Closing of Harmony Place has former residents seeking answers

By Kim Walter

A small motel room in Front Royal is what 6-year-old Gavin Russell refers to as “home.”

He and his mother, Amanda Russell, 33, have been living in a motel since they were asked to leave Harmony Place a week ago.

The United Way agency has been providing services to persons experiencing sexual assault or domestic violence in Warren County for more than 30 years. The free services include emergency shelter, counseling, safety planning and rapid rehousing.

On Oct. 11 the agency suddenly announced that it was closing, leaving five women and seven children with nowhere to go.

Heidi Lesinski, president of Harmony Place’s board of directors, issued a statement on Monday to address the closing. In it, she said the decision to close the agency was not one that was “made lightly,” and the board regrets “the impact to the women and children staying there.”

“The closing of the shelter was predicated by a number of financial hardships,” she stated. “Harmony Place has been affected by the restructuring of the grant system at both state and federal levels, and mandated changes in shelter and re-housing laws. This requires a substantial cash flow to sustain an organization of our size. Reimbursement delays have had a significant impact on the cash flow necessary for operations.”

While the release notes that the shelter would close temporarily in order to find another location, the agency’s clients and the building’s tenants were left with more questions than answers.

Russell came to the shelter with her son in July after being assaulted elsewhere. She recalls being told “there was no money.”

“I just don’t understand where the money went,” Russell said in a recent interview. “I know they said there were issues with grants and mandates, but if that’s the case, why aren’t all the other shelters closing?”

Russell said she and the other women who were staying at Harmony Place were informed of the closing the evening before the decision went public. From then on, it seemed like the staff’s sole focus was to get everyone out, she said.

“We had less than 24 hours to get out and find somewhere to go,” she said. “Social services helped one woman, and only because her church stepped in on her behalf.”

According to Russell and another shelter client, Catherine Leake, 38, other agencies approached Harmony Place staff and asked if any of the women needed help in finding a place to stay.

Leake said staff members told others that all the women had somewhere to go.

“They never asked any of us what we were going to do,” Leake said. “It took me three weeks just to get in to Harmony Place, and now they’ve put me right back on the street.”

Right after being evicted from the shelter, Russell received child support, which allowed her to rent a motel room for her and her son. She took Leake in as well, and will allow her to stay while she looks for work and possibly another shelter in a neighboring county or city.

Russell said she was told to stay at a shelter in Staunton after visiting the local Salvation Army.

“I’m not about to pick up and move my son again … if I could afford to go somewhere else I would’ve done that in the first place,” she said. “But isn’t it sad that my boy actually misses Harmony Place? That was his home. Now, the motel is his home, but I don’t even know how long we can stay.”

One of the women who had to leave was “terrified and hysterical” upon hearing the news, according to Russell and Leake. She had no choice but to return to her husband, they said.

Claire Schuler has been a tenant of the building since May. She pays rent to Harmony Place for a room that she shares with her 6-year-old daughter on the third floor. Schuler said she was shocked to come home last Friday to a notice requesting her to be out in two days time.

After complaining about the short notice, Schuler said she was given a month to leave the building. However, there was no mention of receiving her security deposit.

“It’s all been very strange,” she said. “Here they’re claiming that there’s no money, but they left the place with the water running and the lights on.”

All three women mentioned issues with maintenance in the building. Russell had to change rooms after dripping water caused a portion of the ceiling to cave in. She said the lack of upkeep concerned her — her son is in remission after being treated for leukemia, and has a weakened immune system.

“They hardly fixed anything,” she said. “I guess we all saw it coming since everything was being run so poorly, but they could’ve at least given us more time.”

Leake agreed, and said she wished the staff had been more honest with all the women who depended on the shelter’s services.

Lesinski said she would have liked to have given clients more time to find a place to go, but “there’s a reason it came about the way it did, and I can’t really say anything more about it.”

However, Lesinski made clear that there was no “sensational story” behind the closing — no mishandling of money.

“Trust me, we’ve been looking into that,” she said Friday. “We just can’t solely rely on grants, we couldn’t do what we needed to in order to properly shelter people.”

“Unless there’s a miracle” the agency will have to wait until the building is sold to offer the full services, she said, adding that she would love to see the community come together and help, although the amount of money needed to reopen would be in the “10s of thousands.”

One thing the displaced women couldn’t deny was the need for Harmony Place in Warren County. Leake said for women and children in need, there’s “no other option.”

Harmony Place is still offering counseling and hotline services to persons experiencing domestic or sexual violence. Emergency alternative shelter will be arranged for those facing eminent danger. Those in need should contact the hotline at 540-635-9062.

Contact staff writer Kim Walter at 540-465-5137 ext. 191, or kwalter@nvdaily.com