Supporters of a transitional housing project for disadvantaged youth are trying to turn back the tide of fear that has swelled against the plan in recent months, hosting tours of the former Warrack Hospital campus this week for community and faith-based groups interested in better understanding the plan.
Nearly 80 members of the public visited the Summerfield Road facility Wednesday to see for themselves how buildings once dedicated to healing the sick could be transformed into a "Dream Center" envisioned by the nonprofit Social Advocates for Youth.
The tours were organized by Fred Ptucha, a local financial adviser and project supporter. He said he was dismayed to read and hear comments by opponents suggesting the young people staying at the center would be criminals, gang members or substance abusers likely to disrupt a peaceful neighborhood.
"I just felt that a lot of this negativity and fear was based on ignorance and lack of understanding," Ptucha said. "It just bothered me as a citizen and as a father."
So Ptucha reached out to a wide cross-section of the city's religious community, including Christians, Jews, and Buddhists, hoping that if the city's spiritual leaders could get behind the project, their followers might do the same.
Tim Carnahan, a pastor at the nearby Faith Lutheran Church, said he had heard members of his congregation expressing strident opposition to the plan and wanted to get the facts. He said he's been discouraged to see how polarized the debate over the center has become.
"I think each side is being a tad dismissive of the concerns of the other side," Carnahan said.
While he's supportive of SAY's mission generally, Carnahan said he was on sabbatical over the summer and hadn't followed the debate closely. The tour convinced him, however, that the project appears to be a good fit for the facility.
Sutter Medical Center is offering the roughly 52,000-square-foot campus to SAY for free. It was easy to see how the former hospital rooms, most of which were still outfitted with beds and IV stands, could be turned into apartments, he said.
"The magnitude of the gift was shocking to me," he said. "It's practically an ideal property."
Plans submitted to the city this month call for a total of 63 units of transitional housing for children, teens and young adults who are participating in SAY's employment, education and health services.
The number is six fewer than the 69 beds available when Warrack was open, and significantly reduced from the nearly 100 beds originally envisioned.
There would be 51 "apartment style living spaces" where residents 18 to 24 years old would pay affordable rent. There would also be 12 "emergency housing beds" where young people could stay for up to three months.
The center is meant to give foster children, whose state support ends at age 18, a place to go while they get on their feet. Young people who are not leaving foster care but still need housing, including those emerging from the justice system, would also be considered for spaces, subject to a variety of restrictions.
The housing units would be phased in over three years. In addition to SAY offices, a caf? community garden, basketball court, and pottery area are also planned. Upgrades have been estimated at between $2 million and $4 million.