A new home for the YMCA is not a new home for all

Jeff Martin takes a look at how the downtown YMCA's move will affect low-income and homeless individuals.



Hugely popular author David Sedaris was in town a couple of weeks ago for a talk at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center. If you are familiar with Sedaris’ work, you probably know that for decades he was a fairly hardcore smoker. Having recently quit, he has taken up swimming to fill the void. No doubt a healthier choice at every level. When he was in town, he decided to do a few laps in the pool at the downtown YMCA.

It’s pretty much impossible to drive or walk past the downtown YMCA without seeing a smattering of homeless men and women. This isn’t a phenomenon. Urban YMCAs are almost as famous for this as they are for the Village People song. But I digress. You might not know, but the downtown YMCA is moving from its current location on South Denver Avenue to the Mayo Building at 424 S. Main St. The new location will be modern and updated with the latest technologies. But it will not include the homeless housing offered in the existing facility (in partnership with the Mental Health Association in Tulsa). And I imagine the YMCA will not want the same low-income and homeless individuals who currently spend a good deal of time at the current Y in or around this new location.

But where will they go?

Building new facilities will certainly up the profile of the downtown YMCA, long overshadowed by nicer, more family-friendly locations around town. But the money being spent on this move and the renovations could probably be better used helping these people who lean against the walls and spend the night for what seems like a never-ending duration. The YMCA has been in downtown for a century, literally. This is the centennial.

The Web site for the YMCA says this under the “About” page: “YMCAs respond to critical social needs by drawing on our collective strength as one of the largest not-for-profit community service organizations in the United States.”

That phrase, “critical social needs,” seems to be talking more about people than places. These problems will not go away if we just ignore them. So while I am all for updating the places that keep us from moving ahead, we have to be the kind of city that puts people first.  Because no matter what the song says, it really isn’t that much fun to stay at the YMCA.

I wanted some answers. My initial e-mail to Michael W. Brose, executive director for the Mental Health Association in Tulsa, was returned quickly and enthusiastically. Although when he described the situation as having “some complexities that lend better to verbal communication,” I thought that there might be something on the controversial side waiting to be unearthed. I was waiting for my Bob Woodward moment.

I am glad to say that the news is not only uncontroversial but also something to be proud of. But a little backstory is needed here.

In 1997, the Mental Health Association took over the third floor of the downtown YMCA. It had been burned and was in fairly horrible condition before that time. The few floors above had been and remain small dormitory-style residences that have been occupied by some men for more than a decade. The building was not up to code, and when it was decreed by the fire marshal that the building needed to install a sprinkler system, a decision was made that relocating would be smarter. When the YMCA set its plans in motion to relocate to the Mayo Building, The Mental Health Association created a task force involving the Salvation Army, John 3:16 Mission and others to solve this problem.

In 2006, Gail Richards and Judy Kishner (cousins and part of the Zarrow family) began working on a way to make sure that none of these people would be returned to a life of homelessness. The result is the Yale Avenue Apartments at 10 N. Yale Ave. This 76-unit apartment building will be the first step in fully realizing this transition away from chronic homelessness. As of this writing and according to Brose, there are still approximately 16 residents who have yet to relocate from the downtown Y. While he had hoped for everyone to be in their new homes for the holidays, because of construction delays and other factors, this will not occur until a short time after the holidays. And despite this brief delay, Brose stated that he is “confident that no one will be turned back to the streets.”

In a perfect world, Brose would love to have what we’ve done in Tulsa be used as a model for other YMCAs and similar programs around the country that haven’t been able to find these kinds of solutions. And showing a little local pride he wouldn’t mind letting people know that “we don’t do things that way in Tulsa, Okla.,” he says.

Thank goodness for that.

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July 2019

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