If there is one thing that the staff of Brighter Days Housing has learned as it approaches its first anniversary, it’s that it is a lot harder to run a 24/7 housing shelter than it looks.

That’s the assessment of Elizabeth Kestler, executive director of the Ecumenical Assembly of Bartholomew County Churches, who provides volunteers and staff to run the facility, and Columbus Township Trustee Ben Jackson, who provides the building.

Brighter Days opened a year ago in a former township firetruck maintenance facility at 421 S. Mapleton St. It is located in an industrial area of the city, near auto body shops, contractor offices and the Love Chapel, also operated by the Ecumenical Assembly, where Brighter Days guests are directed to receive additional assistance of meals, clothing and other necessities.

Renovation of the 8,400-square-foot fire truck maintenance facility was completed for $75,000 to $100,000, about a fourth of what it would have cost to purchase all needed materials and for labor. It was finished by volunteers and contractors using donated and purchased materials to convert it into a modern group-housing facility, with grants and donations paying for the renovation.

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The once cavernous facility now has bunk rooms for men and women, modern bathrooms and artwork on the walls.

A year later, the craftmanship of that work is apparent, Kestler said.

“This facility has been very well maintained and it’s amazing how well it’s holding up,” she said. “People have been respectful.”

The shelter on average houses 18 to 35 people a night, some who stay multiple nights, Kestler said. The number of different individuals who utilized the shelter in its first year is still being calculated, she said.

The facility tracks where individuals are coming from, and where they are going when they leave. Notes are kept on an individual’s circumstances, what help was offered and accepted and how many times the individual sought help at Brighter Days, and when they did not return.

For example, one individual was referred to the shelter Nov. 11, 2016, and stayed for one night. The individual returned Nov. 22, but then moved in with a relative. The individual returned March 10 and stayed for three nights.

Tending to such individuals has required more work and more volunteers than anticipated.

“This is really hard work,” Jackson said.

Shelter operations are funded primarily by the Love Chapel, which pays for one staff member to supervise the facility. The shelter relies on unpaid volunteers for additional staffing needs. Columbus Township, which owns the building, pays for utilities.

Running Brighter Days

In addition to the daily upkeep and cleaning of the bunk rooms with 36 beds and the bathrooms and showers, there also is food to prepare for the continental breakfast offered to guests each morning, and laundry to be done daily after individuals leave each morning. Each client also receives a bag lunch and is encouraged to visit Love Chapel’s evening meal program nearby for dinner.

“We really need a lot more volunteers,” Kestler said of her goals for the second year of the shelter. “And we need backup volunteers when a volunteer isn’t able to be here.”

Each month, Brighter Days depends on volunteers donating 550 hours at the shelter. But Kestler would like to have enough volunteers to serve 1,400 hours a month. Attaining such a level would end up with two volunteers per four-hour shift around the clock, Kestler said.

Brighter Days has 61 active volunteers who help out at least once a month, Kestler said.

“We need 12 volunteers minimum in a 24-hour shift each day,” she said.

Volunteers staff the shelter overnight in shifts, and some of the hesitancy on the part of individuals considering volunteering is that it is a shelter for people seeking emergency housing, she said.

“Most of the people who stay here tell us this is the nicest shelter they’ve ever seen,” she said. “It is safe here.”

Kestler said Brighter Days’ first and foremost concern is safety — for the clients and the staff. Individuals who break rules at the facility are suspended and not allowed to stay there, which has happened.

The Columbus Police Department has been called on occasion to help volunteers if a situation arises, but that has not happened often, she said.

“Most police officers are very skilled social workers,” Jackson said of watching them interact with shelter clients. “They are very good at de-escalating situations.”

Some retired police officers are among the volunteers who staff the facility in shifts at night, Jackson said.

Kestler and Jackson said Brighter Days’ neighbors in the Mapleton Street neighborhood have been helpful and cooperative, although initially some had concerns about locating a shelter near their businesses.

Larry West, owner of West Trucking, 2525 Kreutzer Drive, has been supportive of the shelter, encouraging other businesses to pitch in and help. West provides extra parking in his lot when its needed by shelter volunteers.

“I told them they can use it all they want,” he said of the extra parking places. “If it’s for Love Chapel, I do a little bit of anything I can to help.”

West, who has had his business near where Brighter Day is located now since 1970, said several neighborhood businesses were uneasy about the facility moving in, but he told them everything would be all right.

“It’s a good place for it,” he said of the Mapleton Street location. “It’s got to be someplace.”

West has tried to hire some of the people who stay at Brighter Days for work at his company, saying anyone who has ever been down on their luck would understand the need to provide food and shelter.

“Some people don’t realize there’s still poor people in the world and they need help,” he said.

Jackson acknowledged that there have been a few complaints of Brighter Days clients leaving bags of items or backpacks hidden on other businesses’ property when entering the shelter — as the rules do not allow large amounts of materials to be brought in to the facility.

Concerns remain

While some have been understanding, other nearby residents aren’t happy with the shelter’s location.

Wendy Eubanks, who has lived in a home behind what’s now the shelter for 22 years, said Brighter Days has brought people who walk up and down Mapleton and nearby streets night and day, including some who sit on her porch drinking alcohol and leaving their bottles in her yard.

“We’re finding more and more needles on the ground in the neighborhood. The people are laying or sitting wherever they can during the day. And when they are outside, they are always hollering and carrying on,” Eubanks said.

When neighbors have complained to Brighter Days staff, they are told that the clients’ behavior when they are not in the shelter is not within their control, she said.

“We’ve found one of their residents in one of our cars. They try to get into campers on people’s property,” Eubanks said. “I’m not against having a homeless shelter, but this wasn’t the proper location for it,” she said. “Over here, all they have is Dollar General and Casey’s. They need to be closer to stores and medical facilities and places like Centerstone.”

Jackson said he hasn’t been approached personally by neighborhood residents, but urged them to call the Columbus Police Department if any individuals are going onto their private property.

“It’s difficult when someone calls us and said this happened yesterday, but the homeowner doesn’t have a name of the person and didn’t call the police,” he said. “If you witness a crime, call 911.”

Some of the concerns in the neighborhood have resulted from the times clients are released in the morning from Brighter Days, and the time they may return, beginning at 6 p.m. daily. There have been complaints of some clients cutting through private property to reach the shelter, which officials have tried to alleviate by asking clients to enter off Center Street, behind the facility.

Love Chapel has several picnic tables which clients may use during the day as necessary, he said. The Columbus Housing Authority has talked with Brighter Days about clients hanging out in Pence Place Park, but Jackson said the shelter can’t tell clients they can’t visit a public park.

“They are allowed to hang out there,” he said.

The camper allegation stems from a locksmith business near Brighter Days where an old camper is on the property and a client attempted to get into it, Jackson said. When the client couldn’t get in, he slept underneath it, which was reported to Brighter Days staff and dealt with, Jackson said.

Finding a solution to help those who do not want to follow the rules but still need shelter is a continuing problem, he said.

Next steps

Brighter Days is only one piece of the strategy to reduce homelessness in the area, Jackson said. The next piece is a proposed permanent supportive housing complex for the homeless proposed for the vacant former Faith Victory Church, an 18,696-square-foot building at 1703 Home Ave.

Until that is available, Brighter Days staff are assigning case managers to each person who stays at the facility, connecting individuals to available community services that would lead them out of homelessness, Kestler said. Clients are referred to mental health services, drug-addiction resources and VIMCare, which provides medical and medication assistance to people without resources.

“This has been phenomenally helpful to getting individuals to see professionals to get help,” Kestler said.

San Souci’s employment program, Orphan Grain Train, Family Services, Celebrate Recovery, St. Peter’s Lutheran Church and Alcoholics Anonymous also are working with Brighter Days to help clients find services they need.

Clients are encouraged to enroll with the services they need in order to qualify for stable housing as quickly as possible, Kestler said.

Eventually, when the supportive housing complex becomes available, there will be a coordinated entry system into Brighter Days so everyone is working together to move a client into a home, Jackson said.

About Brighter Days

Location: 421 S. Mapleton St.

Contact number: 812-344-4512

What it is: An emergency housing facility for individuals age 18 and older who are homeless in Bartholomew County.

Capacity: 36 individuals and three to four staff members housed in staff quarters and two bunk areas, separated by gender.

Check-in: 6 to 9 p.m. each night. Guests receive a continental breakfast the next morning and are referred to meal sites in Columbus. Those who stay at Brighter Days leave the facility between 9 and 9:30 a.m. each day.

How to help

For information about how to donate items or to volunteer at Brighter Days Housing, contact Love Chapel at 812-372-9421.

For more information about Love Chapel, visit its website at columbuslovechapel.com.

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Julie McClure is assistant managing editor of The Republic. She can be reached at jmcclure@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5631.