JEFFERSONVILLE — For the first time in more than three decades, Jeffersonville's only homeless shelter will be transitioning to new leadership — a move current and future owners say will help strengthen support for homeless and for affordable housing in the community.
On Monday, Haven House Services Inc. signed a letter of intent to sell the shelter to Park Memorial United Methodist Church, and other community partners, over the next 30 to 60 days. Executive Director Barb Anderson, who helped open the shelter in 1985 and has continued to lead it since, along with the seven-member shelter board will work with Park Memorial's pastor, the Rev. Jim Moon, in the ensuing months to ensure a smooth transition for residents.
Anderson will then focus her efforts more in an advocacy capacity, using her voice at the local, state and national level to champion the rights of homeless people and for improvements in affordable housing.
Moon said the goal is to purchase the property and then work to build alliances among churches, residents and the community at large, who care about those who live in poverty.
"What we see is, if Jesus were here, this is what he'd be doing," Moon said Tuesday. "We're here to walk beside those who are poor and marginalized and help them be more successful in the way that they live."
FUNDING COMES THROUGH
One catalyst for the change came Thursday, when the shelter received a notice that if $26,000 in outstanding money owed for sewer bills was not paid in full by Monday, services would be shut off the following day — effectively shutting down the facility and leaving the more than 100 residents living there without a place to go.
Elisha Gibson, utility billing manager for the Jeffersonville Wastewater Department, confirmed the letter and said the most recent substantial payment had been $10,000 paid in December 2017 toward a $17,000 bill, although she said Anderson had made the minimum payments against what was owed in 2017 and 2018. The average monthly usage accounts for around $1,300 per month, not including any late fees that have accrued.
Jeffersonville Mayor Mike Moore said he became aware of the amount owed at a meeting several weeks ago with the Claysburg Neighborhood Association. At a subsequent meeting of the Jeffersonville sewer board, of which Moore is a member, he said it was agreed that all sewer customers would be treated the same, and the notice was sent out.
Anderson said she at first reached out to various donors, in an effort to raise money to pay the bill.
"Then I thought, I can do this and in three months I'm going to have to do it again, like I've been doing it for 20 years," she said. "Or I could think of this differently."
She and Moon talked and came to an agreement about how to best serve the residents moving forward and on Monday afternoon, the pastor delivered the $26,000 for the sewer bill to the city department, as a down payment to purchase the shelter. The exact selling price and ownership structure have yet to be determined.
EASING THE CHANGE
On Tuesday, Anderson and Moon met with residents of Haven House, to let them know about the coming transition and to answer any questions. Anderson also wanted to make sure they knew she was still always going to be in their corner.
"I'm not going to say they don't have concerns, of course they do," Anderson said following the meeting. "I've been their face and their voice for so long. But they also trust me and know I would never throw them under the bus."
Mary Ruth Rodgers, one of the residents, said the help from Park Memorial was "just a blessing from God," she said. "I don't want to see this place get shut down because where would people go?"
Kayla Gibson and her 10-year-old son have lived at the shelter since July, having gone there after a rocky period of housing instability. They had most recently been staying with a family member, but had to leave due to space needs in the home. Prior to that they were living in hotels.
"I didn't have a place to go," Gibson said. But in just over a month, she's developed family at Haven House she didn't have before; she and the other families help each other out, watching over their children and belongings. Anderson has helped secure housing for the mother and son; once its ready for occupancy, they'll be moving into a rehabbed Jeffersonville Housing Authority unit.
"I know it's soon and I couldn't be happier," Gibson said. "This year, I've grown family ... if there's a will, there's a way, and I couldn't thank anybody but Ms. Barbara."
While she's a little nervous about the transition, Gibson knows that "some changes are for the better," she said, adding that "This is [Anderson's] family, too — this is what she's done for years. [But] I think it will be a good thing because it will take some stress off of her."
Anderson admitted that the transition also means she will have a life outside the shelter.
"My family has sacrificed a great deal and I want them to have a part of me now," she said.
FORGING COMMUNITY PARTNERSHIPS
Anderson and Moon have faith in the transition and hope for the future partnerships, because they have seen what can be accomplished when community agencies work together. In July, multiple agencies, including Park Memorial, Haven House, Exit 0, Community Action of Southern Indiana and others, banded together to form the Homeless Prevention Task Force, whose members worked to find housing and assistance for more than 150 people displaced by the sale of America's Best Inn at Clarksville.
"None of this started until last Thursday," Anderson said, referencing the sewer bill payment notice. "This is life-changing decisions in less than a week. But you know what the task force taught me is that you can do life-changing decisions in less than a day and get it done.
"Out of that grew a new sense [of] energy," she said.
Anderson hopes to see the creation of a "an organization that's going to be here until it's not needed," she said, adding that it comes down to affordable housing.
"If we have housing, we stabilize addictions, employment for low-wage workers, education, families. And when we do all that, we end homelessness."