The calls for help come in every day now.
Ryan Peters has grown accustomed to finding one or two messages every time he checks the voicemail at the Church of God’s office. Families are in need of money to pay for a night or two in a hotel room, or for enough money to pay the electricity or the water bill so they can survive one more month.
The Franklin church doesn’t have funds to help with financial hardship. Instead, volunteers have assembled small survival packs of food to give to people who otherwise might not have anything else.
“It would be easy to say we’re small and we don’t have the money. But we didn’t want that to be an excuse not to do anything,” he said. “That’s not how God wants us to be. We can’t take care of everything. But we can do what we can.”
Churches and faith-based organizations have become the driving force in the community push to reduce homelessness in Johnson County. Their members donate food and clothing to help the needy survive, and give money to aid people overwhelmed by mortgage or rent payments, utility costs or medical bills.
Solving the homeless dilemma is a complicated, arduous mission that has no easy answer.
“On a very basic, biblical level, we should be sharing the love of Christ. That’s what the church is called to do,” said Crystal Thompson, community connections coordinator for Mount Pleasant Christian Church. “We need to be here for this community, and lend a hand to those who need it.”
In the past five years, community leaders have gained a better understanding about homelessness in the county. Johnson County’s homeless aren’t living in cardboard boxes in downtown Franklin or Greenwood.
Rather, they are sleeping in cars or in tents out in the country. Families are sharing single motel rooms, or crashing on couches offered by their friends or relatives.
Research led by the United Way of Johnson County has tried to gather social agencies, schools and faith-based groups together to collaborate on the crisis.
Over the course of nine months, organizers have learned that the faith-based community is providing a majority of assistance to residents on the verge of homelessness.
In 2013, more than $45,000 was given out throughout Johnson County in emergency housing assistance. Of that amount, more than $32,000 was given by faith-based groups — more than 72 percent. The total includes money given out by township trustees who responded to the United Way’s survey, as well as other social service agencies such as Human Services and KIC-IT.
Those same faith-based groups gave out more than $99,000 in rental and mortgage assistance and more than $80,500 in utility help.
“As Christians, we’re supposed to be helping people. That’s our mission,” Peters said.
But in most cases, each church is working on the problem independently. With little communication between the outreach directors at each congregation, the network is plagued by inefficiency, said Nancy Plake, executive director of the United Way of Johnson County.
“It may be a minister, it may be a lay person, it may be a member of the congregation. And then it will switch,” she said. “They are feeling overwhelmed with the situation and don’t always feel qualified to evaluate if a person needs help and how to get them that.”
Still, local churches have mastered aspects of the social safety net. One the county’s greatest strengths is providing food to those who need it.
A network of churches offer free community meals to anyone who needs one throughout the week. With 11 churches participating, every weekday is covered, sometimes even for lunch and dinner on the same day.
Turning Point Church in Franklin offers meals every Tuesday. People can come in to get hot ham and beans, spaghetti and meatballs or chicken and noodle casserole. Each meal attracts between 50 to 100 people weekly, pastor Guy Langston said.
Providing food to the hungry is just one way to try to live out the mission of Jesus Christ, Langston said.
“Helping people who are in crisis is what we need to be doing,” he said. “We want to be doing whatever Jesus would if he was here. While Jesus did it miraculously, we’re doing it the old-fashioned way, by getting our hands dirty in the kitchen.”
Churches such as Our Lady of the Greenwood, SS. Francis & Clare Roman Catholic Church and Mount Pleasant all have pantries, while dozens of others support independent organizations such as the Interchurch Food Pantry and the Lord’s Cupboard in Franklin.
Mount Pleasant Christian Church opened its Community Ministry Center in 2013. The outreach center houses a food and clothing pantry, as well as staff members who can meet with the needy to help connect them to community resources and agencies for additional aid.
About 260 families are served at the center each month. The center serves homeless people as well as residents who have shelter but are struggling with other needs, Thompson said.
Working with a homeless person requires volunteers to ask specific questions about the types of day-to-day survival supplies they might not have.
Providing a pillow, a few blankets or even a can opener so they can eat the food they receive from the pantry can make a difference in their quality of life, Thompson said.
Some of their clients are living out of cars, and have small Bunsen burners to warm up food. Others have coolers, to keep milk and other perishable items cold.
“They do what they have to do to survive,” Thompson said. “We try to assess their need on a personal level.”
Other churches have found ways to assist even without large budgets or space for a food pantry of their own.
The Church of God has been working for the past five months making aid bags for the homeless.
The initial idea came from Kelley Peters, Ryan’s wife. She created a community service project filling up bags with hygiene items.
But every month, bags were left over. In addition, toothpaste, deodorant and socks, among the other items, can be expensive and prevented the group from creating as many bags.
The solution was a meal bag. Inside each one was a bottle of water, toiletry napkin, two snacks and a dessert. The main dish was microwaveable Ramen noodles, macaroni and cheese or other instant meals.
“Nothing needs to be refrigerated. The whole purpose is someone off the street can have a meal and doesn’t have to do anything with it other than heat it,” Kelley Peters said.
Betsy Lucas, a member of the church, volunteered to connect with local schools to provide some of the meals to students who might not have any food over weekends.
Volunteers packed 50 bags the first month of the program. During their most recent packing, the church put together 176 bags.
“Franklin is a decently well-off community. We have a lot of good businesses here, and a lot of people with good jobs. There’s no reason why we can’t do something,” Ryan Peters said.
But for those who need a shelter, aid is scarce.
Judi Seel is in charge of the emergency outreach ministry at SS. Francis & Clare Roman Catholic Church. The church is able to provide small payments to help with utilities or rent, keeping people from losing their homes.
If someone needs a gas card to keep their car full so they can go to work, Seel helps with that too.
Her office cannot afford to pay for hotel rooms or other emergency housing, so once someone is already homeless, there is not much she can do, Seel said.
“There’s very little help for people, except for maybe from a church or two. And even that’s usually only for one or two nights,” Seel said. “It’s definitely a problem in Johnson County. There are no shelters. It’s a sad situation.”
Free weekly community meals
- Greenwood Christian Church: 5 to 7 p.m. Monday, 2045 Averitt Road
- Greenwood United Methodist: 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tuesday, 525 N. Madison Ave.
- Turning Point Church: 5 to 7 p.m. Tuesday, 3600 N. Morton St., Franklin
- Tabernacle Christian Church: 5 to 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, 198 N. Water St., Franklin
- Center Grove Church: 5 to 7 p.m. Jan. 21, Feb. 18 and March 2, 2340 S. State Road 135, Greenwood
- Mt. Auburn United Methodist: 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 3100 Stones Crossing Road, Greenwood
- Grace United Methodist Church: 5 to 6:30 p.m. Friday, 1300 E. Adams St., Franklin
- Hopewell Presbyterian Church: 5 to 6:30 p.m. first Monday of the month, 677 W. State Road 144, Franklin
- First Greenwood Presbyterian Church: 6 to 8 p.m. third Monday of the month, 102 W. Main St.
- Resurrection Lutheran Church: 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Friday, 445 E. Stop 11 Road, Indianapolis
- Honey Creek United Methodist: 5 to 7 p.m. second and fourth Saturdays of the month, 2722 S. Honey Creek Road, Greenwood
- His Hand Extended Food and Clothing Pantry: Trinity Broadcasting, 2528 S. U.S. 31, Greenwood; 10 a.m. Thursdays.
- Interchurch Food Pantry of Johnson County: 211 Commerce Drive, Franklin; noon to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday; 9 to 11 a.m. Saturdays
- Mount Pleasant Christian Church Community Ministry Center: 381 N. Bluff Road, Greenwood; 9:15 to 9:40 a.m., 12:15 to 12:40 p.m. or 6:15 to 6:40 p.m. Thursday; also 9:15 to 9:40 a.m. the first and third Saturday of every month
- Lord’s Locker: 101 S. Pleasant St., Trafalgar; Wednesdays: 9 to 11 a.m. for senior citizens (over 60 only; clients must be in the building by 9:30 a.m. to receive food); 1 p.m. for heads of household (clients 40 to 59 years; must be in the building by 1:30 p.m. to receive food). Thursdays: 6 p.m. for heads of household (ages 20 to 39 years; must be in the building by 6:30 p.m. to receive food).
- Our Lady of the Greenwood: 335 S. Meridian St.; 11 a. m. to 2 p. m. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday; 4 to 6 p.m. Wednesday except when Parish office is closed.
- The Refuge: The Hope Centre, 65 Airport Parkway, Suite 110, Greenwood; 9 to 11 a.m. Tuesday, 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday
- SS. Francis & Clare Parish Harvest: 5901 Olive Branch Road, Greenwood; 9 a.m. to noon on the second and fourth Saturday of the month; 10 a.m. to noon second Wednesday of each month; 5 to 7 p.m. fourth Monday of the month
Rent and utility assistance
United Way of Johnson County Resource Directory
Human Services: 98 W. Madison St., Franklin; 736-0755
- Blue River: Ray Walton, (812) 371-6981
- Clark: Neil Trisler, 509-7523
- Franklin: Lydia Wales, 736-7511
- Hensley: Beth Baird, 710-5880
- Needham: Rita Lory, 736-3778
- Nineveh: Janet Renner, 933-2097
- Pleasant: Mary Ann Powell, 535-7571
- Union: Annette Barr, 422-5773
- White River: Mark Messick, 422-1143
St. Vincent de Paul Society: Our Lady of the Greenwood Catholic Church; 888-2861 ext. 243
Salvation Army Samaritan Services: 325 Market Plaza, Greenwood; 881-2505
SS. Francis & Clare Roman Catholic Church: Outreach help line, 859-4673
Housing assistance given in Johnson County
- Total money given: $728,677
- Faith-based groups: $212,348, or 29 percent
Emergency housing assistance
- Total given: $45,240
- Faith-based groups: $32,689, or 72 percent
Rental or mortgage assistance
- Total given: $161,724
- Faith-based groups: $99,093, or 61 percent
- Total given: $561,713
- Faith-based groups: $80,566, or 14 percent
— Information from the No Place to Call Home homeless needs assessment, compiled by Strategic Development Group for the United Way of Johnson County
Number of clients receiving help with housing, food or other emergency needs, 2014
Franklin Memorial Christian Church: 30
Grace United Methodist Church: 150
Greenwood Christian Church Operation Care: 125 households, or 307 people
Interchurch Food Pantry: 8,848 families or more than 27,000 people
SS. Francis & Clare Roman Catholic Church: 180
The Lord’s Locker: 2,400
The Refuge: 8,417
Turning Point Church: About 75 to 100
— Information from respondents to survey through the No Place to Call Home homeless needs assessment, conducted by by Strategic Development Group for the United Way of Johnson County