Saturday, June 11, 2011

Wheeler Mission Ministries -- Help for People without Homes

How many people are homeless in the US?  According to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development:
  • “On a single night in January 2009, there were an estimated 643,067 sheltered and unsheltered homeless people nationwide.”  (page i)
  • “Nearly 1.56 million people used an emergency shelter or a transitional housing program during the 12-month period (October 1, 2008 through September 30, 2009).” (page iii)
People who are homeless represent about 5% of those seeking emergency food assistance in the US (Hunger in America 2010, page 66), but they face huge challenges when it comes to securing reliable, adequate, and healthy food for themselves and their families. 

Facing Hunger in America’s summer 2011 trip began in Indianapolis, IN, where the most recent single-night count of people who are homeless found over 1500 individuals.  To better understand services for these individuals, we visited Wheeler Mission Ministries

Bethany Alvis
Founded in 1893, Wheeler Mission Ministries has a long and fascinating history.  It is one of the 250+ Gospel Rescue Missions in the US and Canada, many of which also were founded over 100 years ago.  Today, Wheeler Mission Ministries is a thoroughly modern social service agency focused on providing “Christ-centered programs and services for the homeless and those in need.”

Wheeler Mission Ministries is the largest organization of its kind in Indiana, with 120 employees and an annual budget of $6.5 million; 76% of the funding comes from individual donors and the remainder from foundations and grants.  Wheeler receives no federal funding.  Bethany Alvis, Community Outreach and Volunteer Coordinator for Wheeler Mission, described the various ministries -- men’s and women’s emergency services, residential programs, addiction recovery, and jobs programs, housed in Wheeler Mission’s eight separate centers in Indianapolis.  
Wheeler Mission Ministries'
Center for Women and Children

We visited and volunteered at the Center for Women and Children, where Shawnna Rice, volunteer coordinator and case worker, gave us a tour of the beautiful facility.  This 10-story former hotel had been purchased by Wheeler Mission Ministries in 1991, refurbished first as a community center, and recently as the home for most of the women’s programs.  Five floors are used for housing for different programs, and the other floors contain a library, classrooms, a computer room, a job search center, lounge areas, showers, laundry, and offices.  A rear wing contains the kitchen and dining area, with a full-sized gym above.  A side wing houses mothers and their children, where each family unit has a bedroom, small sitting area and bathroom.  The basement has a medical clinic as well as the child care center which has direct access to the playground. 

Here, women who are homeless stay on a short-term emergency basis for up to 30 days, or longer if they are taking part in a program, such as Fresh Start or the Working Guest Program, to help them become independent and to acquire job and life skills they may need. Also, women seeking recovery from addictions begin the Higher Ground Addiction Recovery Program here before transferring to the long-term residence dedicated to that program.  Children who live here either attend the on-site pre-school and daycare center or ride a school bus to the school they attended before their family became homeless.
Shawnna Rice

At the Center for Women and Children, we were impressed by the huge number of carefully tuned services nested within each of the programs, everything from health clinics and legal aid to child care and computer access.  There are classes on conflict resolution, parenting, budgeting, physical fitness, nutrition, computer skills, GED preparation, business writing, and preparing for the workplace.  Counseling helps with goal setting and emotional issues. 

We don’t have detailed statistics, but to us it appeared that Wheeler Mission’s success rate is high.  One figure we heard is that those who complete the addiction recovery program are four times less likely to return to substance abuse than the rate reported by other programs.  In talking with guests and residents, we heard many stories of people successfully overcoming homelessness or other serious life difficulties.  We were impressed by these hallmarks of the Wheeler Mission approach:
  • It is Christ-centered.  All program participants are required to participate in Bible study and to attend a church of their choice.  The addiction recovery programs are based on spiritual renewal.
  • It’s not just about shelter and food.  The focus is on long-term, phased programs that are tailored to the needs and strengths of individual men and women.  Wheeler Mission follows its people after they complete the programs, and many graduates are now interns, mentors, and employees.
  • Programs for men and women differ, based on what Wheeler Mission has learned works best for each.  For example, women’s programs tend to be smaller, focused more on emotional, relationship, and self-esteem issues.
  • Rather than providing services on the street to people who are homeless, the focus is on providing services in the residential environment, where other services are more readily available and where opportunities to return to self-sufficiency are greater.
Pamela Ealy & Patricia Stafford
Our volunteering consisted of helping in the kitchen, where kitchen assistant Pamela Ealy and intern Patricia Stafford put us to work.  Pamela and Patricia are both graduates of the Higher Ground program.  Pamela also completed job training at Second Helpings, a food rescue organization that also runs a culinary school.  Patricia is hoping to enter that program in a few weeks.
Kim Clanton, head of food service for the Center, told us that 90% of the meals are homemade.  They use donated food, although she does need to buy some things from her small budget.  Much of the produce and some prepared food comes from Second Helpings.

Serving dinner with fellow volunteers
Carol and Elizabeth
Our kitchen jobs included preparing two turkeys for roasting the next day, chopping vegetables for a salad bar for Saturday lunch, and assembling a punch-bowl cake.  At dinner, we helped serve barbequed chicken breast, macaroni and cheese, green beans, and cake to about 60 people, children first.  Most were residents, but a few were people who came in from the street.  Portions were ample, and many people returned for seconds or thirds.  Dining room cleanup and dish washing was handled by residents whose turn it was to perform this chore.

We wondered what Wheeler Mission Ministries would recommend that others (like you and I) should do to help those who are homeless.  Here’s some of what Bethany said:
  • Acknowledge them – each is a human being, so make eye contact and say hello.  If the situation is safe, engage in conversation.
  • Don’t give money – instead, encourage them to seek assistance at a local shelter or give tangible resources like socks, granola bars, fresh water, bus tickets, or gift certificates to fast-food restaurants.
  • Become an advocate – support local programs designed to assist people who are homeless.
  • Pray for them.

1 comment:

  1. Betsy and Carolyn,
    Thank you for sharing this with all of us. When your work is finished, I hope you will be back here helping all of us,(who will be retired by then)find a way to carry on your mission.