This article first appeared in the January print issue published in Dec. 29.
The pastor and director of the Harbor House, Coni Beck, says the 21 beds in the homeless shelter are not nearly enough. In fact, Beck says that she turns 4-5 men away from the shelter daily for lack of space, and the number of resources available for the homeless in the community are well below what is needed.
“Henderson is woefully under resourced, as every community is,” she said. “It’s a much bigger problem than people realize.”
Beck’s husband and assistant director of the Harbor House, Richard, said many Hendersonians don’t realize the level of local homelessness.
“We have a crisis here in this town and most people don’t want to recognize it or turn a blind eye to it,” Richard Beck said.
For these—and other reasons—the Becks are determined to construct a second building on the shelter’s Clay Street campus. It would add about 30 more beds and much-needed resources for homeless men in the community, the Becks told the Hendersonian in a December interview.
The Harbor House plans to kick off a capital campaign in March, once architectural and other plans are solidified, said Coni Beck.
Currently, there is one main building on the shelter’s Clay Street campus, which holds all the administrative, kitchen, laundry, dormitory and chapel rooms.
With the new construction, some of that would shift to the new building, including administrative offices, the chapel and storage. The new addition would also be a place that on-site providers, such as addiction and mental health counselors and medical staff, can give care to men, said Coni Beck.
Currently, men with these needs must go to other locations, sometimes across the river in Evansville, Coni Beck said.
When the new building is constructed, the kitchen and laundry facilities in the current building will be expanded, house managers’ apartments will be built inside and additional dorm rooms will be added, leaving the total number between 50-55, said Richard Beck.
The current building is about 5,000 square feet. The new building will be just a bit smaller. There’s also a possibility that a basement could be built, which would allow for more beds and other options. The Becks are waiting to hear if a basement is feasible. If a basement were able to be built, then even more beds could be provided, possibly as many as 70.
A recent homelessness count conducted by the Henderson County Homeless Coalition in the fall found 28 people un-sheltered in Henderson and Henderson County. Coni Beck says the number of homeless people is much higher than what people think—upwards of 100 people.
“I’d say 100, easily, easily,” Coni Beck said. “These guys are sleeping by a tree.”
And they don’t just need a bed, she said. Coni Beck said many in the homeless community are dealing with addiction and/or mental health issues.
The Harbor House helps men obtain official identifications and birth certificates; they help them apply for Medicaid, disability insurance and food stamps, Coni Beck said. And they offer GED and financial education classes, she said. The men are also assisted in finding jobs, and when that occurs, they are put on a savings plan.
“We don’t want them to stay here,” Coni Beck said. “We want them to leave and become a productive member of society.”
Coni Beck knows, though, that the shelter will never be able to reach them all, even if there were enough beds. She said a percentage of the homeless are “anti-everything” and won’t come to a shelter.
Richard Beck adds that many are addicted to substances and don’t want to get clean.
“They know when they come here, they’re going to get cleaned up,” he said.
She said many of the men grew up in dire circumstances and have been battling addiction for most of their existence, so they don’t possess life skills.
“We’re trying to teach them things they didn’t learn growing up,” Coni Beck said.
It’s an increasingly difficult job to be in, when the Becks and volunteers attempt to help those who need a place to stay, get them back on their feet with a job, and then assist as they try to transition out into the world. They must check for weapons in each man’s gear, and they must be aware if a man arrives under the influence of drugs or alcohol. It’s not easy.
At no time was that more evident than the evening of Aug. 25, 2022. Coni Beck, ordained in the Assembly of God denomination, had been the pastor at Harbor House for 1 ½ years when that night a mass shooting occurred at the facility. Two men, Steven Wathen, 67, and Chad Holmes, 44, were killed. Two others were injured. Robert Gibbs, 37, a resident at the center was arrested on murder charges.
Devastated, Coni Beck prayed for the leadership of the shelter not to fall on her, though in her heart she already knew that she would soon be in charge.
“Because of the role I already had, I knew it was going to fall on me,” she said.
Soon she met with the board and presented to them a rendering of the original plan from when the Harbor House was first built in the 1980s, she said. In this picture, there are two buildings.
Now the Becks plan to finish that original plan.
Richard Beck said original estimates were that the new addition would cost $1.5 million. But he said rising costs have led them to reevaluate what they need. He said $2 million is more realistic.
That amount would not only pay for the new facility but would also allow the Harbor House to set a budget, provide salaries for its house managers and pay for ongoing maintenance, he said.
Both Coni and Richard Beck will continue to work without pay, they say.
“This addition will allow us to move to the next level,” Richard Beck said.
Coni Beck said the shelter’s mission is “transforming lives.”
“This is so much more than a bed,” she said.