About 50 volunteers came out Sat., May 16, to spruce up the Austin Plaza Arms, 501 N. Central Avenue. Formerly the site of a YMCA, the facility is now used by the Single Room Housing Assistance Corporation (SRHAC) to provide people with temporary housing and a range of support services to get back on their feet.

The volunteers planted flowers out in front of the building’s Central Avenue entrance and applied fresh coats of paint in some of the building’s nearly 300 rooms. Desirie McKay, SRHAC’s program director, said the event is the first of its kind for her organization. 

“We invited tenants in the building to come down and participate,” she said, adding that about 175 people rent living spaces in the building. She hopes the minor renovations are prelude to much bigger opportunities.

“We want to bring community programming back and we want to renovate a lot of this property,” McKay said. “We’re hoping to get some capital improvements and to kind of bring back some of the services that were lost when the old metropolitan YMCA pulled out.”

Polly Mulhearn, who coordinated the renovations, said she’d like the Plaza to become more visible as a result of Saturday’s event — both in Austin and in Springfield. Among influential guests at the weekend cleanup were Ald. Emma Mitts (37th) and state Rep. LaShawn K. Ford (8th), whose office — particularly his community and veterans outreach coordinator Jonathan A. Tate — had a hand in publicizing and facilitating the event.

“We’d like to get some state funding so we can get more programs going,” Mulhearn said. “There’s a beautiful built-in pool here that can be utilized, but it has to be renovated. We’re hoping Springfield will take a look at what we’re doing and say, ‘Austin can use these resources for their children.'”

McKay said SRHAC is currently looking to expand its services for veterans. In an email, Tate said SRHAC “wants to reserve 30 rooms of affordable and low income housing” to veterans who need it. 

The Austin Plaza is currently home to a variety of community organizations and social programs, such as Dry Hooch, Sistas of the Hood and the Austin Community Resource Center.

Jennifer Parker, 24, is SRHAC’s full-time chef. She owns Joel’s Catering Service, which serves breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week for all of the building’s occupants and staff members. Parker is also part of the Austin Community Resource Center’s entrepreneur and wellness program.

“I’m the first organization to start it, so I’m kind of paving the way for young entrepreneurs in the community,” she said during last Saturday’s event. Parker was overseeing two workers—her sister Keshia Parker, 16, and her brother-in-law Sendalio Williams, 19.

Williams was grilling hotdogs while the younger Parker manned a table of condiments and snacks. The elder Parker said she quit her job as a manager at a local Noodles & Company to live out her dream of making a living while feeding her community.

She said business is great, but she wants to expand.

“Staff have to leave out to take their breaks, since this isn’t the most comfortable environment, so I’m planning on getting a bigger room and tricking it out a little bit with some tables, chairs, Wi-Fi, TV—stuff like that,” Parker said. “If I can give them somewhere like an eatery, somewhere to sit down, it would be great.”

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