Sheilah P. Clay, President and CEO of Neighborhood Service Organization

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roximity was an important factor in deciding where to house the Neighborhood Service Organization's (NSO) headquarters, says president and CEO Sheilah P. Clay.

"What happens is, when you move up in the ranks, there is a gap that grows between you and the people you serve," she says, candidly, walking through the halls of the 255,000-square-foot NSO Bell Building located at 882 Oakman Blvd. in Detroit. "You're still doing your role in it, but you don't see the people who inspired you to get into the field."

NSO service providers are inspired daily, Clay explains, because the people they serve are just a few steps away.

"I tell my staff, the gift to you is on the other side of the double doors. Go ahead and just sit down and have a conversation with them," she says. "And as much as (the residents) believe they needed me, they don't realize how much I needed them."


In 2011, the NSO purchased the historic Michigan Bell Building, built in 1929, and refurbished it to include 155 supportive housing units for chronically homeless people suffering from mental illness or a disability. Supportive housing is the centerpiece of NSO's "Housing First" model that gives people shelter before assisting with mental health services.

"Let me take care of your basic needs, let me put a roof over your head, and then we will work with everything else to help you," Clay says of the model. "And that's why the addiction treatment, the primary health care, all of that is in the building."

Also in the building are such amenities as a library, a chapel, gym, computer center, and art and music rooms-all to help with mental health treatment.

"Music helps people who have addiction problems. So there is a reason behind every amenity," she explains. "We knew we had people that had a literacy issue-well, then give me a library. We knew we had people who had a health issue-give me a gym. Give me a fitness center. If they need socialization, give me a room with a pool table, board games and television. But every room had a reason why I asked for those to be placed in this building."

Of equal importance are the varied outreach services NSO offers for people living independently, in nursing and assisted living, or on the street.

"We have a mobile crisis response team (The Road Home) for the homeless that goes out on the streets of Detroit and tries to get people who are homeless to get on the van. Then, we can get you into services, and our goal is to end your life of being homeless," says Clay. As she explains, sometimes people are not yet ready to end their homelessness because they've become accustomed to it.

"They know who we are. They know that we are there to help them, but they sometimes are not ready. So if you don't want to get on the van, they will deliver the medical treatment, case management and connect you right on the street. And we're going to come back every day. Because if we keep coming back, you're getting on the van."

As Clay continues to walk through the building saying "hello" to every resident and employee she sees, there is a new group of nine people in the gym filling out their apartment leases to end their homelessness. And she can't wait to meet them.

"These are people who were up under a freeway viaduct the night before. Some were in a shelter; others came from programs like COTS (Coalition On Temporary Shelter) or Cass (Avenue) Methodist," she says. "It's permanent housing, but it's permanent supportive housing, which means you've got supports. My goal for them is that you don't have to live in a building or someplace with supports, because now you are on your own."

National hunger and homeless awareness week

National Hunger and Homeless Awareness Week is Nov. 14-22. If you know someone who is recently or chronically homeless, the Neighborhood Service Organization's (NSO) homeless recovery services can help.

"I believe if you become homeless and you aren't rapidly rehoused and stay out here living on the streets long, you're going to become mentally ill and start using drugs as an anesthesia for that type of emotional pain," says Sheilah P. Clay, NSO president and CEO. "So there is a rapid rehousing program, so that if you're newly homeless, we don't want you out here long. We don't want you to become one of the chronic people who are out here. But it has to be your choice."

For more information about NSO's homeless recovery services, call 313-961-4890 or visit

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