Hamilton County plans domestic violence shelter

Plans to build Hamilton County’s first domestic violence shelter are taking shape, but questions remain about the project’s location and funding, which could put its eventual construction in jeopardy.

The Hamilton County Council voted in June to pay Fishers-based engineering and architecture firm RQAW $14,500 to design a refuge for adults and families who are victims of abuse.

The firm envisions a 20,000-square-foot facility with six temporary housing units, meeting rooms, a healing garden and more. It projects the cost at $3 million to $5 million.

The shelter would allow Noblesville-based not-for-profit Prevail Inc. to refer people escaping abuse to a location within Hamilton County. That’s not an option now. Instead, Prevail sends victims out of the county for help.

Fred Glynn

“Hamilton County residents really need to understand, this is a very important project. We shouldn’t be shipping people off,” Hamilton County Councilor Fred Glynn told IBJ. “There’s no reason why we shouldn’t have this located here to make it easier for the victims.”

Susan Ferguson, executive director of Prevail, said the not-for-profit is celebrating 35 years of helping victims of domestic violence move on with their lives. The organization’s 25 employees facilitate individual and group meetings, court support and accompaniment, financial-literacy and other life-skills courses, and more.

Prevail served 3,783 clients last year, more than half of whom were victims of domestic violence. In 2020, eight Hamilton County residents died as a result of domestic violence.

“That number continues to grow year-over-year,” Ferguson said.

But where to put the proposed shelter and who will pay to build and operate it remain unresolved.

Prevail currently rents office space in a retail strip a mile south of Noblesville’s downtown square. That setup doesn’t allow for the on-site temporary housing similar groups provide.

As a result, Prevail’s designated referral shelter is the five-unit Alternatives facility in Anderson. But Ferguson said Hamilton County’s population boom and the pandemic have pushed that option to the limit.

“Especially during COVID, there were a lot of vulnerabilities within our system that were exposed,” Ferguson said.

Susan Ferguson

Limited capacities caused by COVID-19 have made it harder to get into shelters, Ferguson said. And domestic violence across the state increased as people were forced to share space at home while dealing with job loss and the increased consumption of alcohol, she said.

“All of those things compounded to mean it was a really bad year for domestic violence,” she said.

The situation got so bad, Ferguson said, that it became common for Prevail’s workers to call 15 shelters before finding a placement that worked.

Sending a victim to an out-of-county shelter isn’t Prevail’s only option.

It has also helped survivors secure permanent housing. And in 2021, Prevail was able to leverage part of its $2 million budget to pay for shorter-term hotel stays for those survivors who were not able to use other shelter options and for whom a hotel room was a safe option. From January to May, Prevail provided that service to three clients on four occasions.

Amy Massillamany

“What’s missing is an in-between space,” Ferguson said. “I would envision [the proposed] suites being available for someone who needs a night or three nights, but also for someone in the longer term that needs some time to get on their feet.”

Amy Massillamany, president of the Hamilton County Council, said the current reliance on out-of-county resources has saved money—although she couldn’t say how much. Bringing the services to Hamilton County would likely increase costs.

So she’s looking for a funding source for a shelter—“something that is sustainable independent of county funding.”

“The caveat to that is, I honestly don’t know what we’d anticipate paying,” she said.

Mark Heirbrandt

Hamilton County Commissioner Mark Heirbrandt said the commissioners have long considered how the county might create temporary housing for abuse victims. But until now, there’s been little traction within the council, which must approve funding for both construction and operation.

“The commissioners, we’ve been pushing this for a long time,” Heirbrandt said. “Finally, we’ve got some council members that realize the importance of this. Now, we have a council that is interested in getting this thing and taking it to the next step.”

Rebecca Dixon, an architect with RQAW, met with Ferguson and members of Hamilton County government to talk through the project’s concept.

“In designing, we started with the visioning session, so we could understand what the objectives and goals are of the stakeholders,” Dixon said. “That’s first and foremost—to really get a good idea of what their goals are, what their dreams are and what their visions are.”

Rebecca Dixon

After touring Prevail’s existing facility to see how workers build an environment around clients’ trauma, Dixon and others from RQAW worked to incorporate function into form.

That might include long sight lines that allow for a greater sense of spatial awareness and security, Dixon said.

She called her approach biophilic, meaning she seeks to incorporate colors, textures and patterns from nature to create a calming environment.

Dixon said technical elements of a building’s layout and design can also reduce triggers for victims of domestic violence.

“Every facility is going to have a mechanical room and an electrical room, but if we can build them so that there’s access to them directly from the outside, folks can service those machines without having to go through” the residential areas, Dixon said.

Glynn said one early consideration for the shelter’s location would be for the county to work out a land deal with Riverview Health’s board to locate the facility on its Noblesville hospital campus. He suggested a section of that campus’s parking as an ideal spot.

Glynn, Heirbrandt and Ferguson all identified the property’s current law enforcement presence and existing security features as complements to the shelter’s needs.

But discussions between the county’s elected officials and Riverview—if they exist at all—haven’t advanced far.

Riverview Health spokeswoman Brandy Hill said she spoke with hospital leaders, who said they hadn’t been approached by anyone about providing a location for a domestic violence shelter.

Land isn’t the only hurdle. It’s not clear yet whether the county would use tax revenue to pay for the facility and whether Prevail would need financial assistance to run it.

Glynn said the county wouldn’t be able to issue a bond to build the shelter unless it wound up owning it, and that’s currently not the plan.

“My thought is that it would be taken out of general-fund cash from the county,” he said, but added that he’s also planning to talk to elected officials in Hamilton County’s cities, towns and townships to see if they’d be willing to contribute to the project.

Still, Glynn said, “this project getting completed won’t be dependent on that. We’re pretty committed in the county to getting this done.”•

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