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Just a few months ago, Dan Straughan’s office with the Homeless Alliance was in a cramped space behind a bank branch on South Commerce. Things changed this summer.
The Homeless Alliance was founded in 2004. Near the end of 2005, the group’s board began discussing options to help the homeless with a number of concerns.
“We had this idea of doing a campus for homeless services,” Straughan says. “Primarily, at the time, we were looking at overcoming the barrier that lack of access presented to people trying to get out of homelessness.”
Straughan visited similar facilities in Austin, Texas; Houston; Los Angeles and others for ideas. He wanted it to be inviting and clean, as well as serve a practical purpose.
The end result is a sleek, modern site incorporating two existing warehouse buildings at 1724 N.W. 4th St. designed by TAParchitecture. Rather than completely utilitarian, the buildings look like an inviting art project. On metal panels, children and members of the community were encouraged to let their imaginations and paintbrushes run wild. Bright colors accent the exterior’s and the furniture inside.
The two buildings were constructed around the frame of existing industrial structures. Original beams are visible in the ceiling. The resource center has 17,500 square feet, and the day shelter has 15,300 square feet.
Anthony McDermid, principal at TAParchitecture, is no stranger to the homeless. He served as chairman of the board for the City Rescue Mission, and designed that group’s facilities in 1999.
“We have a heart for social welfare,” he says of his firm. “The most gratifying part was transforming those two unattractive buildings into two really good-looking buildings, and creating an outdoor environment that feels dignified without being too formal.”
After looking around at possible sites, and working with city officials, the site on Virginia Avenue met the criteria for the project.
“We came to this one, and everybody said, ‘This will work,’” Straughan says.
It was a delicate process to find a place that the homeless could gather that would not be too far from overnight shelters, but also not in a highly visible Downtown location. While Straughan admits the city does not have the best busing system, individuals and families have been able to get back and forth from shelters, such as the Salvation Army and the Jesus House, to WestTown.
Russell Claus, city planning director, says many areas don’t want the homeless passing through and hanging around, and property owners fret over potential loss of value in their investments.
WestTown’s neighbors vary from industrial buildings to extremely dilapidated homes around the perimeter.
Claus says the homeless resource center will, if anything, improve an area that isn’t exactly dotted with mansions and Rolls Royces. He praised the design and what it brings to the neighborhood.
“It’s a good spot,” Claus says.
“WestTown looks really good.”
Nearby, the city has relocated the public inebriate center, and just up the street, at the corner of N.W. 10th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, the Salvation Army, which was forced to locate from its home in the Core to Shore area of Downtown, plans to build a new campus on the site of a former flea market.
Claus says the Salvation Army will bring a new energy to that area.
“The flea market has never been a positive (aspect) in that area,” he says.
With land and building costs, the WestTown project came in at about $6.3 million. The group received a halfmillion-dollar matching grant from the Inasmuch Foundation, and found other funds in an unlikely place.
Straughan explained that in response to the mortgage crisis, the U.S. Congress put money into a Housing and Urban Development initiative called the Neighborhood Stabilization Program. The state and Oklahoma City received some of those funds. Since the state wasn’t hit as hard as some areas of the country with the mortgage crisis, some funds were sitting unused; HUD approved them for WestTown.
“I was surprised,” Straughan says.
“We got $4.5 million from the NSP through HUD.”
the gleaming new center is paid for, Straughan says the Homeless
Alliance still has ongoing efforts to raise operational funds.
Photos by Shannon Cornman