Photograph by Steven Higgs

New Hope Family Shelter Vice President Mike Gentile says a planned merger between his shelter and Martha's House would better enable each agency to pursue its mission. Using a City Council Hopkins Fund grant, the two homeless shelters will hire a consultant and an executive to oversee the merger and to create a model others might follow.

Monroe County social service agencies are seeking alternative ways to raise revenues as private and public support for their missions decreases and the need for assistance increases. As bleak economic times cripple the impoverished community, agencies are turning to collaboration and merger to increase efficiency.

Local agencies receive public funding from two City of Bloomington sources – Jack Hopkins Social Service Program grants and Community Development Block Grants (CDBG).

“The Hopkins fund is named after a city council member named Jack Hopkins who had this vision that this fund, completely independent of any state or federal influences, would be started locally, from our local tax base,” City Council and Hopkins Committee Member Andy Ruff said in an interview in his office in Sycamore Hall on July 22.

As the priorities of federal and state governments have shifted to waging costly wars and giving tax breaks to the wealthy, the CDBG grants, which are federal funds distributed by local governments, have been trending downward for a long time, according to Ruff.

“So what you see are CDBG funds going down, which has made the Jack Hopkins fund money become more and more important to local agencies,” he said.

Since the Hopkins fund's establishment in 1993, the council has provided more than $2 million in funding to local social service agencies assisting individuals in need. Throughout its last couple of cycles, the Hopkins program has encouraged agencies to explore collaborative projects as a means of incentivizing agencies to work together creatively and find new efficiencies.

"The need’s overwhelming, and the funds are getting less, less and less. I think, at a minimum, administrative costs can be shared and insurance costs can be mitigated." - Mike Gentile, New Hope Family Shelter

This year's Hopkins grants, awarded at the council's June 20, 2012, meeting, included two that were collaborative.

One went to New Hope Family Shelter, Inc. and Martha’s House, Inc. to explore and begin the process of merging. The other went to Area 10 Agency on Aging, which serves elderly persons in Monroe and Owen counties, and the Community Kitchen (CK) of Monroe County to purchase re-heatable, weekday meals for one year and feed more elders and individuals struggling with disabilities.

“The idea is purely that maybe they could reduce some redundancies and come up with some efficiencies that were undiscovered before,” Ruff said. “The theory of the council is that they can come together and look for ways to combine, and maybe they discover efficiencies that they will then carry on even after the grant is over.”

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Lack of funding and an increasing need for aid in Monroe County prompted the discussion of the merger between New Hope and Martha's House about three months ago, New Hope Vice President Mike Gentile said. It became obvious to board officials that the two agencies needed to consolidate to make ends meet and properly serve the community.

“The need’s overwhelming, and the funds are getting less, less and less,” he said during an interview at Scholar’s Inn Bakehouse in downtown Bloomington on July 3. “I think, at a minimum, administrative costs can be shared and insurance costs can be mitigated. Board consolidation of some sort brings that into being. I think those are all opportunities and possibilities.”

New Hope is a one-year-old program in Monroe County that supports families during economic instability. Providing temporary shelter to homeless couples and families with children, the shelter prioritizes the family as a whole through case management and provides guidance and support to help struggling families stabilize.

New Hope Director Elaine Guinn said the shelter serves homeless families, regardless of their makeup – married couples, boyfriends and girlfriends who have been together a while or same-sex couples.

"In terms of a potential merger of social service agencies, we’re all in a bit of a quandary with respect to the available funding during this current financial crisis that has been with us now for nearly four years." - Bob Miller, Martha's House

“We accept families, and that’s what we want to promote, keeping the family unit together,” she said.

Located within walking distance of downtown, New Hope has one operating facility and another under construction, both leased for $1 per year from Indiana University Health Bloomington Hospital. New Hope currently has the capability to house three families, who can live there for a period of 90 days. Once its new shelter is finished, the shelter will serve a total of seven families.

Hoping to open opportunities for funding, the grant will be used to pay an executive director and a consultant, who will both facilitate the merger and ultimately create a model for other local agencies that are considering merging to reduce expenses.

“It gives you some breathing room where you could not worry about every month’s funding and actually develop programs and reach out and do things a little bit more comprehensive and extensive,” Gentile said.

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Martha’s House Board President Bob Miller also expressed his concern about decreasing funding for poverty assistance programs in an interview last April. A 28-bed emergency shelter, Martha’s House is devoted to ensuring that single adults experiencing homelessness in the Monroe, Lawrence and Owen counties are provided with temporary residency.

“In terms of a potential merger of social service agencies, we’re all in a bit of a quandary with respect to the available funding during this current financial crisis that has been with us now for nearly four years,” he said. “That money has been decreasing over time, so we are concerned about the ability to have any type of continuity and stability going forward.”

Hoping to eliminate redundant services and reduce administrative costs, Martha’s House board members have also considered merging with Shalom Community Center, Inc. since last spring. A daytime resource center, Shalom provides an array of services to the homeless, including potential employer networks, access to phones, mail, transportation and nutritious meals to those in need.

"The Hopkins fund is named after a city council member named Jack Hopkins who had this vision that this fund, completely independent of any state or federal influences, would be started locally, from our local tax base.” - Andy Ruff, City Council, Hopkins Committee

“Our discussions with New Hope can actually move forward much more quickly,” he said. “With respect to Shalom Center, that might take a longer period of time, perhaps as long as a year.”

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However, challenges exist with the New Hope and Martha's House merger.

“One of the obvious things that happens is that if you merge, you can only apply for one grant, whereas in the past, you’re two separate entities, and you can apply for two grants,” Gentile said. “But it may open up other avenues of opportunities because now a key part of that director’s job will be public relations, marketing and fundraising. That’s the fuel that makes the process run. Whether we like it or not, we need the money to make it work.”

Along with fundraising challenges, the agencies will have to merge their boards and figure out how to best utilize their facilities as one entity.

Guinn and Gentile stressed that community participation such as fundraising and volunteering is essential to the success of poverty awareness and future social service consolidation aiming to increase funding.

The agency intends to keep a record of their experiences throughout the merger process to guide future consolidation initiatives.

 “I think it’s a situation where you crawl, before you walk, before you run,” Gentile said. “Try and get some traction and bring it together, and hopefully share lessons learned.”

Diana Petrova can be reached at dianapetrova90@gmail.com.