Hamilton County is one of the fastest-growing regions in the state, and that has a growing number of advocates saying it’s time to establish a local domestic violence shelter.
The United Way of Central Indiana is working with a group of community stakeholders to establish a 35-bed shelter on a vacant parcel that abuts the sheriff complex off Cumberland Road in Noblesville.
The coalition is called the Hamilton County Domestic Violence Shelter Task Force, and its proposal was recently endorsed by Hamilton County Commissioners Christine Altman and Commissioner Mark Heirbrandt. The task force is now lobbying the County Council, which will vote on a proposed 30-year lease for the project on April 2.
In terms of population, Hamilton County is the fourth largest in the state, but it’s the only one in the top 10 without a domestic violence shelter. The closest shelter is run by the nonprofit Alternatives, which is a United Way partner agency and the established domestic violence shelter for Hamilton County based in neighboring Madison County.
Joan Isaac Hamilton County area director for UWCI has been a key leader in the movement for a local shelter. She said Alternatives runs a great facility but added it’s simply too far away for many victims who are seeking shelter and don’t want to uproot their children.
“If you are in Carmel or Fishers, that’s a minimum hourlong drive,” she said. “How is a family going to stay together when the kids have to ride an hour each way on the bus?”
Hamilton County averages roughly 1,800 domestic violence calls annually, according to Noblesville Police Chief Kevin Jowitt. He’s part of the task force and spoke in favor of the project before the County Council last year.
Jowitt said police see the need for shelter on the job pretty much every day, because it provides a safe environment for those seeking help with transitioning away from abuse.
“The immediacy of safety that a shelter provides doesn’t create a long-term solution, but it is a doorway to a long-term solution,” said Jowitt. “It allows for resources to start coming into place in a way that’s not being inhibited by the abuser to where we can allow a person to become established and independent.”
The task force proposal calls for Alternatives to continue serving the county through a satellite location. Established in 1978, the nonprofit operates a 48-bed shelter in Anderson.
Alternatives CEO Mary Jo Lee said the economy has been hard on families and there has been rising demand for shelter over the past three years. She described Alternatives as “one of the top shelters in the state,” adding they’re confident about opening the satellite facility.
“We have the right team working to bring the shelter to reality,” Lee said. “We, along with our board of trustees, would not be entering into that kind of commitment if we felt it would jeopardize our whole agency, and we’re not going to let victims down. Once the shelter is in operation, they will be counting on us.”
Isaac estimated annual operating costs of the satellite location at $500,000, saying the nonprofit’s existing management infrastructure would greatly reduce costs. Funding for the operating budget is expected to come from a mix of municipal support, government programs, grants and private donations.
Jeff Hern is township trustee for Fall Creek and represents roughly 55,000 people in parts of Fishers and Noblesville. He’s also the first trustee to reach a standing agreement with Alternatives, where the township pays for the first two weeks of shelter for a displaced resident at a rate of $55 per night.
That arrangement was reached in January, and Hern said it was the direct outcome of learning more about the issue. In the past, he referred domestic violence cases to local agencies, but he only recently learned shelter requests are referred out of the county.
Hern followed up by touring the Alternatives facility and learning that Fall Creek and Clay townships consistently have the most referrals to Alternatives from Hamilton County. Given the circumstances, Hern said, it makes sense to support the service provider and to try to bring it to Hamilton.
“As a township trustee, I am charged with helping those who can’t help themselves at the time,” he said, adding close to $2,000 was spent on emergency shelter last year. “I would hope the little money I’m spending will…certainly help and benefit getting a facility here.”
In practice, Hern said, Alternatives provides essential supports during those first 14 days, helping the client secure indemnification and access to any family resources, which are often controlled by the abuser. Hern said the township and Alternatives handle things on a case-by-case basis after the first two weeks.
“At the end of 14 days we sit down and have a conversation about what comes next,” he said.
Hern is one of nine township trustees in the county. While he’s the only one committed to supporting the shelter, he’s advocating the others to get involved, saying the Clay and Delaware trustees have expressed some interest.
“They were going back to look at their budgets to see what they could do,” said Hern.
A Fishers resident, Isaac said the push for a local shelter dates back to a countywide assessment of social services conducted by the United Way of Indiana back in 2011. Isaac conducted research for that assessment, which involved interviewing first responders, school officials and health providers.
She said the study identified lack of shelter as the top area of need, and explosive population growth was a key factor in making it something the county could no longer do without.
“Literally the population has doubled within a 10-year period,” she said. “As a community grows, social service needs grow.”
The findings of that United Way assessment were presented in a Fishers Town Hall meeting roughly 18 months ago, and Isaac said that sparked formation of the task force from community leaders, law enforcement, past victims and health providers.
Isaac said the group’s initial focus was on finding a suitable location. She said the sheriff’s complex best fit their criteria and the location allows for a cohabitation agreement that would have 10 sheriff investigators working within the building.
“It would be like having security there 24/7,” she said. “When you collaborate those resources like that, it just makes sense.”
Should the lease be approved by the council, Isaac was optimistic a United Way grant could help secure an architect for the project by May or June. She said it’s hard to estimate the cost of the building without that.
“Alternatives is applying for a UWCI grant to have an architect spec out the building, based on the needs of Alternatives and the sheriff,” she said. “Once we have a solid rendering, that will help determine the cost.”
Isaac said the lease would be for $1 per year, and construction would be eligible for a grant of up to $1 million from the United Way. She also confirmed that the operating costs have been a recurring question mark for local officials, but added the majority have been supportive.
Fishers Town Manager Scott Fadness is a member of the task force and has served on the governing board for Alternatives the past three years. Fadness said raising public awareness has been a big part of his role and that a lot of people aren’t aware of the current commute for shelter or that domestic violence is an issue in the community.
“Sometimes what I hear…is that we don’t have any of that because we’re an affluent, safe community,” he said. “The reality is that domestic violence crosses all social/economic boundaries.
“I think we need to have an eyes-wide-open approach and do everything we can for those victims,” he added. “We’re always concerned that a woman may choose to stay in a dangerous situation because she’s reluctant to seek shelter in a county that’s at least a half hour away….she may not have a support system in Anderson.”
Writer / Nathan Lamb