Battle Creek

Battle Creek's at-risk youth will have a new place to call home at Cool People's teen center

The basement level of 230 North Avenue will be converted into a youth homeless shelter.
When the keys to a building at 230 North Avenue were placed in Keith Matthews hands it symbolized the end of a search that began 27 years ago for a space that would house his counseling business and a nonprofit focused on the city’s at-risk youth.
 
Part of that focus is on the creation of a homeless shelter for the youth Matthews works with through Cool People, a nonprofit that he co-founded in 2009.
 
“We’ve been in existence for over 30 years,” Matthews says of Brilliant Minds Counseling and its nonprofit arm, Cool People. “I’ve never had my own facility. We were always in someone else’s building.”
 
Just when he was beginning to think about stepping back, he says God intervened.
 
“I’m 66 and getting ready to ride into the sunset and God had said, ‘I’m not done with you yet,’” Matthews says.
 
A $198,000 grant from the Washington Heights Entrepreneurial Fund covered the cost to purchase the building with money left over to pay for a new roof and make improvements to the interior.
 
The three-story building, which has been vacant for three years, is next door to a building at 229 North Avenue that Matthews had previously rented for his counseling service and Cool People. For the past two years, he has been working on both Brilliant Minds and Cool People in a space on the Kingdom Builders Worldwide campus at 50 Spencer Street.
 
As excited as he is about owning his own building to continue his counseling service, he says he is especially grateful to have a space for the youth he serves through Cool People. That space will include a teen center and the homeless shelter for youth who need a temporary place to stay while issues they may be having with their families are sorted through.
 
Javaan James, left, works on a project during a Cool People after- school session at Kingdom Builders.Currently, these youth are placed with Matthews and his wife in their home or the homes of community members. Those who provide a safe and stable environment are all volunteers recruited by Matthews.
 
He says some of the youth who stay in volunteer’s homes get there after being kicked out of their own homes by their parents or left because they couldn’t handle the high levels of dysfunction within their families. Matthews works with the youth while also providing wraparound services to their families that include financial assistance to purchase food with the end goal to get them back into their homes with the tools necessary to cope and thrive.
 
“I go into the homes and do an evaluation,” Matthews says. “A lot of times there’s frustration between the parent and the young person and it’s the dynamics if the home that they’re living with.”
 
In the organization’s earlier days, Matthews would teach the youth involved in Cool People about what a dysfunctional home life looked like. 

“I would tell them that even though this is what your home looks like it doesn’t mean your parents are bad because this is what they knew growing up,” he says. “I would tell them that you can’t change your mom or your sister, but you can change how you choose to manage your emotions and live your life. Even though they have a dysfunctional home life, we don’t want them to be kicked out of that home. That’s why we give parents financial assistance. They really need it.”
 
While he’ll continue to provide these wraparound services and use his network of community volunteers to provide temporary shelter, Matthews says the basement level of the building will be converted into a youth homeless shelter with space for 24 at a time.
 
Brook-Lyn Glass, left, works with Braylen Lee during a Cool People after-school session at Kingdom Builders.The basement level has six rooms and two bathrooms. His plan is to put two sets of bunk beds in each room. Youth will be separated by gender.
 
The ground-level floor will house Brilliant Minds and the second floor will become Cool People’s teen center. Matthews estimates that it will cost about $40,000 to turn the second floor, which had been an apartment, into a place for youth to gather and hang out, play games, or grab a snack. Those funds will come from profits generated by Brilliant Minds, following the funding model Matthews has been using to operate Cool People.

Work on the teen center will begin at the end of the school year with youth Matthews works with through Cool People making the decisions about what each room in that apartment space will look like.
 
“The teens will go from room to room and design it so they have a sense of pride in ownership and entitlement,” Matthews says.
 
With funding is in place for the teen center renovations, Matthews is focusing his efforts now on identifying funding sources to create the homeless shelter. He says he is partnering with The Haven of Rest Ministries; the Homeless Coalition of Battle Creek and Calhoun County; and Summit Pointe to obtain funds for the homeless shelter. Calhoun County received a $1 million allocation from the federal government to get homeless individuals off of the streets and into housing. This federal funding is part of the American Rescue Plan Act, which dedicated $5 billion to addressing issues related to homelessness with every county in the United States receiving a share of those funds.
 
Why is the teen shelter needed?

During the summer months, Matthews says a number of homeless youth stay under the Washington Avenue bridge. Others will try to stay with friends or other family members.
 
“I’ve talked to some youth who think they need to leave home because they’re taking food out of their siblings’ mouths,” Matthews says. “They’ll go online and say ‘Who got me’ and a family member or friends will reach out and say they can stay with them for a night.”
 
Some female youth who find themselves without a home eventually become easy prey for human trafficking, Matthews says.
 
Marshaun Caldwell, wearing boxing gloves, punches a bag during a Cool People after-school session at Kingdom Builders.“Once they go through family members and friends, they are referred to on the street as ‘furniture’ and end up being taken advantage of and that’s really heartbreaking,” he says. “When they get to a point when they have no place to go, intervention, which should have been done before they find themselves on the streets, is a part of what I do with them.”
 
While Matthews would prefer to see every youth he works with go back into their homes with their families, he knows this is not realistic. 
 
Those who stay at the homeless shelter have will be able to participate in individual and group counseling and “I’ll do evaluation,” Matthews says. “They can either try to make amends and build bridges that they burnt or blew up and if that’s not possible, we’ll put together a realistic plan for them to become self-sufficient and independent.”
 
Part of his business plan for the teen center and the homeless shelter, which was among the eligibility requirements for the WHEF money, includes components focused on agriculture that will give youth opportunities to learn how to plant and grow food and learn about landscaping. He also hopes to bring a carpenter in to teach the youth skills such as drywalling and window installation.
 
By 7th grade Matthews says, “We pretty much know the individuals who are not going to graduate or will graduate to the streets. We want to get them while they’re young and make it fun for them but also give them the tools to go to work in some type of skilled trade. At that point, it’s all about the training.”
 
The Washington Heights Entrepreneurial Fund grant requires Matthews to hire three full-time employees and three youth to work with Cool People three years. They each will receive an annual salary that will increase incrementally for each of the three years that will top out at $30,000 in the third year.
 
Future home base of operations for Cool People Community Savers on North Avenue.“But that won’t be enough for them and we want them to find better-paying jobs and leave so someone else can come in to the program,” Matthews says. “I tell them that they at least need to have a job that will cover the cost of apartment rent and transportation because the state’s not going to give them nearly as much if they choose to sit and do nothing.”
 
In his work with young people, he encourages them to visualize what they are going to do after they receive their high school diploma, walk across the stage and get to that bottom step.
 
“I ask them if they see the next five years of their life planned out. Every three months, what are you going to accomplish for the next five years after hitting that bottom stair,” Matthews says.
 

Read more articles by Jane Simons.

Jane Simons is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.