Federal grant would prohibit nonprofit from screening residents for criminal history


GREENFIELD — Wolfe Scullen likes to toddle down the hall of the Hope House, knock on the office door and charm staff members out of a piece of candy or two.

The 2-year-old has lived at the Hope House for about a month with his parents, brother and sister. A series of hard knocks led the family to the Greenfield homeless shelter; first, Toshinna Scullen lost her job, then plans for a house for the family fell through.

But now, they’re grateful for these walls at 35 E. Pierson St.; they have a place to live, some time to save money and jobs at a local restaurant. There’s a playground for the kids. They won’t be there much longer, but it feels like home anyway, father Travis Scullen said.

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Shelter leaders say they’ll do anything to preserve that sense of security for the families they serve, even if it means sacrificing funding that helps keep their doors open. Recently, nonprofit officials announced plans to turn down $54,000 in federal dollars after learning of a change in the grant policy they feared would put their mission in jeopardy.

The Emergency Solutions Grant program, which makes up 20 percent of the 35-person shelter’s annual $289,000 budget, recently changed its guidelines to prohibit safe houses from performing background checks on residents, said Hope House program coordinator Chris Wiseman.

The policy left Hope House leaders with an impossible decision, they said: open the shelter to people who might be dangerous or give up federal funding the organization has depended on for 16 years.

“We could have said we won’t take kids any more,” said board member Kevin Harvey. “But we want to serve families. That’s an important part of who we are.”

The policy states homeless shelters should not deny assistance because of “lack of employment or income, drug or alcohol use, or having a criminal record,” according to the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Hope House staff members eyed that rule and worried about who might live among their families and children, who share several common areas; without background checks, they would be unable to turn away convicted child molesters or people with violent criminal pasts, they said.

The Hope House has always conducted background checks before admitting clients inside its doors. People are denied if they have a criminal history that includes sex offenses or a pattern of violence, executive director Andrea Mallory said.

Having a criminal history is among a number of reasons a person can be turned away, along with living outside the shelter’s coverage area — Hancock, Henry, Shelby and Rush counties — or being unable to hold a job.

Nearly half of those who sought shelter in the last five years were turned away; from 2012 to 2014, the nonprofit averaged 700 requests per year and turned away about 400 people; from 2014 through 2016, the shelter averaged 600 calls per year and turned away 400, administrative assistant Cindy Miller said.

The board’s decision to withdraw from the grant program leaves the shelter without a critical source of funding; the grant paid for the majority of the shelter’s utility costs, building maintenance and security system, said executive director Andrea Mallory.

Two employees from the shelter’s attached thrift store — which generates more than half its budget — have already been let go because of the expected shortfall, Mallory said.

Now, leaders of the county’s sole homeless shelter are looking to their community partners to help fill the gaps in their budget.

The Hope House, which last year provided about 4,000 nights of shelter, is looking particularly to its faith-based partners to increase their donations, Mallory said.

The organization recently raised $6,000 through a bowling fundraiser and plans to split the proceeds of an upcoming 5K race/walk with the Greenfield Parks and Recreation Department. Mallory has reached out to the chambers of commerce in each of the four counties the Hope House covers, and she plans to ramp up efforts to draw local supporters to the annual Hops for Hope — a fundraiser featuring craft brews — held in August.

Mallory is also seeking additional grant opportunities, she said.

For families at the shelter, those efforts are met with thankfulness.

With so many other concerns on their way to finding their own home, safety is one worry they don’t need, resident Toshinna Scullen said.

When her son wanders into the common areas or takes off on a quick jaunt to visit the staff down the hall, she takes comfort knowing he’s surrounded by people who have his best interest at heart.

“I feel … comfortable,” she said. “I feel like my kids are safe here.”

Harvey said the board has faith its community partners will help the organization to make up the difference.

“All the communities we serve have been generous in the past,” he said. “We have too many success stories, too many people getting back on their feet because they were able to stay here, to stop now.”

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$289,000: the Hope House annual operating budget

4,000: nights of shelter provided each year

4: counties served by the shelter (Hancock, Shelby, Rush and Henry counties)

35: Hope House capacity

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“We could have said we won’t take kids any more, but we want to serve families. That’s an important part of who we are.”

– Board member Kevin Harvey, on the Hope House’s decision to turn down federal funding