B.C. Kowalski/City Pages
Yauo Yang is leading the charge on building a long-term transformation center for the homeless and those struggling with addicition.
Yang is one man, but that’s never stopped him. Two years ago, I interviewed him in his office in the YWCA building in downtown Wausau, he told me about a vision to start a homeless center. But he regularly brought food and clothing to homeless individuals in the Wausau area. His church membership, he explains to me, is a mixture of the less fortunate and those who are well off, and everyone in between. The Cross is not only open to everyone; Yang actively encourages people from all walks of life to join.
Yang happily greets me in the new building on Grand Avenue. The church had to move here after a new restaurant moved into the YWCA building, but they’ve long wanted their own space anyway. They’ve been in the Grand Avenue space since summer and it’s now where programming for The Joseph Project is held. They have about 10 people who come through the program, in which Yang and others help people with troubled pasts learn to make better decisions and turn their lives around. Some are successful, some heartbreakingly are not. Yang never seems deterred.
But Yang always wants to do more. He feels God has called him to help out and heed the call he must. It goes back to his time as a soldier in Iraq, he explained to me back in 2019, when I first interviewed him. “I made a deal with God,” Yang told me at the time. “If you get me out of Iraq alive, when I come back to Wausau, whatever you want me to do, I will do for you.”
Now it’s a new project, one that is completely separate from The Cross church. It’s a brand new entity, and if he can pull off the fundraising, something Wausau doesn’t yet have: a long-term shelter to help people get their lives together.
It’s called the Gospel Transformational Living Center, and it could be a major game-changer for the Wausau area. Yang says people struggling with homelessness and/or addiction will come to the center to undergo a year or more of transformation under Yang’s and others’ tutelage. He says the project will help people beyond what The Joseph Project, which is a week long, can accomplish.
“When you first met me, I was a young, naive pastor,” Yang told me in his office toward the back of The Cross Church. “I thought if I can be an awesome pastor and love them for two hours each Sunday, that would do it.”
He then took on The Joseph Project, started by a student at the Medical College of Wisconsin as a community outreach project. The program was originally founded in Milwaukee. “Here is a way I can tangibly help folks financially turn their life around. How awesome is that?”
But Yang realized that even that wasn’t enough. One week of Yang’s and others’ lessons, delivered in a no-nonsense tone and mock interviews with members of the community, are enough to spark a change for some; but not all. “At the end of the day, I realized when talking about the homeless, drug addicts, the incarcerated, the unemployed, they need a lot more help,” Yang says.
So the new project is a long term, live-in center that residents will undergo for at least a year, and up to 18 months. The Gospel TLC could be one more piece of the puzzle in addressing homelessness and addiction in the Wausau area.
Getting the center off the ground
Yang says he initially got the idea while doing a bible study with inmates at the Marathon County Jail.
The center won’t come cheap. The non-profit (which is a separate entity from The Cross Church, Yang wants to make clear) hopes to raise $2 million to get it off the ground.
Initially, Yang had thought to focus his efforts on the downtown and envisioned a center being located there. But, it occurred to him, locating a center like this downtown could be a bad idea. When undergoing rehabilitation, especially for addiction, a common notion is to get the person away from the folks who have had a bad influence on them. And where is most of the drug activity? Downtown Wausau, Yang says. “They told me when they were released into the community, they would be released into a TLP (temporary living placement).” Many weren’t looking forward to that prospect. So Yang got an idea. “I thought maybe we can have a TLC instead, a Transformational Living Center.”
So, instead, Yang envisions a place out in the country. He recently moved into a country house himself and is an avid outdoorsman, and enjoys the peace nature brings. It might be a welcome contrast for folks used to city life. “If you’re trying to develop a place to help folks get away from drugs, and located in that area there are drug houses two blocks away, that’s not going to be good for their recovery,” Yang says.
Instead, they would like a peaceful place in the country, Yang says. The pie in the sky dream would be that they raise enough to build a place from the ground up, and include all the things they would need to help address addiction and homelessness issues. “We thought of having a place 10-15 minutes outside of Wausau so they can be out in nature,” Yang says. “They will be able to experience the peace and tranquility that nature can bring.”
Though building from the ground up would be ideal, it might be that Gospel TLC ends up buying an old farmhouse and building onto it. There are a few properties they’ve already scouted, Yang says.
Participants would come to the transformational living center and would learn life skills, work with therapists and spend time earning the trust of those who run the facility. While at first they might not be able to leave once they enter, over time they might start earning weekend visits, and toward the end of the program might leave almost every weekend.
They will also spend time studying the bible. Yang says participants aren’t required to be religious to join but will be required to respect that Jesus is part of the program. He likens it to Alcoholics Anonymous, where participants are required to submit to a higher power; but in this case, Yang says, he is clear that Jesus is that higher power.
The program will also require staff: transformation counselors, and transition counselors, the latter who can help residents transition back into society once their time at the center is up. Yang envisions having two live-in staff who are former addicts or people who struggled themselves, who will have free room and board at the center in exchange for being mentors for the participants.
How will the community respond?
Marathon County Sheriff Scott Parks and Assembly Rep. Pat Snyder have both signaled their support for the project. Parks told City Pages that he’s always been supportive of Yang’s efforts in the community, including with The Joseph Project, and that he has high hopes for this project as well. “I think this is a worthwhile project and would be another sandbag to fill the gap in the holes we have,” Parks told City Pages. “I appreciate Yauo Yang’s can-do attitude and spirit. I feel he has the drive to make this successful.”
What about the religious aspect of the project? Parks says that some might be turned off by that, but if it helps people who genuinely need it, that might be more important.
The Gospel TLC is a great option to have in the community, but he’s not sure about having it be a court-ordered diversion program. “The trouble with those applications is if the person being ordered to participate in a diversion program or court-ordered treatment does not make the decision to do so, but are forced there, they may not be ready to make that lifestyle change due to defiance, stubbornness or unwilling to cooperate because they are ordered to do so,” Parks says. It might work better as a voluntary solution for some who are genuinely seeking to get help and could be very valuable in that regard.
Officer Eric Lemirand, who works as a homeless liaison officer for the Wausau Police Department, says having a program like that could be very helpful.
Lemirand didn’t think the religious part would be a major issue for those who really want help. The Salvation Army is already religious-based, and while it might be an issue for some, overall having a long-term solution will benefit many in the homeless community. “The problem we are seeing is some of these individuals need longer-term treatment,” Lemirand told City Pages. “The typical inpatient treatment is a great start but can drop off at the end when they are just making progress. We are trying to solve decades-old problems with 28 days of treatment.”
Theresa Wetzsteon, Marathon County’s district attorney, told City Pages she and staff haven’t yet had a conversation with Yang about the facility but thinks it has the potential to help someone in a diversion program fulfill the terms of their agreement.
It’s a big task to undertake. But Yang has never stepped away from a challenge when it’s involved helping the less fortunate.