Ministry will transform vacant homes into youth safe houses
Boarded-up houses are typically seen as a negative aspect in a community. However, the founders of By HIS Spirit Ministries see them as projects waiting for a start date.
The group, founded by Vicki Hemmer, looks to buy abandoned properties with the intention of converting them into community centers for city youth between the ages of 9 and 17. The group’s mission is to “decrease future teen crimes” by having young people help rehabilitate the dilapidated properties and learn valuable life lessons in the process.
The ministry is partnered with Greater Love in Christ Church on the city’s South Side. It houses the ministry’s offices free of charge until the group has enough money for its own office space. The church, located at 2026 Midland Ave., is also less than a 10-minute walk from the first house the group purchased, at 205 W. Newell St., in January 2016. It is the first house that will be rehabilitated.
“The Lord gave me a vision, that basically … we had children in the church and I have grandchildren and we’re taking care of our own,” Hemmer said. “What about the young people, his children, which are still his children, what are we doing for them?”
The program began to work with youth in the first week of March, gathering from 3:30 to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday evenings — including dinner — in the Greater Love in Christ Church. Everything will take place in the church until the West Newell Street house is ready; then the home will be open seven days a week.
Activities available for youth attendees at the church include games, sewing and crafts, listening to Christian music, singing, playing the drums and learning guitar. There is also a space to complete homework.
Hemmer said that attendees can choose which activities to participate in based on their interests.
“You can’t force a child to do something,” Hemmer said. “You have to give them choices.”
The house originally was zoned residential, but the zoning board voted unanimously to rezone the property for the intentions of By HIS Spirit Ministries. Hemmer hopes that they will have similar luck as they look to purchase more properties. Hemmer owns six rental properties with 16 units in Syracuse and cited prior experience with boarded-up houses as additional reasoning for taking on this task.
The ministry aims to create a “peaceful sanctuary” for children to “engage in wholesome activities away from the discord that surrounds them,” Hemmer said. Once rehabilitated, each “safe house” will be named after and dedicated to a young member of the Syracuse community who died because of violence, she added.
“God’s children need our support, our help, our mentoring,” Hemmer said.
The eventual goal is to build at least one “safe house” within walking distance of each school in the Syracuse City School District. The West Newell Street house is next to McKinley-Brighton Elementary School and less than half a mile from Danforth Middle School, which is located at 309 W. Brighton Ave.
Besides the partnership with the church, the ministry is looking for other partners who can support the mission, said Mark Hemmer, who is Vicki’s husband. “So, if we can’t handle it, we have somebody else in our chain of people that we know that can,” he said.
The ministry is seeking volunteers who will help mentor youth and assist with the building projects. Eventually, the group hopes to have full-time staff living in each house and assisting with activities.
The full-time staff, along with a dedicated group of volunteers, will oversee youth who use the center. In return, the staff members will live on the top floor of each renovated home, without paying rent or utilities.
“That’s really how a community should work,” Mark Hemmer said. “We should interact and help each other, and that’s the whole idea, to get that thought process back into the community.”
— Article by JP Hadley, The Stand Urban Affairs reporter