Ozone House had been on the lookout for a site for their new headquarters for over two years. The pioneering nonprofit, which is Washtenaw County’s only shelter for homeless and at-risk youth, had a unique set of criteria: the location had to be in Ypsilanti, preferably near Washtenaw Community College, Eastern Michigan University, and St. Joseph Mercy Hospital; it had to be on a major bus line between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, and it had to be large enough to build additional housing in the future. The sloping and densely wooded 5.5 acre lot overlooking the Huron River in Ypsilanti had been on the market for many years. While the site was apparently unappealing to developers, staff knew that 1600 Huron Drive was home when they first saw the site.
Ozone House has been providing temporary shelter, crisis intervention, and support services to homeless and at-risk youth in Washtenaw County since 1969, occupying numerous houses over that time. Moving their headquarters and shelter from Ann Arbor to Ypsilanti is a natural progression. Close to 80% of the youth and families they serve are located in Ypsi. The peaceful landscape by the water is therapeutic and offers the nonprofit plenty of room to grow.
Bursting at the seams
“We needed to find a forever home,” said Allie Schachter, Development Director of Ozone House who has been with the organization since 2010. “There is a lot of love in these walls,” she affirms, gesturing affectionately to the quirky, rambling, former fraternity house at 1705 Washtenaw Ave., “but we are bursting at the seams. We have a waitlist. We need to serve more young people and we need to serve them better.” With the emergency shelter and all of their support services and staff under the same roof, everyone longs for more privacy and separation.
Accessibility issues and lack of privacy have also discouraged some potential clients from seeking their services.
“It’s not always about homelessness but about family crisis,” says Krista Girty, Executive Director of Ozone House, about the circumstances that cause young people to seek their services. “So we offer stabilization and safety in the short term while we work with youth and families to find safe and supportive long-term housing.” Ozone House also has a drop-in center at 102 N. Hamilton St. in Ypsilanti that provides meals, crisis intervention, and skills training. The two Ann Arbor locations will be sold and moved into the new campus headquarters, while the Ypsilanti drop-in center will continue to operate in the same location. The new campus will house up to 32 residents in sixteen bedrooms with space for administration, counseling and skills training on-site. And the site’s zoning allows construction of an apartment building if they want to add more transitional housing in the future.
Innovator in homeless youth services
Founded in 1969, Ozone House is the only provider of comprehensive support services for youth in crisis and their families in Washtenaw County. Since the closing of two emergency youth shelters in Southeast Michigan last year, Ozone House is seeing more young people come through their doors from outside the county. They are the second shelter and service provider for homeless youth established in the U.S., and in 1973 staff contributed to the Federal Runaway and Homeless Youth Act. The agency serves as a national model, providing high-quality care to youth who face homelessness, abuse, neglect, poverty, family conflict, human trafficking, and more. Ozone House provides services to approximately 3,000 youth each year.
“Ozone House has helped me in multiple ways,” says D’Jayy, who recently graduated from Ozone House’s transitional housing and moved into his own apartment. “I was kicked out of my house by my family. It was hard to find a stable place to stay. [Ozone House] started me off in transitional housing and helped me get back on my feet. They helped me get jobs. It was very helpful in a time of crisis and I know there are other kids going through that and wouldn’t have that opportunity if Ozone wasn’t around.” Of the organization’s new setting, D’Jayy says, “My mother says the best medicine is nature. It calms your mind and can take away the things you’re thinking about and can free you from impurities. Kids who go through traumatic experiences need that calm. I know it helps me once in a blue moon.”
An impressive $4 million of the $5 million needed to build the new headquarters had already been raised from early believers and foundations even before Ozone House announced their capital campaign in April, 2019. The site of the new campus was city-owned and the purchase agreement came with a lot of preconditions as part of their Planned Unit Development (PUD) zoning, including requirements for sidewalks, street lights, a crosswalk, as well as a conservation easement along the riverfront. City Council was highly receptive to the proposal, and in the end, voted unanimously in support of the sale. “It was a beautiful thing,” says Schachter. “Council members and planners asked a lot of questions, and young people showed up in Ozone House t-shirts and said ‘This matters to us!’”
Ypsilanti Mayor Beth Bashert, then a City Council member who approved the sale, explained, “When we were approached by Ozone House to buy that property we were excited,” she says. “We don’t have enough safe activities for our youth. The new location is more accessible and therefore more likely to engage young people.” Of possible drawbacks, she sa–id “ The only tradeoff for us was that because Ozone House is a nonprofit we are not going to realize tax income from that property, however we did get income from the sale and are benefitting from the services. We were pleased to embrace this well respected organization.”
A strong leadership team includes youth
After a lengthy State approval process, the purchase agreement was finalized in May, 2018. Construction is almost 50% complete and on track for a move-in date in December, 2019. There are plans to create trails through the woods and along the river, which may someday include an extension of the Border to Border Trail. The roof is being outfitted with solar panels that will generate roughly half of the building’s energy needs. Ozone House has strong working relationships with Phoenix Contractors (General Contractor), A3C Collaborative Architecture (Architect), and MAVD (Owner’s Representative). They secured construction financing from the Bank of Ann Arbor.
Youth have been an integral part of the conceptualization of the new headquarters, and feel a sense of ownership over the process, including as members of the Board of Directors who participate in all the organization’s major decisions. “We have been listening to youth talk about what they need to feel safe and secure for fifty years,” says Krista Girty. It’s clear that Ozone House and the community at large hear their voices loud and clear.
For more information or to make a donation, visit ozonehouse.org