MANSFIELD – If walls could talk, the old Victorian mansion would have plenty to say. Over the last 120 years, it’s served as a residence, a barracks, an art studio and a daycare center.
Now, the historic edifice at 309 Park Ave. West is a transitional home for unhoused men looking to get back on their feet. The home is run by Truth Ministries, a non-profit organization focused on helping Mansfield’s unhoused population.
Dubbed Elijah’s House, it can currently house up to eight men at a time. Restoration is ongoing in certain parts of the house.
“We’re not a homeless shelter, we’re totally different,” said Peggy Lewis, head of Truth Ministries. “They have their own space, their own room.”
Residents can stay as long as they need, but they must stay sober, help with household chores and attend church and Bible study.
“We can’t make people believe in God, but it’s a faith-based program,” Lewis said. “Obviously, our goal is to show them Jesus, not shove it down their throat.”
Lewis has been involved in homeless ministry for years. It began with volunteering at the Harmony House. In 2014, Lewis opened Addy’s Attic, a by-donation thrift store to raise money for Richland County’s unhoused. It’s also a place where people who can’t afford to pay can get clothes and household items for free.
Proceeds from the shop fund free community meals and temporary housing. Volunteers also refer unhoused clients to area food banks and meal sites.
“That’s how we meet a lot of the homeless people — when they come in (to the shop),” she said. “People who have money donate more, people who don’t have anything come and get what they need.”
After seeing the need for housing options, Lewis partnered with the ARC Empowerment Center and other area churches to begin restoring 309 Park Ave. West.
While Truth Ministries runs the home, it took a network of local churches and volunteers to get the project off the ground. The house sat vacant for a number of years. It needed repairs, cleaning, furnishings and fresh paint.
Pastor Paul Lintern rallied volunteer groups through his connections with Godsfield, a network of churches in Richland County. Churches and individuals offered to “sponsor” a room – taking responsibility for any repairs and furniture that room needed.
“This is an overwhelming house, so for any one ministry to say ‘Hey we’re going to do this,’ you’re swamped before you get started,” Lintern said. “A church group may not be able to remodel a whole house, but they can remodel the bedroom.”
The churches began working to restore the building in October and opened it to the first few residents just after Thanksgiving.
Volunteers from the Richland County Community Alternative Center also helped restore and re-stamp the ceilings.
Brian Anabel, an employee at the CAC and a licensed contractor, led a crew of about a dozen from the CAC’s recovery program. Many had no prior experience working in construction.
The crew redid most of the ceilings, put in a kitchen, showers and donated cabinets and helped with electrical and plumbing work.
“They all picked up right away and within a day or two, they all knew what to do and just kept going,” he said. “It’s fun to watch people learn stuff that they probably would have never done.”
CAC clients Wesley Walker and Dante Brooks said it was a great learning experience. Helping others in the process made it all the more rewarding.
“I’ve never been around stuff like this or done stuff like this. I had a rough upbringing,” Walker said. “Now it’s like, being positive and giving back, it feels good.”
Volunteer Randy Dobbin said the collaboration between churches is an example of how the body of Christ should work.
“It’s like the way the church has always meant to be – to work together, not to be so separate,” Dobbin said. “When we come together like that, this is just a part of what can be done – not just here, but throughout the whole city. If we could all just understand that, we could change this whole city.”
More transitional housing needed
Jason Knasinski knows what it’s like to be unhoused. He’s lived on the streets and almost died there. Now he runs Stronger By Choice, a non-profit organizations that helps the homeless. He’s also in the process of fixing up donated homes to turn into transitional housing.
Knasinski explained that while homeless shelters exist to meet immediate needs, they aren’t designed for long-term stays.
“Shelters are meant for short-term basic needs — get out of the cold, shower, shave — but if you’re really trying to get back on your feet, you need time to get your ID, to find services, get a job, to save money — first month’s rent, deposit,” he said.
People who are homeless often lack resources like a birth certificate, government-issued ID or fixed address. Without these things, it’s hard to fill out a rental application, get a driver’s license or apply for a job.
Transitional housing like Elijah’s House offers a place to stay for months or even years, giving residents time to find a job, save up money and build rental history. Residents of Elijah’s House will pay $300 in rent each month once they are financially able.
“Right now nobody’s paying,” Lewis said.
Lewis hopes that the communal living will help combat loneliness and help residents who are in recovery from addiction.
“We’ve got guys right now who have been sober for 100 days,” she said. “They need that fellowship, that accountability, someday to say ‘Hey, we’ve got curfew at 10 o’clock. Where were you? Do you need help?”
Residents in recovery will also have the chance to participate in a 12-step program offered by the ARC Empowerment Center, a partner ministry down the street.
Lewis and Knasinski said Mansfield’s lack of low-income housing makes the need for transitional housing even greater.
“When people are on disability for mental illness, they get like $700 a month. Where can you live for $700 a month?” Lewis said.
Lewis said once the restoration work at Elijah’s House is complete, she hopes to start up another house.
“If I had unlimited resources, I would want a whole apartment unit, a big facility,” she said.