During the Great Depression, the Cass Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church started a food line and emptied its endowment fund providing assistance to the many unemployed. From that first outreach to the community’s needy, its efforts have grown steadily, adding assistance to the developmentally challenged and homebound seniors in the 1950s and to the homeless in the 1980s, with the creation of a homeless drop-in shelter and a network of 40 partner churches to form a rotating interfaith shelter.
Under the leadership of Reverend Faith Fowler, Cass Community Services (CCS) has continued expanding, seeking solutions for the most intractable disadvantages to give those living in poverty a ladder of services and support to help them climb out.
In 2000, Cass purchased a building on Woodrow Wilson that now houses the agency’s administrative offices, the Women and Family Shelter, a Transitional Housing Program, Safe Haven, the Detroit-Wayne County Rotating Shelter, as well as a large commercial kitchen. The most recent program expansion has been opening The Cass House (a residential program for homeless men with HIV/AIDS)
One of the newest and most innovative programs is Green Industries, which is taking the physical detritus of the city and the individuals set adrift by its decline, and creating jobs and uniquely Detroit products.
In 2007, Rev. Fowler says that people started approaching her and telling her that they couldn’t get any kind of work. So, she began looking for employment that would be self-sustaining. She read an article about native Americans who were using tires to make mud mats, so she called a representative of the tribe, and joked “We stole your land, now I want to steal your idea.”
It worked and $4,000 later, Green industries was set up with the equipment necessary to start hauling and processing some 50,000 illegally dumped tires that serve as both an eyesore and a breeding ground for insects and rodents. They also, owing to the ingenuity of Green Industries, are now providing jobs.
Formerly homeless residents of the city are supervising volunteers as they collect the tires, then cutting the treads into strips, and creating attractive and durable mud mats out of them. Detroit Treads, sandals that are also made from the tire scraps and waste fabric, are leaving the mark of the “D” in their distinctive tread around the world. Not only are they sold in six countries, but groups in Hungary, Poland, Haiti, and South Africa, have reached out to Green Industries to help them create similar efforts in areas where there is concentrated poverty.
As abandoned buildings are coming down around the city, they are turning into piles of material ripe for recycling. The Cass kiln heats old window glass into squares, onto which are adhered photos of Detroit landmarks. These coasters are sold and stored in boxes that are hand-made from waste pile wood, cut, sanded, glued, and stained by workers that can identify the neighborhood of origin for every plank.
Hopping on the tiny house movement, Cass Community Services has begun construction of 25 tiny homes on its campus. The idea is to ameliorate asset inequality, giving residents the chance to rent-to-own one of the 250 – 400 square foot homes. After 7 years of payments totaling approximately $1 per square foot per month, a person who formerly owned nothing can own a $30,000 asset.
Rev. Fowler compares the services to a game of chutes and ladders. Poverty is when there are only chutes. By creating jobs and the opportunity to own a home, CCS is working to insert more ladders.
The dignity of work is a blessing often denied to the developmentally disabled as well. It turns out that the very qualities that make it hard to find other work, the inability to read, write, or remember complex information, make an individual with the intellect of a 7 – 8 year-old perfect for shredding sensitive documents. So, Fowler bought three paper shredders for $29.99 each, hired 5 people part-time, and talked a customer into taking a chance with the new enterprise.
Suddenly, 5 individuals who had formerly had $33 per month in spending money were taking home $300 a month, enough to go out, to get a new pair of shoes, to feel proud of what they were able to do for themselves.
“What motivates me is the people,” says Fowler. “If these people were in your care, it would make you hungry for ideas that might work.”