During the last two decades, Ann Helmke has become as closely identified with serving homeless families as anyone in Fort Wayne.
So it might come as a bit of a surprise that Helmke, who retired Sunday after 21 years as executive director of Vincent Village, didn’t originally come to her work with a life-long passion to help others.
She was, she says, a recently divorced mother of three who needed a job – one that paid more than the waitressing she had formerly depended on.
The passion came later.
“I was kind of thrust into poverty for awhile,” Helmke says. She went back to school at age 38 to study social work because it was “a marketable degree.” She says she was flabbergasted in October 1991, when her response to a tiny help-wanted ad for an executive director of a local nonprofit got her hired to lead what was then Vincent House.
“I wouldn’t have been upset if they didn’t hire me because I had virtually no experience,” she recalls. “When I found out, the first words out of my mouth were ‘Why did you hire me?’ ”
But nearly as soon as Helmke started working at the two-year-old shelter for homeless families in the former convent of St. Hyacinth’s Catholic Church on the city’s southeast side, she realized she had a job she could love.
Among the first things she did, she says, was revise the house rules so residents could control more of their own destiny. She hired a youth services worker for the many children that she knew could suffer physical, emotional and learning consequences from being homeless.
But the passion really kicked in one day in 1995 when Helmke looked out her office window at the vacant St. Hyacinth’s rectory across the parking lot.
The shelter, which could house seven families, was full. But the rectory was empty because the parish, which had declined to only 61 families, had been closed.
Helmke picked up the phone and called the office of the Rev. John M. D’Arcy, then-bishop of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, who was instrumental in the start-up of Vincent House. She asked whether she could use the rectory for needs of the homeless.
The reply came 10 minutes later: “It’s yours.”
And Helmke found herself possessed by an idea – that it truly takes a village to assist homeless families.
Helmke oversaw making the rectory into a duplex where families could move after they finished their stay in the original shelter. A problem at that time with programs for the homeless in general, she says, was that it was often difficult for families to accumulate enough money for rent, a security deposit and moving expenses to move directly into market-rate housing.
“And then they just ended up homeless again,” she says.
She became skilled at applying for housing grants and collaborating with government and community organizations on acquiring more homes. One of the first collaborations was with the Fort Wayne Homebuilders Association, whose members wanted to rehab a house in the Vincent House neighborhood as a charitable project.
Now, a little more than seven years later, 31 single-family houses and two apartments surround the original Vincent House at 2827 Holton Ave. Dwellings that were vacant or abandoned have been renovated and furnished for formerly homeless families.
“Vincent Village actually is a village,” Helmke says, with a variety of housing types and a network of supportive services that involve residents in decision-making and “keep them moving forward” toward housing stability.
As the families move beyond their temporary stay in the shelter, they have the opportunity to move into and own a home of their own. Once a family establishes income and completes life-skill classes, they are eligible for a Vincent Village house, with rent determined by family size and furnishings provided by other charity partners.
Neighbors say the stability and appearance of the neighborhood has improved over the years.
To reflect the organization’s vision and mission, Vincent House officially became Vincent Village in 2008. The independent nonprofit operates with the assistance of several denominations, including Catholics, who provide funds through the annual Bishop’s Appeal, United Methodists, Lutherans and the Church of the Brethren.
Offices are in the former St. Hyacinth church building, now a community center that was opened in 2011, the same year Helmke oversaw a makeover for the former convent.
Helmke says in a typical year, Vincent Village serves about 60 families, with most led by women. Seventy percent of clients are younger than 18.
A high-quality childcare program, Gingerbread House, is on site. There’s after-school tutoring.
Parents are provided educational programs, and referrals can be obtained for children with special needs, including mental health and health insurance needs. Vincent Village also hosts classes sponsored by the Literacy Alliance for people seeking their GED.
“We were the first organization (in Fort Wayne) to open the door to homeless families,” Helmke says. “Our philosophy has always been to strengthen the family by keeping the family together during the crisis of homelessness.”
Helmke, who turned 66 on Dec. 26, says her brush with poverty led her to a deeper understanding of struggles and stresses of clients with fewer resources. The biggest rewards of her job have come, she says, from “seeing the stresses of our families ease.”
Her plans for retirement are just to relax for a while, read, watch TV and travel. She also plans to continue to work part-time in behavioral health assessment at Parkview Hospital.
And another passion is bubbling to the surface: You can provide the homeless with a place to stay, child care, help with education and life skills, she says, but for them to become independent, they also need jobs.
“For the last two years, ever since the recession hit, I just have this desire to do something about jobs. I’m not sure what it’s going to be. But we need jobs,” Helmke says.
She hints that the endeavor might involve an expanded collaboration with Blue Jacket, another local nonprofit. It works with ex-offenders in a boot-camp-like job readiness program that recently expanded to include the homeless.
“You know, I am not leaving because I don’t like my job,” Helmke says. “I love my job.”