Many believe that Detroit’s story is one of rampant urban blight, unemployment and poverty. But in reality, it’s a story of countless people working hard every day to change things for the better. Cass Community Social Services (CCSS) is one such group of people working to make things better by using Detroit’s blight to provide green jobs for the homeless.

Rubber + Mud x Collaboration = Jobs

Founded in 2002, CCSS is a nonprofit that provides food, housing, health and job assistance to Detroit’s homeless and low-income populations. Throughout 2007 and 2008, the CCSS team was looking for new ways to help their homeless patrons find employment. Always an uphill battle, this mission became even more difficult as the economy worsened.

CCSS volunteers cleaning up tires.

Inspiration struck when Rev. Faith Fowler, Executive Director of CCSS, read an article about a Native American group that used illegally dumped tires to construct mud mats which they then sold to benefit their community. Recognizing an opportunity to tackle both homelessness and Detroit’s urban blight simultaneously, Fowler contacted the group, who were willing to share their process.

A CCSS mud mat.

Soon, Fowler was mobilizing volunteers to clean tires out of vacant lots all over Detroit, and employing homeless individuals to weave mud mats out of the rubber.

Eight years later, CCSS volunteers have cleaned up over 90,000 tires. In the summer, they hold cleanups as often as three times a week, and are so well-practiced that they can clear out up to 300 tires in just half an hour.

Turning Tires Into Products

While Fowler can’t reveal their “secret sauce,” the general process for creating the mud mats is simple. Employees cut off a tire’s side walls, cut the rubber into strips, and weave them into mats using CCSS’s version of a loom. Fowler likes to describe the mats as “good for 100,000 miles,” and CCSS sees steady orders from people all over the country.

CCSS employee showing 2 young volunteers how to make a mat.

In 2014, a friend who had just returned from vacation suggested adding sandals to CCSS’s repertoire. Fowler realized that this was the perfect way to make use of the tire treads, which were no good for weaving. Now, each tread is cut into various sole sizes, leaving behind very little waste and giving birth to the Detroit Treads line of sandals, which have also been sold all over the country and even overseas.

New Jobs, New BeginningsA CCSS employee constructing a sandal.

Today, 80 people are employed by CCSS’s Green Industries program, which includes all their tire-based projects as well as other programs, such as a paper-shredding and recycling business employing developmentally disabled adults. Employees work part-time in two shifts, Monday through Friday. As Fowler explains, offering part-time hours is beneficial for those receiving SSI benefits and allows the program to employ more people.

Since its start, many employees have used the program as a stepping stone to transition into full-time employment. One man had worked as a sous chef earlier in life but came to CCSS while struggling to find a new job after being homeless. After working at CCSS for a year and a half, he secured a full-time sous chef position starting at $55,000 a year—setting his life back on course.

The Next 100,000 Miles

With the success of their Green Industries program, Fowler and CCSS aren’t slowing down. Their next project will be a furniture line made from wood and other materials reclaimed from abandoned buildings. While some pieces will be sold, many will be used to furnish tiny homes that will provide the homeless and other low-income people with affordable housing.

“Poverty is multifaceted. The exciting thing about green industries is that it deals with more than one problem at once. It deals with blight; it deals with the planet; it deals with employment. It’s a win-win-win solution that contributes to everyone’s quality of life.”

Rev. Faith Fowler | Executive Director, Cass Community Social Services

If you’d like to help CCSS provide jobs for the homeless, please consider visiting their online store to purchase a mud mat, a pair of Detroit Treads sandals or one of their other upcycled products.

Budget Dumpster is your community-focused source for a dumpster rental in Detroit. This article is part of a series spotlighting organizations that are making a difference in the communities we serve. If you know of another great organization, let us know in the comments!