Domestic violence agency acquires Norwich homeless provider

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Norwich — Safe Futures, the area nonprofit agency that serves victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, has acquired Bethsaida Community Inc., a smaller nonprofit organization that provided housing and support services to homeless women or women at risk of homelessness due to substance abuse, domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking.

Safe Futures purchased Bethsaida's properties at 103 and 117 Cliff St. in Norwich, known as the Katie Blair House and Flora O'Neill apartments, for $1 on March 4. Two staff members from Bethsaida are now employed by Safe Futures.

"We're excited," said Katherine Verano, executive director of Safe Futures.

She said the acquisition has been in the works for about a year, and that Safe Futures looks forward to working with the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness and its network of area providers to identify and find placements for the most vulnerable clients.

"That's what we do," Verano said. "We work together. Connecticut is recognized as one of the best states for dealing with homelessness."

Bethsaida's most recent executive director, Claire Silva, no longer is employed with the agency and declined to comment on the sale.

Joshua I. Brier, former president of the Bethsaida board of directors, served as interim executive director while the details of the sale were being worked out. He said funding had become a problem for Bethsaida, which received money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and other sources.

"The state and federal grant acquisition environment has continued to become more difficult to tap into as a smaller nonprofit organization," Brier said. "Our board of directors made a strategic plan to see if a partnership or merger or acquisition of another nonprofit would put us in a position to continue to be viable."

The directors discussed which local nonprofits would be a good fit and reached out to Safe Futures, which operates an emergency shelter and transitional housing program in New London and provides an array of services, including education, counseling and victim advocacy.

"Bethsaida has long been known for the work we did with women who had addiction and substance abuse challenges in their lives," Brier said. "Bethsaida from that perspective was attractive to Safe Futures, because it is something they run into with the clients they serve."

One of Bethsaida's board members, Patricia LaPierre, has joined the Safe Futures board of directors, according to Verano.

Verano said she would be meeting for breakfast Monday with Lee Ann Gomes, human services director for Norwich, and Carol Croteau, who founded Bethsaida in 1990.

"The entire Norwich Human Services community is thrilled that Safe Futures will be taking over the administration of this vital program that houses people who need a period of transition in their life, whether it's because of domestic violence or abuse or mental health and substance abuse issues," Gomes said in a written statement Wednesday. "Kathie Verano is an outstanding leader who will align that program with Connecticut best practices to end homelessness."

Gomes said the eight beds at the Katie Blair House are "vital" to Norwich and the surrounding communities, because they provide "stable housing and supportive services" to women in transition.

"We are delighted to have Safe Futures involved in Bethsaida," said David Burnett, executive director of Reliance Health, a Norwich-based nonprofit organization that operates more than 20 residential programs throughout New London County.

"I know our employees who work with HUD matters are excited to work with Safe Futures to better serve needy folks," Burnett said.

Verano said Safe Futures has funding for one year for Katie Blair House and is working to find federal, state and local funding to staff it 24 hours a day and keep it operating. Katie Blair House will serve as a short-term safe housing program for eight women who are facing homelessness due to substance abuse, domestic violence, sexual assault and trafficking. Verano said she is working with the state Department of Children and Families to designate one of the rooms for clients involved with the child welfare agency because of substance abuse issues stemming from domestic violence trauma.

"Clients can stay there and maintain sobriety and work toward reunification," she said.

The Flora O'Neill House, which has six units, receives HUD funding and will continue to serve as permanent, supportive housing for women.

Bethsaida upgraded both properties recently with a $386,000 state Department of Housing grant. Improvements included improved handicapped accessibility to both homes, according to Brier. He said the Katie Blair House was refurbished with new floors and fixtures and parking improvements.

k.florin@theday.com

c.bessette@theday.com

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