APPLETON — Sacred Heart Parish has a mission of being “a welcoming people, nourished by the Eucharist, inspired by the word of God, engaged in lifelong learning with outreach to the poor.” So when the convent on the church grounds was vacated in October 2017, parish staff wanted to repurpose the building to serve the community.
That’s exactly what happened when the church partnered with COTS, Inc. (Community Outreach Temporary Services), a nonprofit organization that helps individuals experiencing homelessness in the Fox Cities by providing transitional shelter.
“The last part of our mission statement is outreach to the poor,” said Sacred Heart Parish’s business manager, Laura Savoie. “When we learned more about COTS’ mission, we thought this house could fill some of that need for the community.”
Cindy Sahotsky, COTS executive director, talked about their organization. “COTS was founded in 1998 by Fr. Orville Janssen. We’re not an emergency or warming shelter. A lot of times people who are living in a homeless situation have multiple barriers (to obtain permanent housing), so COTS is that next step for them.”
It took almost a year to renovate and upgrade the 20-bedroom convent at Sacred Heart so that it met the requirements for public housing. The building was christened “The Monroe House” and welcomed its first residents in October 2018.
“The Monroe House is our only co-ed facility,” noted Sahotsky. “The residents are all individuals who have completed the COTS core programming and still have some barriers to market-rate housing. The average age is mid-40s.”
Kitchen, living room and office areas in the building are communal. The seven men and women currently residing there have a weekly meeting where they make a meal together, but, other than that, everyone is independent.
In order to live at Monroe House, guests have to follow program rules. “The residents are responsible for everything about that house. We vet who lives there. Because there isn’t a staff person here, we have to have individuals who can get along and who can do all the things required of living independently,” said Sahotsky.
“People who live at COTS have to agree to remain drug- and alcohol-free, be free from criminal activity, work with a case manager on goals and complete our core programming, which includes Dave Ramsey Financial Peace University and Rent Smart,” added Sahotsky. “They have to do monthly budgets, they have to pay program fees on a monthly basis, chores, all that kind of stuff.”
Sacred Heart Parish covered a portion of the cost to upgrade the property, but they benefit from their new neighbors in more ways than just receiving monthly rent. COTS is affiliated with Riverview Gardens, which is located about a block from Sacred Heart’s property. Riverview Gardens’ mission is to build dignity in their clients through job training and employment.
“We have a couple of individuals who have worked here at the parish through Riverview Gardens,” said Savoie. Folks from Riverview Gardens do set up and take down for various parish events throughout the year, as well as do lawn care for the parish in the summer.
While housing single men and women at The Monroe House is working well, Sahotsky has a grander vision for the space. “Our goal ultimately is to have that set up as four apartments for families. We have a definite need” for family housing, she said. “We work with a lot of refugee families. We have a number of our moms who end up getting custody back of their children (and need a place to live). We’re big on family reunification wherever possible.”
The maximum amount of time an individual or family can live at a COTS facility is two years. “We follow (clients) for three years once they leave our program. We have over 90 percent stay out of the system. Our goal is to not have them come back,” added Sahotsky.
People have multiple barriers to housing, said Sahotsky, so COTS works on a four-pronged approach for them. These include housing stability, employement and education, well-being and social connections.
Creating social ties with other people is important, especially “if you’re unemployed and you’re struggling,” she said. “Most of the people you know are unemployed and struggling. We’re trying to create new relationships for people.”
For example, she said that two women living at The Monroe House love the fact that they’re next door to the church. “That’s an important connection for them,” she said.
The collaboration with Sacred Heart Parish has been ideal, said Sahotsky.
“We’re super happy about being here. It’s difficult to find apartments that people can afford. This really fulfills the corporal works of mercy,” she said. “This is fulfilling the mission of Sacred Heart and that building. A lot of times people think of the people that we’re serving as ‘somebody else,’ when in reality the people are community members. These are individuals who grew up here. They have families who are here. When you think about it, that’s what a community does: It comes together to serve the needs of that community.”