Bara Youness says he "benefited a lot" from the year he spent living in transitional housing for youth ages 17-20, provided by Washtenaw County nonprofit Ozone House.
"I wanted to get out of my parents' space and get a space of my own where I could learn to be an individual adult, and I couldn't do that under their roof," Youness says. "Ozone House gave me room and opportunity to grow as a person, and it allowed me to save up money and get a place of my own."
Despite the overall positive experience, the Ozone House facility was crowded due to high demand, and Youness says he didn't always enjoy being "stuffed in with another person like a can of sardines."
Luckily, youth served by Ozone House will soon have a little more room to spread out. With a move to Ypsilanti at the beginning of 2020, the nonprofit will be able to give youth a space of their own, serve more young people ages 10-20, and consolidate operations in one custom-built location on five acres at 1600 N. Huron River Drive in Ypsilanti.
Ozone House at 50
Ozone House celebrated its 50th anniversary this year, having come a long way since it was established in the basement of Canterbury House, the Episcopal Church's campus ministry at the University of Michigan.
Over the years, the organization gained grant funding, changed locations, and expanded its services to homeless youth and their families.
One Ann Arbor location provides emergency crisis shelter for younger youth ages 10-17, while another Ann Arbor location provides transitional housing for young people ages 17-20. Ozone House also operates a 24-hour crisis line and offers family counseling services and case management services. In 1999, Ozone House added a drop-in center in Ypsilanti targeting underserved youth in the community.
"Since our founding 50 years ago, we have added and expanded our programs and services to meet the needs of our community. However, our physical space has not kept pace with demand and had to be brought up to best practices to effectively serve the youth of our community," says Ozone House Executive Director Krista Girty.
The organization's current emergency shelter and transitional housing facilities are older homes that require "constant maintenance" and aren't accessible to people with disabilities, Girty says. They're also at capacity, with no room to grow. Ozone House staff also want to provide individual bedrooms to children who may have been traumatized by abuse, human trafficking, abandonment, and homelessness.
"The quality of our facilities needs to reflect the quality of our services," Girty says.
Ozone House has been planning a move for about five years, and looked at many properties before settling on the Huron River Drive location as an ideal spot right off the bus line.
"Accessibility was one of our top priorities," Girty says. "We also know that 75-80% of our clients come from the east side of the county, so being closer to the majority of the young people we serve was an enormous draw for moving ... to Ypsilanti."
Ozone House has been in fundraising mode since 2017, and recently fulfilled a fundraising goal of $5 million.
However, the total cost of construction is $6.3 million, and the facility has to be furnished as well, so Ozone House is still seeking community support. The sales of the organization's headquarters and its transitional living home will help cover the costs associated with the project and establish a fund for ongoing maintenance of Ozone House's new digs.
The big price tag is worth it to Ozone House, as it will allow the organization to do a lot of things it can't do currently, including providing a parking lot that can comfortably accommodate staff and clients.
Girty expects the second floor of the new building to serve more youth while also giving them a space of their own. Ozone House's current facilities can house a maximum of 12 young people, often with multiple youth occupying the same room. The plan for the new facility is to allow youth to have a room of their own if possible, but putting two young people in each room would allow Ozone House staff to accommodate up to 32.
The main floor of the new location will contain therapy offices, and will provide more privacy than is currently available. Today most staff members share an office with one to three other staffers, and that involves a lot of "juggling" for space, says Dawn Espy, Ozone House education program manager.
"I'm excited for more space and privacy for the young people and for staff also," Espy says, noting that it's hard to make confidential phone calls under current conditions.
The new site will also create an opportunity for employment training for up to 800 youth each year, Girty says.
"We have been formally offering employment training since 2010, but we have never had a dedicated space in which to offer it, so this new site will significantly enhance both the quality of our job skills training efforts and the number of youth we can serve in the program," she says.
The new building will include a community room that can host events for youth and families as well as trainings and seminars for staff. Currently there's no room for those trainings at Ozone House's headquarters and they have to be held offsite.
The building will also allow for both outdoor and indoor recreational spaces for youth, which will be particularly helpful during winter months. Ozone House will also be able to provide daytime services like laundry and shower facilities for non-residential clients.
Heidi Ruud, Ozone House marketing and communications manager, says one of the things she's excited about is a teaching kitchen being built in the new location.
"We can use the teaching kitchen to help young people learn about nutrition and do some cooking," she says.
Espy says the new location is likely to facilitate more community partnerships as well.
"The location is great, and it's right where we've seen a lot of need for support and services," Espy says. "It's right next door to St. Joseph Mercy Hospital, and that lends itself to new partnerships."
Ozone House staff expect construction to wrap up some time in January. The tentative plan is for administrative staff to start moving in as part of the first wave of staff changes in early February.
"First, we'll make sure everything is working, and then will move over the young people, then counseling, and the older kids later," Ruud says.
Ozone House expects to hold an open house for the public to view the new facility sometime in March. Supporters can watch for an announcement of the open house at OzoneHouse.org or via the organization's Facebook page.
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos by Doug Coombe.