For 20 years, Harbor House Crisis Shelters has provided shelter and services for homeless women and families.
The program, a ministry of Faith United Methodist Church, began in 2001, and has stretched over the years to fill gaps, partner with other agencies and remove barriers to homelessness.
“Prior to Harbor House coming in, our options for women and families were limited,” said Jane Larson, a social worker with the Superior School District. “We had Solid Rock men’s shelter, but that same level of service for women and families really didn’t exist here unless you were somebody who could utilize services at CASDA (the Center Against Sexual and Domestic Abuse), and that doesn’t fit the bill for everybody.”
Barb Certa-Werner, who served as executive director of Harbor House for more than 18 years, said she and her husband Joel learned about the local need when they became pastors of Faith United Methodist Church. The ministry started with one house and no paid employees and has grown to two houses, two apartments and 10 paid employees.
“All of the projects are debt-free,” Certa-Werner said. “And 70% of the staff are formerly homeless.”
Those are the physical gains. For Certa-Werner, the greatest successes are intangible
“The moments of celebration when a mom gets her own place; or when a family is able to move into an apartment; when someone gets a new, better-paying job; when it has been 30 days of sobriety; when children open Christmas presents (made possible by the community); the first swing on the play equipment at the shelter,” she said. “It is cheering folks on when they need it most. Those are the milestones that I celebrate.”
The ministry has continually moved forward, adding a second shelter home, a 24-month transitional housing program and, most recently, a five-unit building that offers permanent supportive housing to families with no set expiration date.
Even when the organization can’t offer shelter, its leaders reach out a hand.
For years, Larson coordinated the runaway and homeless youth program at the Human Development Center in Superior. Although the ministry couldn’t give the young people shelter, it provided a place for them to shower, clean up and do laundry.
“They certainly are not afraid to tackle the issues that we have in our community around homelessness and what people need,” Larson said. “They do wonderful work, and they are wonderful to partner with and work alongside of.”
The mission of Harbor House has remained constant: To provide hospitable shelter and services to women and families. The scope, however, has grown, said Certa-Werner, who now serves as northwest district superintendent for Wisconsin United Methodist Church.
Staff work with clients to overcome barriers and find permanent, stable housing, while addressing their individual needs. That could mean help finding a job or working on a resume; it could mean furthering their education; it could mean addressing physical or mental needs.
There’s more to be done, said executive director Chelsea Branley.
“Moving forward, and already into 2021, Harbor House plans to implement more substance abuse resources, as we see a growing need with the people we serve,” she said.
Branley started as a life skills coordinator with Harbor House in 2017 while studying art therapy at the University of Wisconsin-Superior. She took over the director role from Certa-Werner in 2019 in the midst of the permanent supportive housing project. Community members kept telling her she had big shoes to fill.
“I would always respond with ‘It’s a good thing we wear the same size,’” Branley said. “I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but anything beautiful usually isn’t.”
She continues to bring her own touch to the ministry.
“The beauty of the transition is that I am still sharing my art with the individuals that we serve,” Branley said. “I have implemented an art interventions group once a week where art is presented as a self-care technique.”
Church and community support have been vital to the growth of Harbor House, leaders said. The ministry is rooted in living out the love of God in service and is quick to partner with other agencies to care for the homeless. It’s also made a difference to those who have been involved, Certa-Werner said.
“The women and families that I served throughout my 18 ½ years taught me that there is always hope and grace. And sometimes my job was to be a tangible reminder of both," she said.