(File photo)

A small change in the city of Caro’s zoning ordinance has the House of Hope a step closer to expanding into Tuscola County.

The change allows residences in the basements of commercial structures within the B-1 and B-2 business districts. The city’s planning commission approved the change after a public hearing April 13. The city council was expected to begin its approval process at Monday’s council meeting.

The change, if given final approval by the city council, will allow Sandusky-based Michigan House of Hope to open a men’s homeless shelter in the 100-year-old former Episcopal church at 102 Joy St. The plan is to open a thrift store on the first floor and have the shelter in the basement of the building.

The public hearing on the zoning amendment was changed from March 13 when more people wanted to attend the session than could be allowed in the city’s municipal building under coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) restrictions. So the hearing was moved back a month and shifted to the Tuscola Intermediate School District building on Cleaver Road.

Few people at the hearing voiced any objections to the zoning change during the public hearing. The most vocal was resident and business owner Al Michel. He cited several recent investments being made to buildings in the downtown area, calling it the “right direction. A homeless shelter shoved up our rear ends is not the way to go in Caro. That thing can be put somewhere else. It doesn’t have to be right there where new businesses are taking off and the area is changing.”

He said the homeless “made their bed. Let them sleep in it.

“We have to look to the future, not deny it. There’s a whole Tuscola County they could put this shelter in, rather than shoving it up our tail ends.”

Norm Daniels of the Tuscola County Homeless Coalition saw things differently.

“Shelters in Tuscola County are important, vitally, because Tuscola County does not have a homeless shelter,” he said. “The only hope for anyone who is homeless in this county is to be shipped out to either Saginaw or Bay counties.

“It is something really lacking in our community.”

Concerns about who will be living in the shelter are moot, he said, because those people are in Caro already, they just don’t have a place to live.

The homeless, he said, “are here. They live here. They walk up and down the streets in Caro every day, we just don’t see them. We don’t know they are homeless because they are out on the street, they are moving around and they are part of our community.”

These are people, he said, lacking family support, with mental health concerns, homeless veterans, people recently released from jail or prison.

“The House of Hope will fill that void,” he said.

Mark Perez, a neighbor to the site, called it “a good idea.” He noted the number of homeless who “live” at the Tuscola County fairgrounds, especially in the summer, even after the city just spent thousands of dollars on a water park and dog park intended to draw families and children to that site. 

“We talk about protecting our children,” he said, “but we don’t want to give them (the homeless) a place to live.

“That makes no sense at all.”

Jill White, a business owner and city council member, and Mayor Joe Greene both focused on what the change would mean for other businesses in the downtown area. The amendment, planning commission chairman Mike Carpenter said, “is not for the property exclusively or specifically. It is a zoning text amendment, which means it applies to the entire city.”

Greene said the amendment will give business owners another tool they can use to vitalize the downtown area provided the structure can be made accessible enough to meet the building code.

“Young people want to live in the downtown areas,” he said.

White, however, wants more than the amendment. She wants the rental properties already in the city to be cleaned up and made livable before adding to the housing.

“We can add all of that housing,” she said, “but until the city of Caro gives some kind of guidelines for our rental properties, some kind of rental inspection, some kind of quality for housing for our people to live to in, I think we are getting the cart before the horse. We have people who live in Caro in deplorable living conditions, and they are allowed to live that way because landlords are allowed to provide that kind of housing for our people.”

Several House of Hope officials also spoke at the hearing.

Jeff Kramer, Michigan House of Hope executive director, reassured residents the homeless men at the shelter would come from Tuscola, Huron or Sanilac counties. He also said the men at the shelter will not be a danger to the community. 

Jonathan Tidrick, former Sanilac homeless shelter resident, said the residents are monitored and live a pretty regimented life while at the shelter. Each guest is expected to meet with their case manager, who sets the guest’s goals for each week. Each week of the guest’s stay is earned by completing those goals. Guests who are not employed are required to work at least 20 hours a week at the thrift store. Guests who are employed part-time are required to volunteer at least 10 hours a week. Those who work fulltime are not required to be at the thrift store.

Unless employed, all homeless guests must be back to the mission by 5:30 p.m. and cannot leave until 9 a.m. The only exceptions to this rule are employment obligations or verifiable appointments. Once in for the evening, all guests must remain on the property.

A maximum stay of 120 days is permitted. After 120 days guests must leave the shelter for 14 days. Kramer said the 120-day limit is the time they’ve found is needed to get a man back on his feet and able to work and live on his own.

“We will never put somebody out on the street,” he said. “That would be irresponsible for us to do that. They always have to have somewhere safe for them to go. We will find another shelter for them to go to.”

Jason Hostetler came to the Sandusky House of Hope a homeless man. He is a former military service member who served in two war zones overseas. Now he’s the manager for mission thrift store in Sandusky.

“All of the concerns of the community, House of Hope stays on top of things,” he said. “They do not allow things that you guys are concerned about, such as loitering about the neighborhood and stuff.”

Michael Wester, pastor of Lighthouse Baptist Church in Caro, is organizing support for the program from other churches in the Caro area.

“The Tuscola House of Hope doesn’t press the ‘easy’ button’ where the homeless are concerned,” he said. “It chooses the difficult task of having a licensed counselor sit down with a homeless man and come up with a tailor-made plan that he can agree to that will help him resolve his problem within 120 days. But we need a building to house such men in order to give them the time they truly need. We believe that building on Joy Street will fill that need.”

Patricia Fraser, representing the historians in the community, is glad to see someone making use of the circa-1880 building. She said the change is “a win-win situation” that will save the building and give it a new purpose. “One of our supporters said, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if two great things happened – a homeless shelter to help men out of poverty and the preservation of a beautiful old building.’

“As an historian, I am happy the building will no longer be vacant, which is the first step in saving it.”

Carpenter said he thought of the TV show “Laverne and Shirley” when the topic came up. 

“I am kind of dating myself a little bit, but they lived down in the basement,” he said. “That’s the first thing I thought of. What’s the big deal? There are barbershops down in the basement. There are all sorts of different things happening in basements.”

“I have concerns, obviously, with safety and what not. Not to pass the buck and not to seem like I don’t care, because I certainly do, I feel there are other entities out there that will ensure that if somebody wants to build a new building or remodel a building, to have a residential use in the basement there is another entity that has figured out what that takes.”

He said he hasn’t been able to figure out a downside and the only one he’s been able to come up with is if a commercial use in a basement was replaced with a residential one.

“This is a good thing for the community,” Hostetler said. “This thing really helps people.

“They saved my life and I know I am not the only one.”