by Shari Finnell, editor/writer, Not-for-profit News

When Rick Alvis took over as CEO of Wheeler Mission in 1990, the challenges of homelessness seemed clear cut.

Alvis, who had previously served as CEO of an Evansville homeless shelter for 10 years, recalled the profile of the typical client at that time. “During the late ’70s and ’80s, a homeless person was really just an alcoholic,” he said. “We weren’t dealing with drugs. We weren’t dealing with mental health issues. If somebody would ask me to describe what a homeless person looks like, I could quickly say it was a white male that had an alcoholic problem and actually had a skill.

“Today, you not only have alcohol challenges, but you also see drug addiction and mental health issues,” said Alvis, who recently announced his retirement from Wheeler Mission. “It has significantly shifted over the past 40 years from being a simple problem to a very complex problem because you must deal with all three of those issues.”

Under Alvis’ leadership during the past 32 years, Wheeler Mission has undergone significant changes, many of them to address the increasingly complex challenges involved in alleviating homelessness. The nonprofit organization, which had 17 employees and a budget of $700,000 in 1990, now has the distinction of being Indiana’s largest nonprofit that serves people challenged with homelessness. Wheeler Mission, which currently has 175 employees and a budget of nearly $16 million, has navigated three mergers, expanded its reach to include women and children, implemented comprehensive programs to address the challenges of drug addiction, and launched a capital fundraising campaign that resulted in the development of the Wheeler Mission’s Center for Women & Children, a state-of-the-art building in Indianapolis that serves up to 367 women and children a day.

Leading through constant change

The ability to adapt to change, as well as proactively pursue change through innovation, has been at the core of Wheeler Mission’s growth, according to Alvis.

“As I look back, it helped me to continually look at our ministry and our programs through new eyes,” Alvis said. “One of my chief program officers always says, ‘Rick’s never satisfied with our programs. Well, that’s true. I’m never satisfied because I want to make sure that our programs are on the cutting edge. Leaders today can get bogged down with protecting the programs they created. I tell our team that it’s open season (on programs) when it comes to strategic planning. Nothing is sacred, even if I created it.”

One of the most challenging tests of that philosophy came when the organization faced a financial crunch in the midst of the Great Recession throughout 2008 and 2009, Alvis recalled. “We had to cut a huge chunk of our budget, which meant we had to cease some programming,” he said.

For an organization that dates back to 1893, determining which programs needed to be canceled was tough, Alvis said. “We had programming here at Wheeler since the Depression years that I decided I needed to go. That probably was among the hardest decisions that we had to make.”

As a leader, making decisions like that, which included cutting a youth outreach program, can also be unpopular, Alvis said.

“One of those programs was what had attracted me to Wheeler 32 years ago,” he said. “For me to let that one go was very hard.”

Throughout his tenure, Alvis said, it was key to make sure that donors’ dollars were being maximized and used appropriately. “We wanted to make sure we are doing the best possible thing that we can with programs. And if there’s something that I created that needs to go, then it must go.”

Expanding support through mergers and new programs

Seeking to meet the needs of people experiencing homelessness also was central to the three mergers Alvis helped to lead during his decades of service to Wheeler Mission. He noted that the first merger with the Care Center in 2000 evolved from a need to better serve women and children. A merger with the Lighthouse Mission followed in 2006, and a 2015 merger with Backstreet Missions in Bloomington helped the organization strengthen services outside of Indianapolis.

“Those three mergers were very significant to Wheeler’s history. We wanted to do a good job of meeting people’s needs, not just men,” he said. “Prior to the merger with the Care Center, Wheeler didn’t have a residential program for women.”

In adapting to the changing needs of people experiencing homelessness, Wheeler Mission also invested in innovative offerings, including an addiction recovery camp on 300 acres. The Hunt Training Center in Bloomington, male participants undergo a six-month comprehensive program in which they cover topics such as anger, worry, biblical communication, relationships and change.

The program, which was launched in 2000, has been effective in helping the participants overcome their addictions, Alvis said. “It’s been great to see men come out of addiction and be productive people again,” he said. 

Although the COVID-19 pandemic limited the team’s ability to expand the program throughout 2020 and 2021, Wheeler is focused on increasing capacity and re-introducing a lodging component that allows family members to visit on weekends. “It allows us to minister to the entire family because the wife and children need just as much help as the man does,” Alvis added. “It helps them recalibrate their marriages and their relationships, which I think is key to the success of our program.”

In addition to providing a focus on addiction recovery at the camp, Wheeler also has made it an integral offering at its Center for Women & Children homeless shelter on East Michigan Street. 

As Wheeler Mission continues to evolve to meet the needs of people facing homelessness, it will always continue to rely on the generosity of its supporters, Alvis stressed.

“Individual donors contribute to 80 percent of our income,” he said. “We always encourage people to give, volunteer and donate food. Others can help by influencing the legislature in some ways to address homelessness throughout the state and in the city. And, of course, people can always pray for us because that’s our No. 1 need. That’s pretty cheap. Prayer doesn’t cost you anything.”

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