Roderick Threatt knows all too well the damaging effect abandoned and crumbling buildings have on Gary, a city he's called home since 1971.
His beloved Emerson High School, vacant and abandoned several years ago, is a dilapidated haven for gang graffiti and the site of a 2015 strangulation death of a 17-year-old Chicago girl.
Hundreds of abandoned homes near Emerson and throughout the Steel City have suffered a similar fate — broken into by criminals, in some cases burned out and in all cases potential magnets for crime.
Threatt, with the assistance of a Merrillville church, recently took a small step toward reversing this trend. It's an act of poetic purpose that deserves all of our attention.
After his mother died in 2009, her home — the house in the 600 block of Maryland Street where he grew up with five other siblings — was in threat of falling into the abyss of Gary's abandoned-building hopelessness.
Threatt struggled to maintain the old family residence and his own household elsewhere in the city.
Windows of the home on Maryland Street were being broken, and he feared worse things were to come.
Threatt ultimately found a solution for the beloved structure that married his desire to preserve it with an answer to another pressing social issue of which he also is familiar.
Threatt, a supervisor of corrections officers and inmates at Lake County Community Corrections, donated the home on Maryland Street to Merrillville's City of Refuge Christian Church.
The church, through a multitude of donations and church offering collections, is transforming the building into a transitional housing shelter for women — with a particular eye on those leaving the jail or prison system with nowhere else to go.
It's a poetically fitting gift to the community, considering Threatt works for a residential work-release program, through which some state inmates are allowed to leave and work jobs by day and return to the Crown Point facility at night.
There's a direct correlation between homelessness and some of the inmates who make their way through Threatt's facility and other state and local jails and prisons.
Incarceration and homelessness are dubbed "mutual risk factors" by the National Health Care for the Homeless Council.
Between 25 percent and 50 percent of the nation's homeless population has a history including incarceration, according to the council. And homelessness is estimated to be 7.5 to 11.3 times more prevalent among former inmates than the general population.
Most corrections and housing officials acknowledge it becomes a vicious cycle. Conditions of homelessness often lead to crime and incarceration. Upon release from jail or prison sentences, previously homeless people still have nowhere to go, and the stigmatization of incarceration often bars them from federal housing assistance or other shelter.
The new purpose of Threatt's boyhood home will take a meaningful step toward breaking this cycle for some homeless, previously incarcerated women.
Genesis of good will
The genesis of Threatt's fitting gift combines a desire to preserve with fortuitous connections.
Threatt said he met Pastor Michael Pirtle, of Merrillville's City of Refuge church, while the pastor administered Bible study to some of the Community Corrections inmates.
Struggling with the burdens of maintaining the home on Maryland Street, Threatt decided to offer it as a no-strings-attached donation to Pirtle's church in 2014.
When he learned the church's desire to transform the property into a shelter for homeless women — with a special focus on former inmates — Threatt said he was "overwhelmed."
"I didn't initially know what they would use it for," Threatt said. "I just knew something positive could come out of it."
The church has been able to grow Threatt's gift into a movement of several volunteers and donations of both labor and renovation work from private companies and other nonprofit entities.
The home on Maryland Street is set to open May 15 as a transitional shelter that ultimately will house up to 12 women at a time, church spokeswoman Burgess Peoples said.
Collections from church offering plates alone generated $62,000 for new plumbing, a roof and siding at the home, Peoples said.
The rooms and hallways — where Threatt and his five siblings learned the value of hard work from a steel-working father and a mother who was a stickler for school achievement — soon will provide safe haven to homeless women looking to get their lives back on track.
Unlike Threatt's initial gift to the church, there will be strings attached for the residents staying in Emma's Transitional Home for Women, so named for Threatt's mother.
"We'll help them address why they're homeless through counseling," Peoples said. "We'll help them identify ways of breaking the cycle."
The facility plans to connect residents with employment, with a goal of obtaining positions paying at least $12 per hour. Counseling in financial literacy and purchasing job interview clothing will all be part of the program.
Women will be able to stay at the home up to a year and a half, and they will be required to save enough money for at least three months rent before they leave the home. The end goal is permanent, long-term housing for all future residents.
Though still a work in progress on the inside, the home on Maryland Street sports beautiful new siding and gutters. It's the type of quaint dwelling, with a fresh look, that many people would be happy to call home.
Peoples said that's just the way Threatt and the church want it.
"These women are going to be looking to make a fresh start in life," Peoples said. "You don't want to perpetuate a rugged or raggedy lifestyle. That's what they've already known."
Threatt recently toured and reviewed the work at his boyhood home. Stripped down to studs for brand new electrical work and plumbing, it was clear the home he knew as a boy was destined for a newfound purpose.
"It will be a safe place where people can get their life back on track," Threatt said, noting that the home could have become just another abandoned and decaying Gary property. "It humbles me that this is happening. My family is all very grateful."
We all should be grateful for the lesson Threatt, the church and everyone making Emma's House possible have provided. Even in the most struggling and desperate communities, and even among some of the most seemingly helpless social cycles, good people united in common purpose still can make a difference.