Today, we want to introduce you to someone very special to our organization, one of our co-founders Leigh Coburn. Recently, Leigh took the time to answer a few questions for this post. We invite you to read Leigh’s story and how he came to co-found Homeward Bound Villages.

Can you tell us about your background and what led you to focus on affordable housing and the cooperative village model?

I was very fortunate to be able to take an early retirement from Bethlehem Steel Corporation and left at the age of 53 to form an employment company SWAT Corp.  This was a major change in my life and gave me time to concentrate on activities outside of my daily work life.  I’ve always been involved in Church activities and had participated in St Paul Lutheran Church’s Sunday Soup Kitchen which opened my eyes to the needs of the less fortunate in our community.

What inspired you to start this nonprofit organization, and how has your personal experience influenced your approach to addressing the affordable housing crisis?

Besides the Soup Kitchen, St Paul’s also hosted a Friday emergency overnight shelter for men for nearly 30 years.  The homeless men would show up at 7 pm and get a light supper, sleep on mattresses on the floor, a light breakfast at 7 am, and be put out on the streets no later than 8 am to face another day of nothingness. One day a friend from church that worked the midnight shift for the shelter asked me what I thought of the homeless, and that question really opened my eyes.  My response was that I was uneasy with them, and if they were walking North on Franklin St, and I was on the same side walking South I’d most likely cross the street in order to keep a safe distance.  He thanked me for my honesty and asked me to have coffee with him and a couple of these people that made me feel uneasy.

Let’s identify these two homeless people as Bill and Jim.

While their stories may have been embellished in order to put the best light on their situation, they were clearly very well-spoken educated individuals that fell on hard times.  They impressed me enough to get these two individuals plus one other and put a speakers group together.  They spoke to several of the service clubs in Michigan City, and It was clear from the response of these organizations that I wasn’t the only one that put all homeless people in a negative box, and that there were many that fell on hard times and deserved a chance to rebuild their lives.

This coffee meeting set me on a nationwide search to find best practices used to help those experiencing homeless to get back on track.  It became very clear that providing a place where they could get the help they needed after leaving the overnight shelter was imperative.  I learned that the Knights of Columbus in Michigan City was no longer active and their building was available.  Working with the Executive Director of Citizens Concerned for the Homeless (CCH) and Catholic Charities, a new operation under the direction of CCH named Keys To Hope (KTH) was born.   KTH provided showers, laundry facilities, haircuts, and most of all, case workers to help those qualified to find a job.  This outreach was a “God Send” and has helped hundreds of people find employment.

There was one person that I got to know fairly well through helping with KTH and I learned that after several months on a new job that he was still using the men’s overnight shelter.  I asked him – Why?  His answer was another eye opener for me.  He said “Do you have any idea how long it takes at $10/hr. to get enough for first and last months rent plus security deposit?  Add to that the cost I pay for transportation to and from my new job and the cost for a decent restaurant lunch, and you’ll know why I’m still in the shelter”

In your perspective, why does Homeward Bound Villages strive to create communities based upon a cooperative village model? What are the distinct advantages it offers to residents and the wider community?

Early on, several members of our Board of Directors, and one donor wanted to establish a “Rent to Own” operation in order to give our residents a goal to work toward, and a sense of pride.  While this desire is valid, the rate of increase in value that we’ve seen in real-estate would probably make these homes that we are building unaffordable in the next sales cycle to those we’re trying to help. 

Our mission is to “Create Community Through Affordable Housing” and we want to make our homes “Forever Affordable” so we went on another Nationwide search to find best practices to aid those we were seeking to help.  We saw the importance of gathering areas and decided that our communities would have many gathering areas including gardens, orchards, wetlands, and community center. 

The Cooperative Model we’re developing will allow our residents to decide how these areas will be used through working with their own Board of Directors. They’ll also have input as to who future residents will be and develop rules and regulations in order to keep the village pristine. The Community Center will have a full kitchen in order to encourage community meals, meetings, card or other game clubs etc.  Homeward Bound Villages will have an employee responsible for the overall operation of the Village, and one of the most important responsibilities will be keeping the residents involved in decision making, and activities.

Starting a nonprofit is a challenging endeavor. What obstacles did you face in the early stages of establishing your organization, and how did you overcome them? 

Our biggest objections came from our community, who, while they had valid objections, some objections were based on a lack of understanding about the causes of homelessness and the proven ways to help people get back on their feet.  

A significant milestone was reached in 2018 with a $350,000 donation from the Huizenga Family Foundation. In 2021, the organization purchased 1.5 acres of land at 316 Karwick Road, securing necessary rezoning approvals in late 2021. Recent developments include several large funding approvals and the confidence to proceed with site development bidding bringing the vision of affordable, community-based housing closer to reality.

As you look to the future, what is your vision for the growth and impact of Homeward Bound Villages? How do you hope to expand your reach and make a lasting difference in the lives of those in need of affordable housing?

I’m hoping that this is a process that’s so successful that it’s replicated Nationwide.  One change I’d like to see is small individual homes rather than the triplex.  Individual homes will encourage more donors to pitch in since the cost will be within the reach of many donors and/or organizations, and will make a more visually pleasant village.  We went the triplex route only because it met existing zoning requirements and didn’t need any changes requiring public or elected official’s input.  When Beverly and I visited Community First in Austin TX we learned that the original efforts were to build within the City limits of Austin.  They couldn’t because of the public input on NIMBY so they moved outside, but close to the City limits.  We noticed a gated community on the way to the Village and I asked the Founder Alan Graham if they had trouble with the gated community acceptance and he said “absolutely”.  They were big NIMBY people, but were over ridden by the County Commissioners because it was so needed.  This gated community in now their largest source of volunteers and they take credit for all the good stuff that happens at Community First. 

That’s my Goal – To be so successful that everyone wants to replicate and take credit for what Homeward Bound Villages is developing.

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