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Blankenship: 'I want people looking at us to see how to treat homelessness'

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Kelly Blankenship

Kelly Blankenship, executive director of Harmony House Homeless Services, hopes to create a new facility in the former Hamilton Park on Mansfield's north side.

MANSFIELD -- Can we reimagine how we view homelessness and the way it's handled in our community?

A proposed new shelter-style homeless facility on the city's north side took a large step forward last week when the Richland County Land Bank granted Harmony House Homeless Services the first shot at developing Hamilton Park.

The former city park, which covers about 24 acres, was one of 10 such largely-unused park properties the Land Bank acquired from the city in late 2020, by far the largest. It's located west of Bowman Street and just north of U.S. 30.

Hamilton Park

Hamilton Park

The Land Bank voted unanimously to give Harmony House Executive Director Kelly Blankenship about 18 months to raise at least 50 percent of the required funding for the first phase of the project, about $1.5 million.

Blankenship, who took over Harmony House's reins in 2018, estimated total cost for the entire project could cost between $16 and $22 million for the non-profit. It would replace the 72-year-old West Third Street homeless facility which has already cost about $85,000 in repairs in 2021.

Richland Source met with Blankenship at Hamilton Park on Friday and had a conversation with the city's former finance director about the project.

Q: What can you tell us about what you have in mind with this project?

Blankenship: What we're planning down here is a shelter-style campus that has emergency shelter beds and all of the essential services that we provide as an emergency shelter. Plus, we want to be able to provide the wrap-around services that clients need to access in the community that right now are cumbersome because they lack transportation.

Bus routes aren't always conducive to getting where they need to go. It's difficult for them to get to multiple points in one day, so it takes multiple days to get to this appointment and that appointment. What we want to do is bring all of those services that they need here to them.

The U.S. Housing & Urban Development's philosophy on homelessness is get people housed first, as quickly as possible. Then we want to start addressing all of the issues that surrounded their homelessness.

Q: What's the current situation?

Blankenship: Too often, we are putting people out into the community before they are ready to address any of their issues. They come to us in crisis. I don't know if you have ever sat and thought about what it's like to not have a place to go at the end of the day. Most of us don't know what that is like. We're not homeless, though we're all one catastrophe away. These people come to us in crisis and we are putting them back into the communities within 30 days.

Some people can't comply with the rules of the shelter. So they exit early without receiving help and without getting to a permanent destination.

We will work with people as long as they're working toward their goal plan, which includes getting all the assistance they need, getting a source of income, finding a place to live, whether or not they qualify for rental assistance. All of these pieces have to come together before we can (successfully) put them back into the community.

Sometimes people get (to the shelter) and get busy and they get out right away. Sometimes they have barriers to employment because of their criminal backgrounds. Or they have barriers to becoming housed because they have multiple evictions, so we have to advocate on their behalf with landlords. 

It just depends on each individual client. There really is no maximum stay. As long as they are working on their goal plan diligently, then we will continue to help them.

Q: Can you explain what you mean by "wrap-around services" that the new facility would offer?

Blankenship: What we want to put down here is a facility that houses clients and also offers medical treatment, dental treatment, substance abuse treatment and mental health treatment.

We would like a classroom space with a computer lab so the (Mansfield/Richland County Public Library) can come and do programming here. We want to get people into skill classes and maybe North Central State College might want to come and teach workforce development class, things of that nature.

We want to have office space where maybe (Richland County Job & Family Services) can come to us to get clients signed up. Or maybe Social Security can some to sign people up (for benefits).

We also want to have a daycare center because we have seen a huge increase in families coming to the shelter. If you talk with (Mansfield City Schools officials), there's like hundreds of kids who are homeless and not all of them are in the shelter because they are "co-housed" with other people.

Our families that come here have a difficult time finding daycare for their children and that keeps mom or dad from going out to look for a job. It's not conducive to people adequately getting back on their feet. 

We want to provide these things on-site.

Q: Can you explain how this facility will also benefit residents in the community, especially those on the north end, a location that lacks a lot of health care options?

Blankenship: We want to have the medical facility and the daycare open to the whole community here. There is nothing like this here. So we want to make sure it's large enough that it's accessible to everyone here who wants to take advantage of it, not just our clients.

We have spoken to the Third Street Clinic about being involved. They do want to have a presence here. We are talking about how big they would want that presence to be. Perhaps they are contractors working in our building. If they decide they only want a partial role, then we can also contract with other entities to provide services Third Street may not wish to provide.

Q: How many residents would your new facility be able to house?

Blankenship: Initially, in phase one, we're planning for a 100-bed shelter with the ability to double that capacity in the future. We have a 54-bed facility now. In our seven-county region, that's more than half of the available beds. If we double that, we're going to be huge compared to other shelters around the area, but the need is great.

I don't know of anything like this (in Ohio). When I came to the shelter in 2018 and saw the way we were moving clients through and putting them back into the community, we really didn't have good follow-up with them at that point. We're such a small staff that we don't have the resources to keep following people out in the community. I think we kind of lose people some people that way.

I want Mansfield to be the premiere homeless shelter, providing needed services on-site, for northeast Ohio. I want people looking at us to see how to treat homelessness. We don't need to look at Cleveland. We don't need to look at Columbus. We want them to look at us and see what we did differently.

Q: How will all of this be funded? Harmony House gets no local tax dollars, does it? How important was the Land Bank commitment of the acreage?

Blankenship: We're the only (such) entity that doesn't have direct-source funding. Everything that we operate on is us asking for donations, seeking grants and the benevolence of local foundations.

I don't know why we (don't receive local tax dollars) because it's a major problem in our community. There needs to be funding that's specifically set aside from local tax dollars that come to us, but that doesn't happen. We are the entity in town that addresses homelessness, so why are we not receiving funds?

I could not go to someone and say, "I'd like to apply for funding to build this shelter on some land that we MAY be able to get." With this agreement, we are hoping to push for state capitol budget funds in 2022. I spoke with U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown's liaison for our area to tell her about the project. She was really excited and said she would help us in looking for federal funds.

If our project is large enough with the permanent supportive housing, (Metropolitan Housing) has offered to put project vouchers down here. That means the vouchers stay with the unit. They don't travel with the tenant when they leave. There would always be a subsidy for people to stay in the permanent supportive housing.

(Land Bank board chair) Bart Hamilton has been integral in helping us to work through the plan, the feasibility of it, and whether it would be a good fit for the community here.

Q: How confident are you that this project will go forward?

Blankenship: The real work starts now, but I am very confident that this project will happen. I can see the vision. I can see the end in sight. I can see this happening and becoming a major improvement in our entire community.

I was never a social worker or had much experience in homelessness before. I am a business person, right? I was hired to run the business side. I am operational, not case management, but I can see objectively the operations of the shelter and how things were going.

We're not going to have an impact on homelessness in our community if we continue to do what we're doing. When you look at the barriers to what it is that helps people get well, it's receiving the services they need to address their issues.

If we can bring all of that together, we're going to have an impact on the community, through helping people down here with services not available. We need to treat our homeless clients in a manner that helps them become well holistically and then we can put a better person back into the community who can contribute.

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City editor. 30-year plus journalist. Husband. Father of 3 grown sons and also a proud grandpa. Prior military journalist in U.S. Navy, Ohio Air National Guard. -- Favorite quote: "Where were you when the page was blank?"

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