Celebrating 25 years serving the homeless

Photo by Greg Eans, Messenger-Inquirer.com | geans@messenger-inquirer.com Volunteer Mike Newton mops the floor in the cafeteria area at the Daniel Pitino Shelter after staff served around 250 meals for lunch, Thursday. This year marks the shelter’s 25th anniversary.

When Stacey Benge was released from a drug rehab center in Hopkinsville four years ago, she owned two changes of clothes.

That's all.

No money. No home.

"I had nowhere to go," Benge said.

The Daniel Pitino Shelter had available space and took her in. She lived there nearly two years.

The shelter provided a safe place to sleep, meals, bus passes for job interviews, help seeking employment and life skills training to smooth her transition to a successful life on her own.

Fast forward four years. In March, Benge moved into a three-bedroom Habitat for Humanity home on Old Henderson Road. She's been sober for years, works a full-time job and recently regained custody of her son. She hopes to enroll in college classes next year.

"I don't know where I would be without (the Pitino Shelter)," she said.

This year marks the homeless shelter's 25th anniversary. In the early 1990s, local residents approached former University of Kentucky and University of Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino about sponsoring a new homeless shelter in Owensboro. It took about three years of fundraising and real estate negotiations to make the facility at 501 Walnut St. a reality.

The Pitino Shelter is named in honor of the late Daniel Pitino, the infant son of Rick and Joanne Pitino. Daniel Pitino died in 1987 of congenital heart failure.

When the facility first opened, it housed the McAuley Clinic and Help Office. Seventeen churches pitched in to provide goods, services and volunteers.

Last year, the shelter housed at least 250 people. The facility's kitchen serves between 200 and 300 meals daily. Meals are served there seven days a week every day of the year.

Also, county officials depend on the Pitino Shelter during White Flag events. During winter cold snaps, St. Benedict's Homeless Shelter houses men, women and families in a separate area from its men's shelter at night. However, White Flag clients are able to eat three meals a day at the Pitino Shelter.

Becky Barnhart, the shelter's interim executive director, estimates the 65-bed shelter has housed at least 7,500 people during the past quarter-century.

Barnhart feels there are several misconceptions about homelessness. Many people believe drugs and alcohol are largely responsible for the homeless population, but there are myriad reasons to the complicated problem, she said.

"There is no No. 1 reason," said Charlotte Statts, the shelter's caseworker and volunteer coordinator.

She has worked at the facility about 17 years.

Families live paycheck to paycheck, which can lead to homelessness if a spouse loses a job. Divorce and mental illness also contribute to the problem.

In the past three years, Statts has seen more elderly residents looking for food and a bed.

"It's not drugs and alcohol alone," she said. "That's part of it, but lots of people have just fallen down on their luck."

Statts remembers when the Whirlpool plant in Evansville closed. A husband and wife worked there. They had three children.

When they lost their incomes, they came to the Pitino Shelter.

"They came in and were here about three months and were able to get back on their feet and are doing great," Statts said.

The Pitino Shelter's annual budget is $400,000.

Historically, the shelter received state and federal grants, but they ended on June 30.

"We're all on our own now," Barnhart said.

Another source of funding -- the Pitino Foundation -- had been generous through the years, but its last donation was made to the shelter in 2016.

To meet its needs, the Pitino Shelter kicked off a new fundraiser on Thursday. To honor the shelter's 25th anniversary, its officials are seeking 2,500 community supporters to give $25 a month as a recurring gift.

"This shelter would not have been here 25 years without the community," Barnhart said. "The region needs the Daniel Pitino Shelter. We believe people will step up and God will provide."

To learn more about giving $25 a month to the Pitino Shelter, call 270-688-9000 or go to https://pitinoshelter.org/.

The facility will continue to apply for grants, including local, state and federal.

In the meantime, the Pitino Shelter and Wabuck Development are partnering to build a 12-unit apartment complex at Walnut and West Fifth streets. The complex, named the Nicky Hayden Apartments, will provide either temporary or long-term housing for those graduating out of the Pitino Shelter or for other residents who have issues finding housing because of their histories.

Benge will always have a soft spot in her heart for the Pitino Shelter.

She credits much of her success to the shelter's staff, who made her feel good about herself and gave her the extra nudge to make it on her own.

"It's not easy to overcome all the challenges that come with being homeless," Benge said, "so someone in that situation really needs people who truly care about (them) learning the life skills necessary to become a productive member of society. Believing in someone changes the dynamics of a community."

Renee Beasley Jones, 270-228-2835, rbeasleyjones@messenger-inquirer.com

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