HAVEN shuttered by ‘perfect storm’

Financial troubles forced agency’s sudden closure
Aug. 23, 2013 @ 05:01 AM

If the only domestic violence shelter and service provider in Lee County keeps on its present path, its leader said Thursday, it will have to shut down for good in a matter of weeks.

HAVEN (Helping Abuse and Violence End Now) laid off its entire staff last week, stopped most of its services and moved the majority of the women and children in its 29-bed shelter elsewhere. But five people remain — one family of four, and one single woman — with no friends, family or other shelters in the area able to take them in.

So a small group of HAVEN board members and former employees are manning the group’s shelter, office and crisis phone line, and hoping the power doesn’t shut off before they get more money.

“Everything’s been on such a shoestring [budget] that if someone gives us a bill for $500, we get sick to our stomachs,” said Carol Carlson, chairwoman of the organization’s board of directors.

So the group needs to raise $20,000 as soon as possible, Carlson said. She said she and others will go to every public and private funding source they know of, all the while hoping that grant money — which amounts to about half of the agency’s revenue every year — starts rolling in again.

The checks stopped coming earlier this year because staff hadn’t sent in the required reports and thus HAVEN fell out of compliance for a time, according to Carlson. The group had three executive directors in the last two years, and she said the paperwork apparently either wasn’t done or was lost in the shuffle of frequent turnover.

“We are now in compliance with everything,” she said. “But in many ways, it’s too little, too late. ... It’s like a Catch-22. We can’t get a director without grants, but we can’t get more grants ‘til we have a director.”

In addition to that funding stream drying up unexpectedly, the recession also reportedly led to year after year of drops in donations. Plus the agency has been paying mortgages on two properties for the past several years, and one of its thrift stores operated in the red while the other one — the successful one — was closed for seven months recently, according to Carlson.

“It was sort of a perfect storm,” Carlson said. “It wasn’t any one thing.”

The agency bought a building on Charlotte Avenue some years ago but eventually outgrew that space some time around 2010 — Carlson wasn’t on the board then and said she doesn’t know exactly when the decision was finalized — and HAVEN built a new state-of-the-art office/shelter combination building on Bracken Street. It moved in during fall of 2011 but wasn’t able to sell the Charlotte Avenue building. According to tax filings, the group spent $390,274 on secured mortgages and notes payable to third parties in the 2012 fiscal year — a jump of more than $150,000 from 2010.

But HAVEN was still afloat despite its two mortgages and issues with its two thrift stores, which are now both closed. Looking at revenues minus expenses, the agency was $404,870 in the black at the end of the 2011 fiscal year and $466,769 in the black by the end of the 2012 fiscal year.

But then the grants, which totaled $350,000 in 2011 and $556,903 in 2012, stopped. And Carlson said individuals alone can’t prop up a group like HAVEN, which runs the dorm-like shelter in addition to offering counseling, legal aid and more.

“I can’t tell you how many times I and other people on the board got frustrated, said to hell with it, and wrote a check ourselves,” Carlson said. “But that’s not sustainable.”

And so she called a staff meeting last Thursday, Aug. 15, and told the staff there was no money to pay them, but anyone who wanted to stay on as a volunteer could. A few took that offer, she said. Others were angry. Then she went to inform the people in the shelter.

“They had already climbed one mountain to be here,” Carlson said. “So to tell them we had to move them was devastating.”

And so, she said, the upcoming push for aid will be to not only keep trying for federal and state grants, but also to seek more help from local government, churches and businesses to bring the employees and their services back.

But not all of those employees would be willing to return.

“To be honest with you, I’m kind of glad it’s closing,” said Yvonne Feldon, who worked in the shelter. “... We ran out of toilet paper, we ran out of food. Carol went out and got food and put on Facebook that we need food ... . But if you’re a nonprofit,  you should never run out of food.”

Thursday, the pantries and freezers were mostly full, but Carlson acknowledged that there had been serious problems just a few weeks ago.

While relatively small compared to its total revenue of nearly $900,000 in 2012, HAVEN lost $3,000 from the Lee County Commissioners this year. In a push led by commissioners Jim Womack and Kirk Smith, the county defunded nearly every nonprofit it has supported in the past. Carlson said she’ll ask the county for that money back, but isn’t overly optimistic.

Womack said Thursday that HAVEN serves a hugely important role in Lee County, but that it’s simply not the county’s duty to help fund its mission.

“Those women and children who are victims of domestic violence need some place to go,” Womack said. “... The problem we have with nonprofits, as a general rule, is they’re looking for grants, and we are not a grant-bestowing organization. ... Because of that, we should treat these as contracts — and if it’s not a needed service that’s constitutionally mandated, we have to really think twice.”

He added that HAVEN should have board of directors that includes members with business backgrounds, or at least a fiscally conservative mindset. Carlson also said the board has been lacking in members who are good with numbers, but that she now sees how much trouble that got them into. She added that if and when the organization is back on solid footing, she also wants to hire a business manager.