Some say Wheeler Mission hurts neighborhood’s potential

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A fall merger of two Indianapolis homeless shelters set off a new round of speculation about whether Wheeler Mission Ministries Inc. will continue to operate out of its 245 N. Delaware St. location–a stone's throw from multimillion-dollar redevelopment under way on Massachusetts Avenue.

And at least one investor already is betting that nearby residential, retail and restaurant development eventually will squeeze out the crowds that loiter outside the downtown shelter.

"With so much money being put in the area … I think it's a little bit of common sense that something has to happen [with Wheeler]," said Dan Stephenson, whose 201 North Delaware LLC bought two buildings near the shelter. "That mission has to move. That's the bottom line."

But Wheeler President Rick Alvis said the shelter has no plans to move or close. In fact, both the Wheeler and newly affiliated Lighthouse Mission facilities are at full capacity and, if anything, need more space.

Even so, Alvis doesn't see that happening.

"I don't believe the city really wants to have more [shelter] beds in Indianapolis," he said.

Alvis regularly fields calls from real estate brokers interested in the mission's building, but moving would mean finding another downtown location–a difficult endeavor at best given neighbors' reactions to shelter patrons.

"We're in the center of where the homeless are down here," he said. "If we're not here, the homeless will be in the Circle Centre mall and all over the place downtown."

And Wheeler's not willing to be pushed too far from the center of things, Alvis said, adding that even four or five miles from downtown is too far.

Wheeler operates out of several locations, including a women's shelter, two men's shelters in Indianapolis, and a long-term rehab program north of Bloomington.

The 87-bed Lighthouse shelter at 520 E. Market St. and Wheeler's women's shelter at 23 N. Rural St. aren't in the heart of downtown and don't garner the same attention.

At issue is the 115-bed men's shelter and free-meal service Wheeler offers at the Delaware Street facility, just south of Massachusetts Avenue. The Mass Ave district is home to pubs and restaurants and a pair of high-dollar condo and retail projects.

So far, the redevelopment hasn't rounded the corner onto Delaware Street, home to many small businesses and parking garages, but business owners are hopeful it will.

Many were disappointed when Alvis put the relocation rumors to rest, saying the shelter crowds often scare away their customers.

Wheeler patrons often gather in front of the mission before its 3 p.m. check-in time or before meals served at noon and 5 p.m., even though Alvis said the mission has a day room where patrons are welcome anytime.

Some of those who venture out wander into the law firm next door.

"People come into the reception area and want to marry the receptionist or ask to see an attorney," said McClure McClure Davis & Henn partner Grover Davis. Other problems include shelter patrons panhandling and urinating in the alley.

He said Wheeler management has tried to address the problem, installing cameras outside the mission to monitor behavior, for example, "but you can't watch everything."

Davis said older clients coming into the office sometimes feel intimidated.

"Obviously, we believe [the shelter] would be a better fit elsewhere, but Wheeler Mission wants to be downtown someplace and anyone they'd be moving beside would fight them," he said.

North of the shelter at 317 N. Delaware St., Cord Camera store manager Mike Hickey said he thinks Wheeler patrons scare away some customers.

"Look how many businesses have gone under right there beside it," Hickey said, citing an IndyGo office that moved this year and a Burger King restaurant that went under in 2003.

An IndyGo spokeswoman said it closed the Delaware office because space became available in City Market, which has more foot traffic. She said loitering wasn't a problem at the Delaware office.

Still, Hickey said his customers routinely are asked for money as they get out of their cars to come into the store.

"There's got to be a better place to have the facility," he said.

New Delaware player

Stephenson is so confident the mission will move that the company he co-owns has invested in the same block, paying about $2 million last fall for two mostly vacant buildings south of Wheeler. Downtown brokers said the purchase price–about $40 per square foot–is fair but low compared with buildings in the central business district.

201 North Delaware LLC is remodeling its 20,000-square-foot namesake building to accommodate a tapas restaurant that will occupy the first two floors; its target opening is late spring. The available third floor "probably lends itself to a pub or stogy bar," Stephenson said.

The corporation also bought 207 N. Delaware, a 30,000-square-foot building to the north that had housed the IndyGo offices on the ground floor. The top two floors have been vacant for years. The entire building has been gutted and is being remodeled, and Stephenson just signed on with Summit Realty Group Inc. to recruit office tenants.

Wheeler is doing its part to care for the homeless, he said, but it would be better off if someone found it a location that will accommodate a larger shelter.

"Somebody's got to step up and be the middle man here, and I can guarantee you it won't be a politician," he said, adding that the old Winona Hospital campus might be a good fit. The 346,000-square-foot hospital at 3232 N. Meridian St. has been vacant since it closed in 2004.

Not a bother

Others don't think the shelter is a problem.

"There's people walking on the street, but they don't threaten you, they don't hurt you," said Todd Maurer, president of Halakar Real Estate, which is leading a group developing a multimillion-dollar condo project northeast of Wheeler.

He said the condominiums will have secured entries and security cameras to keep an eye on residents.

"I don't think it's the highest and best use for that piece of property," Maurer added. "But does it hurt the area? I don't think so."

Frank Schmitz, who is part owner in the company planning to open a tapas restaurant in Stephenson's building, agreed. He said his main concern when scoping out the location was a bus stop outside its front door. He said the city agreed to move the bus stop two blocks north.

"For Indianapolis, downtown is the way to go if you want to rely on both a heavy lunch and business trade in the evening," Schmitz said.

He said he realized the Delaware area is in a bit of a transition, but he said his group, St. Louis-based BARcelona LLC, wanted to get in early–and cheaply–on the growing Mass Ave residential tide.

"I wanted to be at the forefront rather than coming in a couple of years late," he said.

Not welcome anywhere

When Wheeler's Alvis gets phone calls from brokers, he just tells them no. Asked if there would be a dollar amount that would make it worth the mission's hassle to move, he laughed.

"I could shoot for the stars and say $100 million, then we'd have to take a look at it," Alvis said.

But as president of a national organization of missions, he knows this discussion isn't confined to Delaware Street–or to Indianapolis.

"It's always: Put shelters anywhere but here," Alvis said.

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