Detroit's Homeless Get a Gym

Detroit's homeless now have a place to exercise and help the environment.

It's the first of its kind, says Cass Community Social Services -- a green gym where homeless men, women and children can work out. The gym claims the title of green because it is outfitted with stationary exercise bikes generating electricity that is redirected into the building's power grid.

The gym, located in an old warehouse on a rundown block on Detroit's west side, opened Wednesday. The idea was the dream of Cass' executive director, the Rev. Faith Fowler.

"It's called the Green Gym, but it's not a Bally's," Fowler . "People who need to move into shelters are not getting activity necessarily, so this is a chance for them to get into better shape."

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Fowler wants everyone to do his or her part for the environment, even the homeless. "They are not going to buy a hybrid [car]. … Most of the big fixes are beyond their reach, but everyone can do cycling," she says.

An exercise class in the green gym has the potential to produce up to 1.8 megawatts of renewable energy, Cass estimates. And they say that much energy is the equivalent needed to light 36 homes for a month.

The gym also has weight machines, boxing bags and a treadmill.

Cass is one of a number of organizations focused on fighting poverty in Detroit, a city in crisis. Community groups estimate that Detroit has about 18,000 homeless people.

Destitution and despair are not new to Detroit. The city's has had a job shortage for many years, but unemployment reached an all-time high last year when it hit 29 percent. Some say that number doesn't even tell the real story of the city's job's crisis, when counting people who've given up looking for work or gone back to school, the unemployment rate in Detroit climbs to an astonishing 50 percent.

Detroit has about 40 organizations and projects to fight homelessness, and the city allocates $3.5 million through an emergency shelter grant.

Cass Social Services says homelessness in the city seems more rampant, because it is now affecting people who never thought it could happen to them.

"Now we're seeing more and more people losing their houses and living in a car. And they are not used to asking for help, and they may not even know the network for asking for help," Fowler.

She thinks people on the street can find help at Cass. The organization has roughly 300 "clients" (the word Cass uses for the homeless men, women and children who use its services) living in its eight facilities in Detroit. Residents are provided with food, shelter and job training. Cass has eight buildings for homeless women with kids, homeless women without kids, homeless men who are mentally ill, homeless men who are substance abusing, and homeless men with AIDS.

Many of the people off the streets who come to Fowler's organization seeking help have severe health problems, such as obesity, hypertension, diabetes, heart disease. She hopes the gym gives those people an opportunity to improve their health.

Monique Turner, who's been a Cass staff member working with the homeless for seven years, tried out one of the green bikes at the gym's opening ceremony. She says she and some of her colleagues working at the shelter will join the homeless in working out at the gym.

"I've never heard of it, the idea that you could ride a bike to create energy," Turner . She says most homeless shelters look institutionalized and it's her hope that the gym will make the people Cass helps more comfortable.

Beyond helping homeless people with their health, Cass employs many of the people in its shelters. The organization says many of the people it employs have mental disabilities and otherwise would not be able to find work. Fowler, who grew up on Detroit's east side, says she came up with one of the organization's employment methods by thinking of a solution to one of Detroit's problems -- blight. "I was thinking there are (disposed) tires all over the city," she . "Well, we'll use them to create jobs." And she did.

Cass picks up the tires and pays people living in shelters a small fee for making floor mats out of the tires. Cass also pays people in the shelter to destroy documents and recycle the paper. "Having people who can't read is a problem. We'll they can shred, because they can't share your confidential information," Fowler says.

Gregory Allen Turner, a 53-year-old man living in a Cass facility, attended the opening of the Green Gym. Turner is one of the residents employed by Cass to help assemble the mats. He punches holes in the rubber parts of the tires while others on his team finish the craftsmanship.

Turner was kicked out of his parents' house 17 months ago and ended up in a Salvation Army facility. There he learned about Cass and gave it a shot. He says it's a "blessing" to have ended up at Cass. Turner says he's grateful to the organization and hinted he's not recently had a job with a legitimate paycheck.

"It's exciting to be working for a corporation beside somebody that's paying under the table, and that's what I'm hoping for. Somewhere I can get paid by a paycheck stub." Turner says Cass has made a difference in his life. "I would like to actually stay here as long as I possibly could to get my spiritual growth going. My goal is to hopefully find somewhere I can make my own decisions."

Fowler is planning a contest for the residents who work out at the gym. She wants to throw a "Biggest Loser" competition modeled after the hit NBC show. It's not the first out-of-the-box event Cass has thrown for its clients. Each winter, Cass has an annual pageant for the women living in the shelters. The women show off their talent in a competition for the "Ms. Cass Crown."

"Everybody wants a legitimate shot," says Fowler. "We need a chance to contribute and a chance to be appreciated and a chance to be recognized and that's what we aim to do. I don't know anybody who doesn't occasionally need a pat on the back or an 'atta boy.' When we write people off society loses. Not only they lose, but we lose."