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What can Mount Vernon learn from Mansfield’s approach to remedying year-round homelessness?

Harmony House

Harmony House is located at 124 W. Third St. in Mansfield, Ohio.

MOUNT VERNON -- Thirty minutes into a discussion about the future of Mount Vernon as part of Knox PagesTalk the Vote listening tour in October, the topic of homelessness arose.

A young man described his time working for the Mount Vernon Police Department, and how on summer nights, he would find homeless individuals sleeping on private property.

They had nowhere else to go, he explained. Mount Vernon’s only homeless shelter, The Winter Sanctuary, had closed in April and was not slated to re-open until November.

“We would try to help them out, but there were no resources in our city. So then they’re trespassing, which is a potential citation,” the man recalled. “We’d have to tell them to leave or they’ll be placed under arrest. But that doesn’t fix the issue of, ‘Where do they go?’ As a human thing, it’s a huge downfall in the summer months here.”

The Winter Sanctuary opened in 2008 as Knox County’s first emergency homeless shelter. The shelter operates at 401 W. Vine St. in Mount Vernon, with separate sleeping quarters accommodating up to 18 men and eight women, as well as bathroom, kitchen and laundry facilities.

The Winter Sanctuary has one full-time employee – operations manager Joe Springer – and 13 part-time employees. Two assist Springer with the organization’s advocacy program, which helps clients get back on their feet by connecting them with local resources, and 11 are shift supervisors, manning the shelter during its operational hours.

The organization plans to bring back volunteers in January, Springer said, after a nearly two-year absence due to the COVID-19 pandemic (it had approximately 70 volunteers pre-COVID).

The Winter Sanctuary operates on roughly $150,000 per year, Springer said. The bulk of that comes from grants and carry-over from years prior, Springer explained, as well as the organization’s new annual fundraiser, “A Christmas Carol.” Approximately $20,000 comes from donations.

The Winter Sanctuary’s advocacy program already runs year-round. And the facility’s open season was extended by a month two years ago, in response to the need within the community.

Still, the shelter is only open Nov. 1 through April 1. Springer said the non-profit organization’s leadership is currently “assessing the need for a year-round shelter.”

“The original mission of the shelter was to be a seasonal shelter, to help people during the coldest months of the year,” Springer said. “But there are also some added issues, like the lack of affordable housing in our community.”

If year-round shelter services are deemed necessary by The Winter Sanctuary’s leadership, Springer said the biggest obstacles facing the organization would be staffing and funding, along with finding a “permanent home” for the organization.

He noted a year-round homeless shelter would be the first of its kind in Knox County.

“That would be a new thing,” Springer said. “Up until The Winter Sanctuary opened in 2008, I don’t think there were any emergency shelters for the homeless (in Knox County).”

So, what would it take? How have other communities managed to pull this off – operating a year-round homeless shelter, along with advocacy services?

A quick glance to the north might provide some answers: Mansfield has had a year-round homeless shelter for more than three decades.

Vicki Kane founded Harmony House in 1990. The organization began operating out of a two-story home on Fifth Street, and moved to its current location in 1998 – a facility on Third Street that includes 58 beds, a food pantry, a full-service kitchen, laundry and personal care services, and administrative offices.

Kelly Blankenship, who took over for Kane as its executive director in 2017, said Harmony House sees clients from across north central Ohio, given the rarity of year-round shelters in the area.

“We’re not back to full capacity yet, but we’re slowly getting back there, as we take a watch of the pandemic and the COVID numbers in our area,” she said. “We keep an eye on those things.”

Kelly Blankenship

Kelly Blankenship, executive director of Harmony House Homeless Services, hopes to create a new facility in the former Hamilton Park on Mansfield's north side.

Three decades of service have lent itself to creative solutions in the two main areas identified by Springer as obstacles for The Winter Sanctuary: staffing and funding.

And according to Blankenship, the need for these services year-round is significant.

“If we weren't available 365 days a year, where would these people go? They would either be forced to hole up in abandoned houses or sleep in doorways,” Blankenship said. “It would be a devastation to our community.”

FUNDING

Nothing happens in Mount Vernon or Mansfield without first thinking of funding. Harmony House operates on $450,000 a year, Blankenship said.

The organization does not receive any dedicated funding, Blankenship said, such as tax revenue or other forms of guaranteed public income. It relies instead on private donations and a plethora of local, state and federal grants, which Blankenship applies for herself.

And Blankenship pursues grants aggressively. Last year, when federal CARES Act money became available, she said she filed seven additional grant applications during a three-month period – all in an effort to get every penny available for her organization.

“If there's money available, I'm going to go after it,” she said.

One of the main reasons Blankenship was chosen to replace Kane following her retirement was her financial expertise. The Mansfield native has a degree in business administration – with an emphasis in accounting – and also has a background in caring for others, having completed a “life-changing” missionary trip to El Salvador in the early 2000s.

Roughly half of the organization’s funding comes through grants, Blankenship said. The lion’s share comes through a two-year operational grant from the Ohio Department of Development, which contains money funneled from the federal government. Harmony House also applies for and receives money from United Way, as well as the regional “Rapid Rehousing” program (using federal dollars) and the Richland County Foundation.

Harmony House receives grant money from Richland County Job and Family Services as well, Blankenship said, which arrives in the form of Title 20 funds.

“We also have a little bit of money that comes from the FEMA EFSP (Emergency Food and Shelter Program,” she added. “It's right around $12,000 or $13,000 a year. It's not that much money, but every little bit helps.”

Harmony House

Kelly Blankenship has served as the executive director of Harmony House in Mansfield since 2017.

The other half of Harmony House’s funding comes from private donations. Blankenship said the organization receives contributions of all sizes, from various community partners including individuals, companies, churches and other organizations.

And the donations aren’t always monetary. Mansfield’s TV and radio stations recently completed a food drive that provided non-perishable items to Harmony House and other like-minded local agencies. The Catholic Charities office in Mansfield has donated food items over the years as well.

Harmony House has also benefited from other, more specific charity events in years past. A local brewery is holding a coat drive this year to benefit the shelter, and the local iHeart radio station is collecting blankets and other cold-weather items to benefit shelters in Richland and Ashland counties.

When all else fails, Blankenship said Harmony House will ask for specific items on Facebook – and the Mansfield community never fails to come through.

“Luckily, our community is very, very, very generous,” Blankenship said. “They always answer the call when we make it, which we're so grateful for because otherwise, I would have to have those things in my budget and we don't have room in our very, very slim budget for those things.”

Community members will often donate things like pillows, blankets, bath linens, cleaning supplies and paper products, Blankenship said.

“All of those things that we need at the shelter, I would have to put in the budget,” she said. “Luckily, we have not had to because our community donates them to us.”

Blankenship said community support is key to the shelter’s year-round sustainability. It’s what’s allowed Harmony House to thrive in Mansfield for 31 years, and what will likely allow it to do so for decades to come.

“Without the community support and donations, without some of the other grants that we have, there's no way we could do what we do,” she said. “We have a very, very slim budget and we have to watch every penny that we spend because, you know, you can't do a whole lot on $450,000. You just can't.”

STAFFING & SERVICES

Harmony House has six full-time staff members: a receptionist, an executive director, case managers for each floor (the top floor is utilized by families and single women, while the bottom floor is utilized by single men), a housing coordinator and a longtime shelter aide.

It also has seven or eight part-time staff members, Blankenship said, who serve as second- and third-shift shelter aides on each floor.

A steady stream of volunteers also contribute to the organization. While that number dropped off during the pandemic, Blankenship said Harmony House still has volunteers come in to sort donations, organize the food pantry, and complete maintenance tasks at the facility.

When a homeless individual arrives at Harmony House, they are required to go through an intake process, Blankenship said.

“We gather all their demographic information, background history, how long they've been homeless, all of this other information that we have to capture for (the federal department of Housing and Urban Development),” she said. “And that all goes into a database.”

The individual is then assigned to a bed and a room, and they’re provided with supplies necessary for daily life, including pillows, bedding and toiletries. Clients are given “a couple of days to get settled in,” Blankenship said, and then they meet with a case manager.

“The case manager then gets some more history, finds out what their goals are,” Blankenship said. “What's it going to take to get you back on your feet? Do you need to find a job? Do you need hooked up with (the department of) Job and Family Services? Do you need hooked up with childcare? Do you need hooked up with food stamps and cash assistance?

“What do we have to navigate in order to help you become independent again? And so the case manager works with the clients in that regard.”

Once the client has been at the house for approximately one week, the case manager will assess their need for housing assistance.

“And then once that has been identified, then they're referred to our housing coordinator and then she helps them look for places to rent,” Blankenship said. “She takes them to view apartments, and then once they find one, then she helps work with the landlord to negotiate the lease terms with them. And then she inspects the unit and then we'll direct the money for rental assistance to be paid to the landlord. And then they move out.”

Most of Harmony House’s work centers around preparing its clients for the future, beyond their stay in the facility. This includes a mindset shift for most clients, which requires time, dedication and care from staff members to be there throughout the process.

“They come to us in crisis. And so they're not thinking clearly – they're not thinking beyond the moment and we nurture them back to a state of, ‘OK, now I have to start planning for my future again,’ because somebody who is in crisis is only meeting their most immediate needs. That's how their thought process works,” Blankenship said.

“I mean, if you've ever stopped to think about what it's like to not have a place to go – to not have your bed to sleep in, or to have a family and not have a place to take your children and what are you going to do? Where are you going to go?”

‘HOMELESSNESS IS HAPPENING EVERY DAY OF THE YEAR’

Operating a 58-bed shelter with advocacy services year-round is a commitment, Blankenship noted – not only from the staff, but also the community as a whole.

“I get calls in the evenings. I get calls on the weekend. I get calls when I'm on vacation, I take a laptop and I still do work when I'm gone. Because it never ends,” she said.

Blankenship’s staff is constantly communicating – whether through emails, phone calls or texts – to stay updated on each case. This way there are no lapses in communication, and clients can move forward as quickly as possible.

“It's not an eight-to-five job by any means,” she said. “It's a constant job and you have to have passion for what you're doing. And you have to have the desire to help people out of their plight.”

But the time commitment is worth it, Blankenship said, when she and her staff see their clients succeed. She mentioned a man named Christopher, who came to Harmony House as a teenager.

“This kid came to us with nothing,” she recalled.

Christopher called Blankenship recently, and told her that he’s working for Amazon now in Florida. He has his GED and his driver’s license, and he’s planning to buy a car in January, so he can return to Mansfield to visit Blankenship and the rest of the organization’s staff.

“He stays in touch. And he called to tell me that on his life insurance, through Amazon, he made Harmony House the beneficiary of it, if anything ever happened to him while he's working. Because he said, ‘Truly without you guys, I wouldn't be alive,’” Blankenship recalled.

“That's the reason that we go to work everyday and do what we do.”

Stories like that are possible through complete community buy-in, Blankenship said. It takes a dedicated staff, and it takes a dedicated community to support that staff and its mission.

That’s what it takes to run a year-round homeless shelter using this financial model, Blankenship said, with no local tax revenue or dedicated public funds. It’s a community commitment to serving Mansfield’s unhoused population.

“Homelessness is happening every day of the year. Homelessness doesn't just happen in cold weather months,” Blankenship said. “The likelihood isn't that someone's going to die in the summertime, so people don't pay attention that much, but homelessness is happening every single day of the year in every community in America.

“There are communities that are better at (mitigating it), with families doubling up or people couch surfing and staying with other people, or finding a different place to find shelter in the summertime so that they're not walking the streets, but it is happening whether you want to believe it or not. It's happening all year round,” she said.

“The question is, are you going to be a community that's going to come together and help these people all year round? Or are you only going to help them in the winter?”

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Staff Reporter

Grant is a 2018 graduate of Ohio Northern University, where he studied journalism and played basketball. He likes coffee, books and minor league baseball. He loves telling stories and has a passion for local news.