First Step Housing Project is almost a reality. Tuesday's ribbon-cutting to launch transitional housing effort.

Linn Ann Huntington
Special to Hays Daily News
Gilda Allen, a volunteer at First Call for Help of Ellis County, and Linda Mills, the agency’s executive director, make up bunk beds in the new First Step Housing Project, 607 E. 13th in Hays. The open house and ribbon cutting for the new transitional housing units will be Tuesday, Aug. 24.

For Linda Mills, executive director of First Call for Help in Ellis County, it is a dream that has taken five years to complete.

But on Tuesday, Aug. 24, that dream will be realized. That’s the day that First Call will have the open house and ribbon cutting for its First Step Housing Project, which will provide transitional housing for up to eight individuals struggling with homelessness.

The open house at 607 E. 13th will take place from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., with the ribbon- cutting commencing at 4 p.m. Parking is available on Montgomery Street.

Gail Thal of Hays, a volunteer with First Call for Help of Ellis County, unwraps pots and pans to go in the kitchen of the new First Step Housing Project at 607 E. 13th in Hays.

The vision that led to the reality

“Our vision is that First Step Housing participants will be successful in creating a life for their family with housing stability, self-sufficiency and security,” the project’s Mission Statement reads.

The $250,000 project was completed in two phases. Phase II was completed on June 29, with a $2,500 donation from the Wonder Woman League in Hays. That donation put First Call over the top and allowed it to receive $50,000 in matching funds from the Schmidt Foundation by the stated June 30 deadline, Mills said.

The housing project consists of four individual bedrooms, each with a private handicapped-accessible bathroom, with a common kitchen and laundry area.

Previously:Faith briefs: First Call for Help receives $50,000 in matching funds

Requirements for residents

First Call is currently accepting applications for the first residents. Individuals may live in the facility for up to six months. They must be residents of Ellis County, must pass drug and alcohol screening, must have no felony convictions for violent crimes, and must be “committed to striving for stability in future housing,” Mills said. All residents will be expected to hold jobs and to complete an online “financial literacy” course provided by the FDIC.

If the residents do not have jobs when they move into the facility, they must be committed to working with counselors to obtain employment, Mills said. Plus, they will be required to set up a savings account.

In addition, residents will work with First Call’s staff to supplement what they are learning in the FDIC course — things such as setting up a budget, creating a checking account, learning how to read a lease, working with landlords, “pretty basic stuff,” Mills said, but things many people do not know how to do.

She said that First Call is working with other agencies, such as the Salvation Army, Catholic Charities, and Harvest America, to obtain referrals for individuals in need of housing. Interested individuals may call (785) 623-2800 for information.

Previously:First Call seeking design ideas for new housing logo

The need in Ellis County

When she first came to First Call in 2013, Mills said she began doing two things. First, the agency began participating in the Point in Time count. This is an annual national poll that attempts to count the homeless individuals in any given community on a specific night, usually held sometime in January.

The Point in Time counts have shown that between five and 25 people have been homeless in Ellis County in any given year since then, Mills said. Between 67 and 92 individuals are at risk of being homeless in the near future, according to each year’s count, she said.

The second thing she did was tracking the types of phone calls the agency received—how many callers were in need of housing, utility assistance, food, etc.?

“We started looking at those numbers, and we realized there was a need for some type of housing,” Mills said.

The City of Hays also did a housing study, which reported the following conclusions:

“Housing costs in Hays are much higher than in other areas of the state. There is a high ratio of housing older than 50 years in need of restoration and renovation, and households in Hays face ‘considerable financial strain’ due to high housing costs, especially low-income families.”

Mills said all of this data convinced the First Call Board of Directors that some type of plan needed to be put in place to help people struggling with homelessness in Ellis County. The county has no type of emergency homeless shelter.

The project’s timeline

The planning began in 2015 when First Call was still located in the Hadley Center, Mills said. In 2016, a four-year strategic plan was formed to “explore solutions to the housing problems in Ellis County.”

In 2017, First Call purchased its current building on 13th Street, with the idea of turning the back end of it into some type of housing for homeless individuals.

Staff moved into the 3,008-square-foot building that same year. In 2018, local architect Terry Ault, who offered his services pro bono, prepared blueprints for offices and a lobby in the front of the building and transitional housing units in the back part. Ault passed away shortly after those blueprints were completed.

Paul Wertenberger was awarded the construction bid for both Phase I and II. In 2019, First Call planned several fundraisers to begin construction. But the COVID pandemic hit in March 2020, and two of those in-person fundraisers had to be canceled, Mills said.

The agency shifted focus to letter-writing campaigns and virtual fundraising. Through it all, Mills continued writing grants. Money came in from foundations, local churches, businesses, and individual donors.

Phase I, the front part of the building, was completed in 2019. In fall 2020, concrete work began on Phase II, the back part of the building. Plumbing went in for the four bathrooms. Then the walls for the individual bedrooms went up.

In addition to the Schmidt Foundation, other donors contributing $5,000 and more include the Dane G. Hansen Foundation, Ellis County Ministerial Alliance, Union Pacific Foundation, Ellis County Cares Fund, United Methodist Foundation, Heartland Community Foundation, the Ellis County Bar Association, and two anonymous donors.

Mills emphasized that it was the “countless individual donors who contributed between $5 and $5,000" that helped First Call achieve its $250,000 goal.

The organization is still accepting monetary donations and new products to help outfit the transitional housing units. Individuals may go to the website at www.firstcallelliscounty.org and click on the “Needs List” button to see what is still needed, or may mail checks to the above address with “First Step Housing Project” on the memo line.

To those critics who say the housing project is only four bedrooms, Mills simply responds: “It’s four rooms, but it’s four rooms we didn’t have before. We started with what we could do.”