In a converted maintenance facility in Columbus, the homeless will soon have a starting point in their path toward a better future.

The organizers of the Brighter Days shelter will be able to house nearly 40 people each night. They will receive a place to sleep, showers to clean up and an area to make food.

Most importantly, they’ll be able to meet regularly with case managers, given direction on finding a job, accessing social services such as food stamps, and provided with counseling for mental health and addiction problems.

“We don’t want it to just be a place they come and go. We want to support them to getting long-term housing,” said Elizabeth Kestler, director of the Love Chapel, which oversee the shelter.

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The Brighter Days program is only the most recent example of the social safety network that has grown to protect the most vulnerable residents of Bartholomew County.

As local leaders have formed a plan to address Johnson County’s homeless problem, they have looked to other communities for guidance to how best to approach the issue. One of the most comprehensive examples has been found in Columbus, where the homelessness program has been in existence for more than 20 years.

‘We’re starting where they started’

A combination of emergency shelters, case management, education, a network of food pantries and free meals, and long-term transitional housing has focused on ending the cycle of poverty.For more than a year, Johnson County officials from organizations such as the United Way, KIC-IT and local churches have been part of an effort called No Place to Call Home. The group has worked to find the best way to start approaching the issues of poverty and homelessness.

In their research phase, members met with officials from the Columbus area to learn how its approach has developed and been implemented.

“We were very impressed by what they were doing in Columbus. But what became reality in talking to them, they have started doing this over 20 years ago,” said Nancy Plake, executive director of the United Way of Johnson County. “We’re starting where they started. For us to put together their system for us, right now, would not be the best system.”

No Place to Call Home has developed an initial plan to identify, assess and get the homeless care coordinated by churches, government agencies and nonprofits.

“Right now, we don’t have the funding in place for a shelter,” Plake said. “Federal funding is not going to shelters. If we ever want to crack that nut, we have to look at what the federal funding is going towards, and that is immediate housing.”

Still, by working with Columbus leaders, they have an example on how to implement a shelter program into a larger effort to eliminate homelessness.

Wide-reaching problem

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 11.8 percent of the population of Bartholomew County lives in poverty. In this year’s Point-in-Time count, which tabulates the number of homeless people in a community on a specific date each year, 78 people were homeless in the county.“We see individuals who are in a better situation. But the problem as a whole isn’t getting better. With the drugs, it’s just getting bigger,” Kestler said.

The homelessness problem is wide-reaching and has required everyone to work together.

For the past two years, government agencies and private organizations have banded together to form the Columbus Homelessness Outreach Program. The partnership included Centerstone, Love Chapel, Horizon House, Columbus Regional Mental Health Services and the Columbus Township trustee’s office.

By working together, the groups are able to streamline the services they provide to the homeless, said Brian Meyer, manager of Centerstone Connections homelessness program. If one agency was limited on how it could help an individual or a family, that person could be directed to an organization that could help.

Cornerstone’s focus has been on the chronically homeless — people who have been homeless for more than a year, or have four instances of homelessness in the past three years.

In March, the organization was awarded a three-year, $1.2 million federal grant to form its Centerstone Connections program in many central Indiana counties, including Johnson and Bartholomew. The goal is to provide housing, counseling, recovery coaching and other services to people dealing with long-term homelessness, Meyer said.

One of the most important focuses is on mental health and addiction services, Meyer said.

Emergency housing

Because of its expertise addressing mental health and substance abuse issues, Centerstone works closely with the shelters in the Columbus area.A number of emergency housing options are available.

Horizon House, a Columbus-based shelter operated by Human Services, is designated for families struggling with homelessness. The domestic abuse agency Turning Point also operates a shelter for women and children in need of a more protective environment.

But the only option for single adult men and women comes through the Love Chapel.

The Love Chapel is an outreach program of the Ecumenical Assembly of Bartholomew County Churches, a coalition of 22 local churches dedicated to providing a Christian response to community social needs, including food, medical care and shelter.

The existing emergency housing facility has eight rooms, accommodating up to 20 people. Residents can take advantage of a shared kitchen and two bathrooms, with most rooms equipped with small refrigerators for residents to keep their own food.

“It’s dorm-style living. We have three or four beds in one room, with strangers all living in the same room,” Kestler said. “There are pros and cons to it, with any kind of roommate or dorm situation.”

Anyone who stays longer than one night is assigned a case manager, who helps the client connect with mental health representatives through Centerstone.

Clients who move in but don’t work toward their own housing, ignore case management and avoid applying for social service programs to help, will eventually be asked to leave.

The goal, through counseling and case management, is to get them established in a job and living on their own. Once clients are stable, have addressed the issues that led to their homelessness and are working towards getting their own housing, the staff at the Love Chapel will set up a timeframe for moving out.

Building a support system

Yet even when the clients can find employment, it is often weeks or months before they have enough money to pay for housing of their own, Kestler said.So the shelter serves as a support system for them as they re-establish their lives.

“If they have a set-back, and they’re working along with their case manager moving down that path of self-sufficiency, we continue to support them and help them get established,” Kestler said.

The Love Chapel housing program has been a success, enough so that officials have embarked on a large-scale shelter program to augment it through Brighter Days.

The Brighter Days building was formerly the Columbus Township’s maintenance facility. Since the Love Chapel works side-by-side with the township to house people, they decided to figure out a way to provide temporary shelter to people together.

Paying for hotel rooms was not cost-effective, Kestler said.

The facility will have 35 beds, with both male and female adults allowed to stay indefinitely, as long as they’re working toward independence. Each resident will have a locker large enough for one suitcase, so they can store their belongings during the day before returning in the evening.

The shelter will be closed during the day, except for rare occasions, such as when residents have appointments with their case managers or they work second- or third-shift jobs.

“We’ll ask them to participate in existing community programs during the day, be seeking employment, working on their GED,” Kestler said.

Work has been ongoing at the Brighter Days shelter since 2015. Much of the oversight has been done by Mission Columbus, a construction ministry operated by Asbury United Methodist Church.

Volunteers have donated their labor, expertise and materials to turn the maintenance building into a livable shelter. The generosity has allowed the project to be done for about $100,000. Original estimates for the project were $350,000, Kestler said.

Once it opens in late August, Brighter Days will be staffed by professional social service workers. But more than 200 volunteers will also assist in the process, from intake to oversight to maintenance of the facility.

A resident supervisor will live on-site to spearhead the check-ins at night and the exiting process in the morning. That position is still open.

The shelter program doesn’t completely eliminate the homelessness issue in Bartholomew County, Kestler said. People may not want to be part of the program, or object to the case management component of it.

But with local government, churches, individuals and businesses all focused on the same goals, it can make a dent in the problem.

“If you get some groups behind it, the community as a whole will get behind it, too,” Kestler said. “People want to solve the problem. The problem is growing, and this isn’t going to solve it entirely, but this a tangible way of bringing it to the community.”

At a Glance

Here is a look at a new homeless shelter planned in Columbus:

Brighter Days Housing

Location: 421 S. Mapleton St., Columbus

Project: The renovation of a former Columbus Township fire truck maintenance facility into a homeless shelter is a joint project of the Ecumenical Assembly of Bartholomew County Churches, Love Chapel and the Columbus Township Trustee Office.

Building size: 8,400 square feet

Owned by: Columbus Township Trustee Office

What is planned: The homeless shelter will have beds for 36 people in two separate bunk areas for men and women. The township is paying for maintenance, upkeep and insurance on the building, while Love Chapel is staffing the facility with paid staff and volunteers.

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Ryan Trares is a reporter for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at or 317-736-2727.