For years, Portage County residents suddenly experiencing homelessness had only one place to go for emergency shelter. On Monday, a Ravenna nonprofit will open its doors to offer 64 more beds to those in need.
The upcoming ribbon cutting at The Haven of Portage County, located at 2645 state Route 59, between Kent and Ravenna, is the culmination of three years of work for Anne Marie Noble, the executive director, who is a former director of emergency outreach services at Family and Community Services.
“There have been some road blocks, stumbling blocks that were beyond our control,” Noble said. “It’s just been a challenge, which is sad, because it’s so desperately needed.”
She said that just last week she received 34 phone calls, and “90% of them are people needing shelter.”
The Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless estimated in 2013 that the number of people experiencing homelessness in Portage County could be as many as 2,500, based on reports from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that between 7 and 10 percent of a county’s population living in poverty could be homeless within a year.
The Haven estimates there are over 100 homeless people in Kent and Ravenna, sometimes living under bridges, behind strip malls and near public parks. Even out-of-the-way places can suddenly become off limits, as the residents of a homeless camp in Kent found out last year.
There is one other homeless shelter in Portage County serving the general population, Miller Community House in Kent, which has a maximum capacity of 28, depending on family composition. It also limits guests’ stays to 30 days. Two other shelters, Safer Futures and Freedom House, serve people fleeing domestic violence and veterans, respectively. All are operated by Family and Community Services.
The Haven is faith-based but open to anyone who needs its services, as long as they don’t have an active warrant, Noble said. People with open domestic violence charges and registered sex offenders are also excluded.
Noble and Program Director Chris Rucker are the only paid staff, and they will rely heavily on volunteers. They estimate their annual budget to be between $185,000 and $200,000.
“We are very much a faith based organization. Our mission is proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ while providing shelter and promoting healing,” Noble said. “So we can’t do it alone, and we know we can’t do it alone.”
Crucially, guests can stay longer than 30 days provided they continue progressing toward stated goals, such as finding a job or an apartment.
“One of the things we know is we can’t change somebody’s behavior in 30 days. And by us not taking any HUD funding, folks can stay with us longer if that’s what their need is,” Noble said. “They can stay here, whether it’s 30 days, 60 days, 90 days. And we’ll have a mentor walking alongside them to make sure that they can be successful.”
The Haven paid for renovations to the building through $1.6 million in grants, donations and fundraisers. Some of the notable grants were $300,000 from the HUD Community Development Block Grant program for water and sewage installations and a $150,000 state capital grant used for kitchen supplies and office furniture.
“That was a real plus, because now we have a gorgeous kitchen that we’ll be able to work out of,” Noble said. “We want to have a chef come in and educate some of our guests that are staying with us so they can learn a job and a set of skills and, hopefully, help all these folks that have signed up that need help.”
The Haven’s other offerings — food, counseling, mentorship, legal aid, housing and employment assistance — resemble most other shelters. But Christopher Dum, a sociology professor at Kent State who studies housing insecurity, said the offer of an open-ended housing duration makes The Haven stand out, and will greatly benefit people who experience homelessness in the county.
“A lot of studies show that people stay in homeless shelters on average for longer than 30 days. So having that cut-off, for one, doesn’t give people the necessary amount of time to address a lot of the things that are going on with their lives,” Dum said. “But if you think of very systematic issues that people are dealing with, could be addiction, could be lack of jobs, illnesses and things like that, right? You can’t really say ‘Oh, yeah, in a month we’re just gonna fix this.’”
Dum points out the gaps in homeless services that still need to be filled in Portage County, most notably the need for affordable housing and more private shelter models. Kent State’s Intergenerational Village, a proposed (and then canceled) project that would’ve brought more housing options to people in the area.
“In that discussion there were people saying there is a need for affordable housing,” Dum said. “Downtown Kent is trying to increase its presence and be a more attractive place for many people with money to spend it, which I understand. But at the same time, what are we doing in other ways to make sure that there are supportive, affordable housing options for people? So I think, in many ways, that housing project that got killed was a blow to trying to address these issues.”
The Haven, like most homeless shelters, uses a dormitory model, in which guests sleep in rooms with several other people. This lack of privacy tends to discourage some people from seeking shelter services, Dum said, especially those who have experienced trauma.
Anyone needing the services The Haven provides can simply visit the building and get them, Noble said.
Although they profess Christian motivations, Noble says guests will not have to participate in worship if they don’t want to, and membership in a church is not required for access.
Guests can take advantage of The Haven’s partnerships with Ohio Means Jobs and Coleman Professional Services, among others, to get help creating resumes, participating in mock interviews and other employment support services.
Wyatt Loy is a reporter with the Collaborative News Lab @ Kent State University, producing local news coverage in partnership with The Portager.