looking for others that may be better,” Lindenlaub said. “We want to do what is in the best interest for our community.”

From Stover’s perspective, it would be best if such a facility were to be placed outside of established residential neighborhood. Her suggestions include commercial, industrial and rural areas of the county.

However, such isolation would marginalize the efforts of those trying to rebuild their lives, and subsequently lower success rates of recovering addicts, Lindenlaub said.

The proposed complex will follow the “Housing First” approach, which prioritizes the need to end homelessness first, in order to create a platform from which clients can pursue personal goals and improve their quality of life.

“Housing First” is a departure from the usual way such housing has been traditionally handled, said Robin Hilber, community development programs coordinator for the city of Columbus.

In the past, most landlords have required documentation that the addict or mentally ill person has graduated through a series of services programs before they are provided rental housing, Hilber said last summer.

For Stover, as well as several other neighbors, the traditional approach still makes the most sense.

“To bring them in without drug rehabilitation is scary to me,” Stover said. “When you bring in people with drug and mental health issues, there are going to be other issues.”

But at Victory Apartments, a case-management staff member would be assigned to each tenant who would provide life skills, medications, therapy and link-ups with volunteer physicians, said James Fries, Centerstone’s manager of supportive housing.

Evidence continues to mount that “Housing First” clients are more likely to participate in job training programs, attend school, discontinue substance use, have fewer instances of domestic violence, and spend fewer days hospitalized than those not participating, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

One key request from the neighbors are assurances regarding what type of people would and wouldn’t be allowed in the complex, Stover said.

“We were told those involved in manufacturing methamphetamine would not be allowed,” Stover said. “But they were not forthcoming regarding others, including released felons and child molesters.”

Model project

One key model for the local project is the Crawford Apartments in Bloomington, which has provided permanent supportive housing complex for the homeless since 2013.

During the November meeting in Columbus, Watts disputed claims from advocates of the complex that the Crawford Apartments did not cause an increase in crime within its neighborhood.

Although police calls have gone up within a 200-yard radius of the Crawford Apartments, most incidents were linked to other buildings and establishments, said Capt. Steve Kellams of the Bloomington Police Department.

“There is no statistical evidence that crime has gone up in that neighborhood due to the Crawford Apartments,” Kellams said.

Many neighbors of the proposed Columbus complex prefer tenants be supervised at all times, with after-hour restrictions in place, Stover said.

While the Bloomington facility does not have in-house staff at all times, Lindenlaub says the neighbors’ request for around-the-clock supervision will be considered as part of the project’s feasibility decision-making process.

But the reason organizers are hesitant to provide neighbors with immediate assurances is because specific plans remain in the early stages of development, Lindenlaub said.

Since construction and renovation work won’t begin until this fall at the earliest, it will be quite some time before all criteria needs to be finalized, he said.

The Victory Apartments should be seen as the next step up from Brighter Days, the 36-bed emergency shelter that has operated at 421 S. Mapleton St. for the past year, Hilber said.

Besides Bartholomew, the proposed complex also will serve residents of Brown, Decatur, Jackson, Jennings, Johnson and Shelby counties.

Currently, six beds are available to the homeless for permanent supportive housing complex in the region. While the Victory Apartments may raise that total number to above 30, studies indicate a total of 75 beds are needed at that level.

The proposed apartments are just one of several steps necessary in tackling significant substance abuse and mental illness problems, Hilber said.

At a glance

The first meeting of a resident advisory council on the proposed Victory Apartments will be held Feb. 5 at the Thrive Alliance offices within the Doug Otto United Way Center, 1531 13th St., Columbus. It is a private meeting for residents who have expressed interest in serving, Lindenlaub said.

Information: Thrive Alliance at 812-372-6918.

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Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at mwebber@therepublic.com or 812-379-5636.