“This is the best shower in the world!” Tracie Summers said as she pulled back the curtain in her apartment. “It has hot water, good water pressure, just the best.”

A good shower is a luxury for Summers who had been homeless since 2009. Now a resident at the Capuchin Apartments on 2502 W. Tamarack St., she sees it as a “blessing.”

“I used to wonder where I was going to use the bathroom,” she said. “Back then I used to be a crack addict.”

capuchinDion Edwards sits in the lobby of the Capuchin Apartments at 2501 W. Fond du Lac Ave., Milwaukee, on Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2011. Edwards spoke on behalf of the residents at the grand opening. The Capuchin Apartments house 39 tenants, including one married couple, in its 38 units. (Catholic Herald photo by Ernie Mastroianni)The Capuchin Apartments are comprised of 38 units, with 39 tenants (one married couple lives in the building). The rent is $575 for one-bedroom, $545 for a studio apartment. Twenty-six units are voucher units for those who don’t have income to pay their rent. Of those, 14 are for people with behavioral health issues and 12 are for those who were living in shelters.

Summers had a litany of experiences that led her to living in one of the voucher units. Drugs had a serious impact on her life.

“I had three seizures back to back, and a mild stroke which left me comatose on Dec. 19, 1996,” Summers said.

She quit drugs the next year and knows how difficult it is to stop.

“Nothing makes you want to do more than losing the ability to do,” she said.

Eventually she found an apartment and began working for the owner as a receptionist.  She grew within the company and became an accredited residential manager; things were looking up ­– for a while.

“I was co-owner of real property, I had two vehicles, I was married,” she said.

But then things began to change.

“At the time when I started my job, all my family had passed away and I realized my husband had to stop smoking crack and he chose crack over me so I got divorced,” Summers said.

As part of the terms of the divorce, Summers and her husband were supposed to live together in the house until she found another place to live and work. In 2009, without any warning, he changed the locks when she was away and she was homeless.

“I didn’t have a leg to stand on,” she said.

While being in and out of local shelters, Summers was doing volunteer work at Kathy’s House in Wauwatosa, started going to MATC in West Allis to try to earn her degree in real estate when she heard of the Capuchin Apartments and applied for residency in 2010.

She believes her motivation to better her life is what helped her get inside her new home.

“I think it’s because I was going to school and putting an effort to do good that they gave me a chance,” she said. “It gives me peace of mind.”

Since moving in 2011, Summers has done what she can to show her appreciation by waking up early and arranging the furniture in the common areas and cleaning any messes.

The Capuchin Apartments have several classes that help build community and improve the residents’ lives such as résumé building, GED study classes, women’s night, men’s night, yoga and group meals.

Summers said that since she’s gone to college and has been clean for 15 years, she helps others earn their GEDs and cooks for those who have jobs.

“I hate that I can’t pay my rent; if I could have income, I would,” she said with a look of self-loathing. “Hopefully, things work out at Kathy’s House; they’ll put me on the pay roll.”

Aside from helping residents, cooking, and cleaning, she’s also the eyes on the inside for the case managers.

“You can’t give a crack addict your heart because he will put it in a pipe and smoke it. I know,” she said. “I told them in front of the case managers and everything, ‘The first time I recognize crack behavior activity,’ I said, ‘I’m telling if I see it. I don’t care who you are.’”

Summers said those who use drugs keep away from her but she still confronts them when she finds their paraphernalia and some, she said, have stopped using because of her.

When asked what keeps her motivated, her reply was simple.

“That’s what we’re supposed to do!” she said.

Dion Edwards, 36, has been living in the Capuchin Apartments for the last six months. Before that, Edwards was homeless, on and off, for 18 years. He said he has a new lease on life

“God works through people,” Edwards said adding he’s grateful for the opportunity to live there. capuchin-building

Edwards, currently unemployed, also volunteers at the Capuchin Apartments.

“I may do something as small as taking out the trash, maybe wiping off the stove and counters, sweeping, just things like that,” Edwards said. “Whether people understand it or not, staying in a apartment building, you’re part of a community. And when you’re part of a community you have to let other members in the community know that you’re someone accessible or someone that they can possibly count on if help is needed.”

Edwards said he’s been taking advantage of the employment services and now has a functioning resume and occasionally works temporary jobs.

“I do my best to try to fill out as many apps as I can or at least converse with somebody a couple of times a week about some job leads,” Edwards said. “The case managers at the Capuchin Apartments do their best to try to keep us equipped with job leads.”

Like Summers and Edwards, many of the residents have pasts that haunt them. The Capuchin Apartments provide an avenue for those who need help with education, work or addictions. It also provides a support network.

“Some of us have things that are on our shoulders every day and we need somebody to talk to because those types of thoughts leads to addictive behavior,” Edwards said. “I’ve been incarcerated. It’s nothing I like talking about but it’s something I admit to because it’s important to be held accountable, to hold yourself accountable.”

For Edwards, the loss of his mother six years ago, still troubles him, but small things like making a Valentine’s Day card for his mother helps.

“I made her a Valentine’s card; I didn’t make one for a girlfriend or somebody I want to get to know,” Edwards says. “I made one for my mother and that was important to me. And things like that help us take the burden off of us.”

According to Franciscan Br. Dave Schwab, director of St. Ben’s Community Meal program, the apartments have been in the works for more than three years.

“There was really a groundswell from the community to say, ‘Yes, this is a need,’” he said. “We felt like we’ve been good at providing food, meeting a lot of parallel needs for the homeless community; lets get into housing.

But to get the work started, St. Ben’s looked to a group with more experience with housing – Heartland Housing Inc.

“Heartland has done a lot of affordable housing in Chicago,” Br. Dave said. “They have a lot of experience building property and managing it. None of us were experienced in terms of providing housing, so this was a new direction for us as an extension of our ministry.”

When construction began in September 2010, Br. Dave was surprised by the rapid progress.

“The actual building from ground up took about a year, which is pretty amazing in my world that you can take a vacant piece of property… and within a year you have 38 apartments,” he said.

But the hardest part wasn’t building it, staffing it or finding acceptable residents, according to Br. Dave, but finding the property. They looked at 30 places within a three-mile radius of St. Ben’s and found a “NIMBY” (Not In My Back Yard) attitude.

“People want to help the poor, they want to help the homeless but ‘Don’t build an apartment complex in my neighborhood.’ It’s the whole fear of driving down property values,” he said.

Now that the apartments are open, Br. Dave said St. Ben’s is committed to keeping them open by providing $62,000 per year over 15 years. Already they’ve donated kitchen appliances, bedding and other accessories most people have in their homes.

On Christmas 2011, St. Ben’s provided a ham and turkey dinner for the residents and plan on making meals to build a community.

“Bringing 30-some people together around the table was a real sense to me that we are able to change people’s lives,” he said. “If we could give a majority of them a stable environment and improve their lives, I think we’ve made progress.”

At the dedication ceremony last August, Edwards spoke about how he was once living at a bus stop on 8th and Wisconsin Ave., and now has a roof over his head.

“It was such a breath of fresh air for me to hear; I was just taken aback,” Br. Dave said. “To have him make this statement from moving from a bus stop to permanent, affordable housing –– this is the fulfillment of a dream.”