The lots purchased by United Caring Services. Ruth’s House, the women’s medical respite and shelter, is the large white building in the background.

When gazing out at the abandoned houses that used to dot 318-322 East Cherry Street in the central city area of Evansville, Ind., a lot of people saw blight. Jason Emmerson saw hope.

Emmerson, executive director of United Caring Services — UCC Council for Health and Human Service Ministries member ministry serving homeless men and women — says that all it took was a bit of big-picture thinking.

The East Cherry addresses run parallel to Ruth’s House, United Caring Services’ women’s medical respite and shelter. Emmerson inquired about the properties and found that the Evansville Land Bank Corporation — formed in 2016 to demolish dilapidated residential structures and return the properties to productive use — owned all three. It demolished the abandoned houses in 2017. So Emmerson applied to purchase the land.

“It made sense to acquire the properties in order to embrace the opportunity to further our mission and help the community,” Emmerson says. “I had spoken with a couple of people in the community about the land, and the mission of the Land Bank. We seemed to share a common vision.”

In the end, United Caring Services purchased each parcel for $100, with $40 in additional fees, for a total of $340. And Emmerson couldn’t be happier. Several ideas have been floated about possible uses for the property.

“There is a large need in Evansville for low-income affordable housing accessible to people experiencing homelessness to stabilize and support them,” he says. “That was a vision shared for the property; possibly for women, given the location near Ruth’s House.”

Another idea is to use part of the property for a Crisis Stabilization Unit for people with substance abuse and mental health issues. United Caring Services has been working to bring such a unit to Evansville for some time. Substance abuse and mental health problems are both “causes of … and major barriers for those who are homeless, but the issues extend beyond homelessness,” Emmerson adds.

“I think this property, on a small scale, represents how we should all look at homeless services — on the large scale,” he says. While there are always immediate funding needs, “we always need to have a larger vision beyond where we are in our service to others — to help solve the problems, empower people, build advocacy — so we can break the negatives cycles.”

Preventive programs and permanent solutions like housing, respite, and crisis stabilization cost a bit more up front, Emmerson says, but are better in the long run because they reduce the pain, confusion, and depletion of resources down the road. He hopes that as United Caring Services moves forward with its “big ideas,” others will support UCS, both with immediate needs and long-term goals.

As for the East Cherry Street property? “For now, it’s a green space — more to mow, but ripe with possibilities,” Emmerson adds. “I envision a woman staying at Ruth’s house, looking across the alley at housing — HER housing, her way out, her way back to her family, to her kids; into employment and a renewed life.

“It’s not just an empty space. It’s hope.”

United Caring Services grew out of an idea during in a church school class at Bethel United Church of Christ in 1991. Today, the United Church of Christ-related ministry provides shelter and medical respite for men and women, and low-income, permanent housing.