Desperate times 

For the past 21 years, Haven House, a small Colorado Springs nonprofit, has provided free peer-to-peer counseling for people with mental illness. But over the last two years, it has expanded its offerings.

Now available: handmade necklaces and art, aging kitchen appliances and a smattering of used household items.

After losing its main source of funding in 2010, the tiny west-side, walk-in center has kept the doors open with the spirit and ingenuity of a PTA mom — and a heck of a lot of garage sales. In fact, last year, $8,000 of the center's $18,000 budget came via rummage sales, the rest from donations and grants.

"It's been going on for two years," says volunteer Leta Holley, who serves as art and marketing director, as well as treasurer. "I'm quite burnt out on it."

For most of its history, Haven House leaned on the local, multimillion-dollar mental health center now called AspenPointe. The arrangement was simple. AspenPointe sent a monthly check to Haven. In exchange, when Haven helped Medicaid patients, AspenPointe billed the insurer for Haven's services.

But two years ago, in May 2010 — ironically, Mental Health Month — AspenPointe informed Haven it would no longer be sending the checks. AspenPointe COO Kelly Phillips-Henry explains that over the years, Haven House stopped serving so many Medicaid patients. Now, she says, Haven serves many people referred from the Department of Veterans Affairs or the corrections program, ComCor. (Haven would add homeless people to that list.)

With Medicaid reimbursements no longer covering Haven's costs, AspenPointe sought to diversify Haven's funding, hosting a meeting 15 months ago with stakeholders, including the VA and ComCor.

"Partners did show up," Phillips-Henry says, "but no one else was interested in helping financially support Haven House."

Efforts afoot

Haven House, which hosted 7,739 client visits last year, is humble even as small nonprofits go. Located in a tiny abode on North Walnut Street that was gifted via land trust by the city more than a decade ago, the center has a few rooms with aging furniture, a small courtyard and garage.

Once a rec room, the garage is now home to merchandise, donated by supporters and patients, for the ongoing rummage sales. In the kitchen, paint is peeling off the ceiling where the roof has sprung a leak. But despite its modest accommodations, Haven House is clearly loved and neatly kept, with every nook of space carved out for some activity or meeting — Haven offers everything from bingo to spiritual and relationship classes, all free.

There's also the mark of personality that's to be expected in a smaller center. One visitor keeps a shelf stocked with books he picks up in free boxes to give to others; another tends his own little garden in the courtyard.

Lorie Jarvis, executive director of the Colorado Springs branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, says she's heard from community members who say Haven is a fundamental part of their lives. It gives people with mental illness a home away from home, and gives family members and caregivers much-needed breaks. She says it would be a shame to see it close, but she worries that could be a reality because Haven's leaders aren't experienced fundraisers, and in the recession, money has been hard to come by.

"Let's face it, there's a lot of competition for any philanthropic dollars," she says. "... [Grant] processes have become much more rigorous, and it's difficult for a small nonprofit."

It's evident that the organization's sole paid employee, executive director Tim Shaw, has the passion to connect with the center's clients and the know-how to balance its checkbook. But Shaw, who currently earns just $6,000 a year, is no financial expert. The same appears to be true of the rest of the organization's leadership. They've been giving presentations to potential donors, and remain quite hopeful about the future, but can't communicate a clear plan to fund the agency.

"I think this is a worthwhile organization," Holley says, with optimism coloring her voice. "We have a lot of people pulling for us."

This spring, the agency was close to closing its doors until local homeless activist Stephen Handen stepped in. Handen called potential supporters and scraped up enough money to keep the center going through July. AspenPointe was a major contributor to that cause, and also offered to provide Haven with free IT, bookkeeping and grantwriting services for now.

"We continue to be involved right now in trying to help Haven House stay afloat," Phillips-Henry says. "We're partnering with NAMI to see what we can do to support that, but I think the clear message is that AspenPointe can't support Haven House alone; this needs to be a community-wide effort."

'Two-way street'

Many say there are good reasons to keep Haven going.

"My humble experience is that psychology and medicine can only go so far," Handen offers. "People have other needs. We have a need for community and friendship and togetherness and mutuality and mutual helpfulness. And I think Haven House has provided that for a number of people over the years.

"[For] people that are resistant to medication, people for whom some of the ordinary treatments don't work too well, Haven House has a big impact."

Run mostly by a system of volunteers who have a mental illness and are trained in counseling, the center has a laid-back vibe. Patients are allowed to drop in, hang out, pick up basics like canned food, and seek out people to talk to when they're ready.

"We've had men and women come in here ... [and] not say a word to people for several months," Shaw notes. "And as long as they act appropriate, we don't have a problem with that. But they'll sit on a couch or they'll sit here on the chairs and they'll pay attention to the groups. And eventually they'll pick out one or maybe two people that they feel comfortable enough to approach. And that's where the healing begins."

Shaw himself is a bipolar patient who was helped by Haven. So was Holley, who has since recovered from depression. Board member Bryce Snider was addicted to meth when he came to Haven several years ago. He says regular counseling was a turnoff to him, but the accepting atmosphere at Haven spoke to him and helped him get back on his feet. And like many clients before him, Snider wants to help Haven — though he can't offer much financially.

"At first it was Haven House helping me," he says. "Now I'm looking at it as a two-way street. Now I need to start helping Haven House more."



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