Hamilton County pursuing domestic-violence shelter

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Community leaders are working to open a domestic-violence shelter in fast-growing Hamilton County—a multiyear, multimillion-dollar effort to serve residents in need of emergency housing.

Preliminary plans call for raising about $5 million for a 30-bed facility serving women and children seeking refuge from abuse. It would be operated by not-for-profit Alternatives Inc., which runs an Anderson shelter that helped more than 100 Hamilton County residents last year.

Alternatives’ facility—one of just 29 such shelters in the state—serves six central Indiana counties, including Hamilton. Demand for its services grows every year, said Executive Director Mary Jo Lee.

“In an ideal world, there would be one in every county,” she said. “Domestic-violence numbers are rising everywhere. Hamilton County is no different.”

Indeed, emergency housing is the No. 1 unmet need there, according to a 2010 community assessment conducted by United Way of Central Indiana. Real-time data from the Connect2Help referral service, in UWCI’s Indianapolis building, supports that conclusion.

shelter by the numbers“We know this is an issue,” said United Way CEO Ann Murtlow.

So a UWCI-led coalition of business leaders, elected officials and service providers began looking for a solution, turning to Alternatives for help. Among those at the table: Noblesville-based Prevail Inc., which offers a range of non-residential services to crime victims—including referrals to Alternatives’ Madison County shelter.

Built in 2005, the 48-bed facility is often full of families fleeing violence. Last year, Lee said, 30 percent of its residents came from Hamilton County—second only to Madison County’s 54 percent.

The distance is a factor. Keeping children enrolled in their home school districts can mean they spend two hours or more each day in transit, Lee and others said. Same goes for their mothers’ jobs.

United Way’s Murtlow said research shows the nearer a shelter is to a child’s school, the longer a family stays out of harm’s way.

“If it isn’t close to resources, that’s problematic for people seeking help,” she said.

The Hamilton County task force asked Alternatives to open another shelter across the county line, most likely in Noblesville. Prevail, meanwhile, will continue to provide advocacy and support services.

“They don’t want to be in the shelter business,” said county Commissioner Christine Altman, who has been part of the planning committee since its start.

Referrals to the new facility also would come from police officers and other first responders, as they do now. But Lee thinks the idea of seeking help at a local shelter might be a little less scary for victims.

She encourages officers to visit the Anderson shelter now so they can assuage Hollywood-fueled misconceptions about the living conditions. The 19,500-square-foot facility, built around a courtyard playground, is anything but dark and dreary.

Alternatives raised $3.5 million to build the shelter, on the grounds of Community Hospital Anderson. The hospital gave the organization a long-term, $1-per-year lease on the land—a show of support that Lee said helped the fundraising effort. She’s hoping for a similar arrangement in Hamilton County.

At the top of the site-selection committee’s most-recent wish list: 3.8 acres of county-owned land along Cumberland Road in Noblesville, south of the jail complex. The location has an advocate in Altman.

Altman last month proposed the county agree to a 50-year lease for the property, which also is close to schools, the library and subsidized housing. The three-member commission tabled the matter until its next meeting.

“We need a shelter, and I think this is our opportunity to contribute to the capital costs,” Altman said Sept. 23, suggesting the facility also could include office space for county detectives who now work in a small section of the old jail. That building costs more than $40,000 a year to operate, she said.

The shelter would be basic but “scalable,” Altman said, with operating expenses of about $500,000 a year. Funding likely would be the same mixture of public and private support that has sustained Alternatives since 1978.

Lee envisions a full-time staff of seven, including four case workers, plus trained part-timers to keep the facility staffed around the clock.

To keep costs low, the shelter won’t offer amenities like a job-training center, weekday preschool or summer programs—all available at the Anderson facility. The Hamilton County location likely will have a volunteer-run children’s room, though, Lee said.

“A lot of these kids just need to feel safe and know that they’re loved,” she said.

Despite its long-standing status as Hamilton County’s shelter provider, Alternatives has never received funding from the county—until now. The commissioners recommended Alternatives get $50,000 in the 2014 budget, which must be authorized by the County Council.

Lee said she has never asked for county support because she didn’t want to jeopardize funding for Prevail, which serves some of the same families. She did so this year at Altman’s urging—with no ill effect on Prevail—and is confident the two organizations can continue to work together.

“We’ve got all the right partners in place,” United Way’s Murtlow said.

Indeed, Prevail’s support groups and individual counseling services are a good complement, Executive Director Susan Ferguson said, helping victims rebuild their lives and avoid repeating the cycle of violence.

“Shelters can be lifesaving services,” said Ferguson, who left a shelter job in Michigan to join Prevail this year. “We think long-term services like ours are critical as well.”

Prevail is slated to get about $150,000 in county funding next year.

Lee doesn’t expect the shelter to materialize overnight. Once a site is finalized, construction planning and fundraising could take two years, she said. Alternatives raised enough money to pay for its Anderson shelter outright, and although the cost is likely to be higher seven years later, Lee is “confident we’ll be able to do it again.”

In addition to cash gifts, she said campaign leaders will be seeking in-kind donations and sponsorship deals running the gamut from a family “adopting” a roomful of furniture to a corporation putting its name on the facility.

“There’s a lot of [philanthropic] opportunity in Hamilton County,” she said of the largely affluent community.

Altman and others are convinced of the need. County officials responded to about 2,000 domestic-violence calls last year, she said, many to the same households. It’s impossible to know whether victims of repeat offenders would have fled to a shelter if one had been closer, but it’s a risk worth taking, she said.

“Once you get folks out of the situation, the calls should stop,” she said, “at least as long as they’re in the shelter. We’ve got to break that cycle. In my mind, that’s as important as anything else.”•

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