Correction: This story has been updated to correct the origin of the funds Wheeler Mission used for the purchase.
Wheeler Mission in Bloomington is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on an expansion, and organizers hope the additional space will produce better outcomes for its homeless clients, many of whom are struggling with addiction and mental illness.
The nonprofit organization in the past 16 months has purchased two additional buildings on Westplex Avenue, in part to spread out its living quarters. The organization also plans to expand its programming areas to help people stay or get back on their feet. Officials expect renovations to be completed at the end of next year.
“It’s going to be fantastic,” said Dana Jones, director of Wheeler Mission Ministries in Bloomington. “We’ve wanted this for a long time.”
The nonprofit struggled to provide adequate space even before last year, Jones said, but the pandemic, which required greater physical distances between clients, made the situation worse.
The organization, at 215 Westplex Ave., in June 2020 bought the building at 135 S. Westplex Ave., which formerly housed a bearing manufacturing business. Wheeler Mission uses that building for its commercial laundry, bathroom facilities and a day room, where people can get water, watch TV, get help from a case manager and access the internet for job searches or online therapy. The building also serves as a warming shelter in the winter and a cooling shelter in the summer.
In June, Wheeler Mission also bought the building at 201 S. Westplex Ave., which formerly housed a Jazzercise center. That building is in between the other two buildings the nonprofit already owned.
Wheeler Mission serves men on its Westplex campus but also has a nearby women’s shelter that is funded through August 2022 thanks to the city, county and United Way. Wheeler, which has been operating shelters and programs for the needy in Indianapolis for more than 100 years, added Bloomington to its operations in 2015, when it merged with Backstreet Mission and Agape House.
Jones said the newest Bloomington structure will house 84 beds, showers and restrooms as well as another day room and an outside courtyard with lockers. The beds will be moved into the new building from the Wheeler Mission’s Center for Men, which is now in the southernmost of the three buildings.
“We’re not adding beds,” Jones said. “We’re adding space.”
He said Wheeler Mission obtained a $550,000 Federal Home Loan grant, and used $350,000 of it to buy the property. That leaves $200,000 for renovations, though Jones said the nonprofit soon will begin fundraising for another $200,000 that likely will be needed to complete the project. While the 11 Federal Home Loan banks are overseen by the Federal Housing Finance Agency, an independent regulatory agency established by the U.S. Congress, they are supported by private funds, meaning no tax dollars are involved.
He said Wheeler Mission hopes the additional space will provide clients with greater dignity and better access to services that can help them overcome their challenges.
The Bloomington City Council recently approved a zoning change for the nonprofit’s three properties, though a neighboring business owner raised concerns about employee safety.
Sierra Miller, who runs an insurance business south of the Wheeler Mission properties, told council members that she and her staff sometimes deal with belligerent people who are intoxicated, often resulting in police being called.
“Sure the last couple of weeks have been OK, but before this, this is kind of a consistent issue, of a lot of employees feeling unsafe,” Miller told the council this month. “We’ve had multiple businesses next to us back out of leasing … because they don’t want to lease there anymore.”
According to data from the Bloomington Police Department, police runs to the Wheeler Mission increased more than 12-fold between 2016 and 2019 but fell by about 39% last year. Police made 424 runs to the area in 2019 and 259 last year.
Jones said the increase through 2019 was a result of the Wheeler Mission taking on clients who had been sleeping at the interfaith winter shelter, which shut down. That additional surge caused some challenges for the nonprofit, but it has since increased its programming and hired a case manager to provide additional help for the clients, especially those with severe mental illness who greatly benefit from getting consistent care.
Jones said in some cases clients called police because another client threatened to harm himself. In other cases, people have gotten very confused and used their phone to call police to report that their phone has been stolen.
Jones said Wheeler Mission works closely with BPD’s downtown resource officers, the Centerstone behavioral health agency, Indiana University Health and other partners to find solutions for the complex problems faced by the nonprofit’s clients.
Miller could not be reached last week to talk about whether her concerns have been addressed.
Jones said he would meet with neighbors and city officials in the next few days to continue to work on reducing the undesired behaviors, which include encampments in nearby woods.
While some city council members voiced concerns about the reported problems, members approved the zoning change unanimously. Several council members said the vote to change the properties’ zoning designation would have no effect on what is considered acceptable behavior on those properties.
“What’s before us is a zoning decision … and the behaviors that … have created concern, very rightfully so, … are unacceptable in either of these zonings,” council member Sue Sgambelluri said.
Council member Susan Sandberg said Wheeler Mission’s expansion would enable the nonprofit to provide additional programming to help people in crisis get to a point of stability.
“I want to commend Mr. Jones for his admirable work at Wheeler Mission and all of his staff and I wish them well as they expand their programming,” she said. “They are a definite benefit to the community, even as we must address” problems reported by neighbors.
The plan commission and planning staff also supported the zoning designation change.
Boris Ladwig is the city government reporter for The Herald-Times. Contact him at [email protected]