Bell shares ECHO Village vision with BV Rotary
Suzie Bell, co-founder of Eureka Christian Health Outreach (ECHO), visited the Berryville Rotary Club on Tuesday to discuss the ECHO Village project and how the community is pulling together resources to address the needs of those who are housing-insecure in Carroll County.
Bell said she and her husband, Dr. Dan Bell, got the idea to start ECHO Village after talking with their patients at ECHO Clinic and hearing how they struggled to find affordable housing in the area.
“Basically, this project grew out of us learning that 40 percent of our patients are housing-insecure,” she said, “which means if they were not homeless then they were on the verge of being homeless. They were living with an aunt, a sister, a cousin or a friend, doing what we call ‘couch-surfing.’ ”
Bell continued, “That was very stunning to us. It seemed like a natural thing for us to work toward this project because we found that, especially for people with chronic health conditions like diabetes, mental health and hypertension, you’re not that interested in being compliant with your medicine if you’re worried where you’re going to lay your head that night.”
For the past five years, she said ECHO has partnered with hotels in Carroll County to temporarily house these patients.
“We have some agreements with some hotel folks in Berryville and Eureka Springs for reduced rates,” she said. “Of course, that’s not a long-term solution. It at least buys us some time, especially in the winter when it’s 20 degrees.”
Bell said ECHO had looked into purchasing some hotels in Eureka Springs to convert them into affordable housing.
“That did not work out. Eventually, we landed on the idea of building small homes,” she said. “The idea is to give not a handout but a hand up. It’s not just having a place for people to stay but also providing programs for them so that we can mentor them, guide them and help pull them out of the cycle of poverty.”
Bell said local law enforcement estimates that there are about 85 permanent families in Carroll County who are homeless.
“These are kids. These are single parents,” she said. “I will tell you that some of them like being homeless. There’s a guy who comes by every time we have a clinic to get a free meal. He likes being homeless. He’s not who we’re after to help.”
Bell continued, “For those people who find themselves in a situation where they really need some housing and they need some help, those are the folks we’re trying to reach at ECHO Village.”
She said ECHO has purchased almost 10 acres next to the Eureka Springs Police Department on Passion Play Road. There is a plan to build 26 small homes, she said, and the square footage will range from 450 square feet for the smallest homes to 1,300 square feet for the largest homes.
“That’s not that small. My mom lives in a smaller home,” Bell said. “We envision a single mom with children living in one of those. Having had children, I know moms want a place to get away from the kids as much as the kids need their own space.”
ECHO will own the homes and rent them out, she said. Bell said the plan is to base rental rates on a sliding scale based on a resident’s ability to pay.
“If you’re an older person who doesn’t need the big house anymore with a lot of land to mow and you want to downsize, you’re welcome to come rent in ECHO Village,” she said. “We’ll be glad to have you, but if you are able to afford it then your rent will be at market value.”
Bell continued, “However, if you require Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) assistance then we will work with HUD. HUD says for a one-bedroom house the maximum rent is $459 including utilities and $650 for a two-bedroom. We’re happy to work with you on that.”
The housing project is called “ECHO Village,” she said, because the plan is to develop a community.
“This is going to be inter-relational. You’re going to work and cooperate with your neighbors,” Bell said. “We have covenants they have to agree to. That means if you like to be a hermit and just want to stay in your house and be left alone then this is not a place for you.”
She said ECHO wants everyone in the village to get out, engage with each other and interact.
“We want you to be willing to help and give whatever gifts and graces you have to your neighbor,” she said. “If you’re an older person, then perhaps you might agree to babysit kids after school until the mom is done with her job. Then that mom might help you with chores around the house you physically aren’t able to do or take you to the doctor.”
Bell said ECHO Village wants to help veterans, single parents, first-time jail offenders and people with mental or physical handicaps.
“Some of our homes are handicap-accessible. That’s very important to us that they are able to live independently,” she said. “We will guide and mentor first-time jail offenders to make sure they don’t make those wrong choices that send them right back. Usually what happens is they get out of jail and go back to their same, environment, their same buddies and their same habits. It’s a cycle.”
She said there will be a community garden, chicken coop, playground, cookout area and hopefully a community building with a meeting room, bathroom and kitchen for when residents want to have larger gatherings.
“For the first eight homes, we were able to tap onto the existing sewer system,” she said. “They’re beautiful quality homes. I hope these will be homes the residents are proud to be in and work hard to stay in.”
Bell said some of the houses will be transitional homes where residents can live for a few months until they get on their feet and are ready to move on.
“The Methodist church in Eureka Springs, my home church, is sponsoring a home,” she said. “We’re hoping to have about six to eight transitional homes.”
Rotarian Keith Hamm asked how the ECHO Village project is being funded.
“How do you fund that? It’s certainly going to be a complement to the city,” he said, “but you’re talking about a tremendous project.”
In addition to area churches sponsoring some of the homes, Bell said she has written grants for funding and the project has received donations of both materials and labor.
“I have a grant that paid for the first house and a half and another grant that will pay for another house,” she said. “Right now, the homes are staying on price, which we’re very excited about.”
Bell continued, “The one-bedroom is about $35,000 to build, and the two-bedroom is about $45,000 to build. If you break it down, that’s $40 per square foot. If you’re building a house, the average cost is $110 per square foot, so this is very reasonable.”
Aside from hiring professionals to pour the foundations, she said all of the labor has been done by volunteers.
“We’ve been blessed in that we have had donated materials,” she said. “We’ve got a guy who has donated all of the flooring, including carpeting and tiles. That is a blessing.”
Bell said the volunteer group World Mission Builders built the first eight houses over two weeks in June.
“They turned us on to a group who donated all the lumber and walls,” she said. “We sent them the house plans, and they built the walls and numbered them so we knew which house each was for. We had a volunteer trucker who delivered them down here with his 18-wheeler, and we offloaded them thanks to a whole bunch of high school kids and the high school principal.”
Bell continued, “When the World Mission Builders came, we had a house up in one hour. It was unreal. All of that was volunteer.”
Rotarian Julie Hall asked what the timeline is for the first residents to move into the homes.
“We’re taking applications now, and we hope that our first homes will be ready in late fall,” Bell said. “I need more than eight houses. The real kicker is going to be trying to decide who will go in those homes.”
Hall, who is also the library director for the Berryville Library, thanked Bell for everything that ECHO does for Carroll County.
“We do get a lot of people who are stranded here for whatever reason who come to the library as a last resort,” Hall said. “I have to say you’re one of the only places we can count on referring them where they do get help. A lot of times, there is nobody we can even refer them to.”
Bell passed out volunteer cards to the Rotarians, encouraging them to fill one out if they have any skills or contributions they want to donate to the project.
People interested in volunteering or donating to the project can stop by ECHO Clinic at 4004 E. Van Buren in Eureka Springs and fill out “The Joy of Generosity” volunteer card. People interested in living in ECHO Village also can pick up applications at ECHO Clinic.