Kevin Norton's favorite saying is "Though your trials be many and your rewards be few, the mighty oak tree was once a nut just like you."
That philosophy is a clue about his humorous, positive and upbeat personality as well as Norton's recent career in home rehabilitation for the less fortunate. Sometimes you have to be a little "nutty" to rehab a 100-year-old house with gaping holes in the ceiling and a rotting roof within a budget.
From installing drywall to staining butcher-block kitchen countertops, the work is inspiring to Norton, and it helped inspire IUPUI biostatistics professor Patrick Monahan to hire him as one of the main contractors for Home at Last, a unique company that works with those "who have previously experienced incarceration or homelessness to renovate abandoned properties."
That renovation is concentrated in the St. Clair Place neighborhood within the Near East area. It's been declared as a crime "hot zone" by the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department. But to the dozens of residents living in the recently rehabbed duplexes and houses, it's home.
"What better job can you have than to help somebody pick up somebody else?" said Norton, who had 20 years of experience in new construction before moving over to house renovation in the mid 1990s.
Along with fellow general contractor Jay Green, the men recently finished work on 610 N. Rural St., a two-bedroom house with a basement and unique mud room and sun room. It was the fifth completed project for Home at Last.
The overall state of the house was in terrible condition. Green and Norton advised Monahan to not take on the property due to extensive interior trim, wall, ceiling and roof repairs, but it was across the street from four three-bedroom units the team had transformed in 2015 and 2016. The thankful tenants and eager community members wanting to help compelled Monahan to see 610 through.
After months of work, the house is listed for sale at $75,000. Monahan hopes to sell this house to a low- or middle-income buyer but had been focused on leasing properties to adult transitional programs for people living with mental illness due to his mission for creating positive community-enriched housing for renters with mental health conditions, given that not everyone wants to own a house. The money will go back to Home at Last to help transform the next project. The goal is to obtain more properties to create a community and fill the many vacant houses with home buyers or community-inspired tenants. Norton envisions some of the empty lots becoming community gardens or small parks.
Public and mental health research in action
Monahan's mission is to help those who have experienced homelessness, mental illness and/or incarceration. He wants to provide a roof for families or individuals who are in transition. This starts with the first sledgehammer to an old wall that needs replacing.
While Norton and Green lead every rehab, their helpers have included the homeless or those barely scraping by. The goal is to teach construction and repair skills to help the workers land jobs. Some of these workers last a day, some months.
"We had a few who crowed about how much they knew," Norton recalled with a smile. "One guy worked for several different companies over the years. One day he popped off and said, 'I've been working with you guys for one month, and I've already learned more than I have in the last 10 years.'"
The experience with the workers has enriched Monahan's behavioral and personality assessment research within the IU School of Medicine and the Richard M. Fairbanks School of Public Health at IUPUI. Monahan's expertise is in statistical models necessary for developing and improving valid questionnaire assessments in public health. He is currently funded as principal investigator of two NIH R01 grants related to the development and statistical validation of questionnaires that measure common but under-treated symptoms such as depression, anxiety, pain, fatigue, sleep disturbance and physical symptoms.
"We developed a questionnaire called SymTrak," he said, "for the purpose of measuring and monitoring symptoms in primary care that are relevant to persons with multiple conditions; these symptoms overlap with the very clients that Home At Last is serving because if you're homeless, you probably have multiple chronic conditions like diabetes, depression, muscular or skeletal pain, a variety of things; in fact, a local homelessness program recently implemented SymTrak to measure change in outcomes and found it very easy for self-report administration; this is because our academic team performed extensive focus group interviewing of patients, caregivers, nurses, and doctors, to refine the language of the tool to be easy to understand regardless of health literacy."
From the workers to potential residents, Monahan can assess the needs of those involved in the Home at Last projects due to his expertise in human behavior. His many years of behavioral research is being used when he meets a new worker or potential tenant and helps to align their strengths with their roles and activities.
Monahan's goals for 2018 and beyond include upping the number of those assisted by the program. Monahan hopes to take on a multi-unit property and manage it as a transitional facility for incarcerated men and women looking to return to the workforce. He'd also like to help create a self-sustaining holistic homeless shelter in the next few years. To accomplish these goals, Home at Last is looking for low-interest rate investors.
Dedication to rehabilitation
Monahan established Home at Last in January 2015. He was inspired to start the company after the death of his twin brother, John Monahan, at the young age of 28. At the time of his death, Monahan's brother was homeless and struggling with schizophrenia. Now, he works to prevent similar stories from happening.
"No one should die on the streets," Monahan said, "just because they acquired, through no fault of their own, a severe mental illness."
When that last coat of paint is applied, that last tile of flooring is installed and a family gets a warm place to live, all of the work becomes worth it. And for Norton, Green and Monahan, helping people learn new skills during the process is an added bonus.
"The satisfaction is when you're walking out and you see what you've done," Norton said. "And the neighborhood improves by working with them. They'll know we're righteous dudes and will watch out for the places."