Cities throughout the United States are dotted with shelters for domestic-violence victims, but what about individuals needing emergency shelter due to other crises?

To meet the needs of those in the latter category, Mercyhealth opened the House of Mercy more than 20 years ago. It is the only single-women/family shelter in the southern Wisconsin-northern Illinois region that is not specifically set up for victims of domestic violence, and it is believed to be the only hospital-owned and-operated homeless center in the nation.

“In the mid-1990s, I noticed that many people coming to the emergency room at our Janesville hospital listed their car as their home address,” said Javon R. Bea, Mercy- health president and CEO. “I knew we had to do something more than care for their health care needs, so I made it my personal mission and vision to help homeless individuals in our community.”

Mercyhealth donated a campus building and renovated it into a 25-bed residential facility in 1996, providing 30-day emergency shelter to single women and families.

“When you think about the challenges of homeless individuals, especially those who are rent-burdened or have a history of eviction, often those individuals end up living in their cars,” said Tammie King-Johnson, manager of the House of Mercy. “Unfortunately, they sometimes end up living in the street. We’re able to address the needs of a very high-risk population that struggles with being both homeless and ill at times. Having an adequate emergency shelter for them saves lives.”

And while an emergency shelter can mean the difference between life and death, the House of Mercy goes beyond that. “We also work with residents of the shelter to help them develop an individualized plan to achieve permanent housing,” King-Johnson said.

Residents receive services from a housing resource counselor and a social worker. Support services have grown to include case management, child care, outpatient health services, behavioral health services, substance-use treatment, educational services, transportation and life-skills training.

“We provide financial support for rent assistance when folks leave the shelter,” King-Johnson said. “We often will provide some financial assistance to address ongoing medical needs. We partner with a local dentist to provide free dental services to our residents.”

The House of Mercy recently introduced a Nurturing Parenting program. “We are work- ing with our parents every day to help build their level of resilience and increase their ability to successfully parent their children,” King-Johnson said. “The goal is to help them develop strategies that will lead to a reduction in abuse and neglect of children.”

Current partners with the House of Mercy include Rock County Human Services Department, Rock County Job Center, the Rock County Homeless Intervention Task Force, ECHO food pantry, the Salvation Army, Legal Action of Wisconsin, local colleges and school districts and various free clinics and substance-use programs.

“We’ve been able to house more than 7,000 individuals, and we’ve provided more than 200,000 emergency shelter nights,” King-Johnson said. “What’s unique about that is we’re able to do that with a very small staff and a committed group of volunteers.”

Clients’ self-sufficiency scores are calculated upon arrival and discharge, and nearly all clients demonstrate improvement.

The lion’s share of funding for the House of Mercy comes from private donations, including money donated by Mercyhealth employees, King-Johnson said. The House of Mercy also is supported by Mercyhealth employees who volunteer at the homeless center.

King-Johnson thinks other health systems could elicit the same kind of response from their employees for such an undertaking.

“We pride ourselves at Mercyhealth on being servant leaders, and I think that’s the general consensus for most health systems across the country,” she said. “This is a way to put your servant leadership into action.”
 

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