faith in action

Ministry With: Harbor House Crisis Shelters

October is Domestic Violence Awareness month. We spoke with the Rev. Barb Certa-Werner, now the former executive director, at Harbor House Crisis Shelters to learn more about their work.

Domestic violence is one of the leading causes of homelessness for women and children in the United States. Alternative housing arrangements are needed for those forced to leave home in order to escape violence. Generational poverty, lack of support, emergency circumstances, and compounded trauma are just some of the reasons why it can be difficult to secure a safe place to live.

Many entities provide opportunities for housing to those fleeing domestic violence. Harbor House Crisis Shelters, a health and welfare ministry of the Wisconsin Annual Conference, is one such organization. While not all of those they work with are survivors of domestic violence, many are.

We spoke with the Rev. Barb Certa-Werner, now the former executive director, at Harbor House Crisis Shelters to learn more about their work.

Tell us about the ministry

Harbor House Crisis Shelters provide hospitable shelter, transitional living and emergency services to homeless women and families. We operate two homeless shelters, one transitional living center, and just purchased and are renovating an apartment building for permanent supportive housing.

Our program includes: trauma informed care, extensive case management that is based on a strengths perspective, and development of an action plan and coaching for success.

What dream is the ministry pursuing?

Harbor House Crisis Shelters dreams of: ending poverty related homelessness; educating and promoting a fuller understanding of trauma and its effects on development; and most importantly, being a tangible witness to the love of Jesus through our daily interactions. 

Is there a particular moment or memory that stands out for you?

There are so many wonderful memories. The one that sticks out the most is a woman and her son who were in our homeless shelter and then transitioned into our Transitional Living Center. The mom was very nervous about her situation and unsure of what to do. She had been a victim of violence, poverty and generational poverty. During her time with our program — she was able to find employment, stabilize her home life for her son, pay off her fines and debts, develop a clear sense of self and positivity, and enter a program that would allow her to be a homeowner. She shared her story during worship at Faith UMC and announced that she was accepted and would be a homeowner.

What have your neighbors (those utilizing services) taught you in doing this work?

I have been shown resilience, strength, compassion and determination. I have learned that I cannot stand up and preach a sermon about loving my neighbor without really loving my neighbor — helping and serving when they are in need. 

Lastly, I have been extended love by my neighbor that is always unexpected and treasured. I have shared tears of sadness, frustration and joy. I have been hugged and thanked more times than I can remember. I have shared in prayers of desperation and of thanksgiving. I have met Christ in the eyes of those I serve.

What challenges have you encountered, and how have you adapted?

The largest challenge has been the on-going funding costs to run the programs — shelters, transitional living and permanent supportive housing. We have been creative in our staffing — we have formerly homeless women who we train and hire on as staff, some live on-site so that their housing in included in their salary. The dedication of staff have allowed our budget to remain lower. No one is being paid what they are worth but the joy of serving helps. 

What advice would you give to others who are working to be in ministry *with?

I would say to treat everyone as they would like to be treated as well as to utilize common sense.  It is a balance to not be taken advantage of while be as open and loving as possible.

Contacting the ministry

The Rev. Barb Certa-Werner has been reappointed since our interview. Chelsea Branley is now Executive Director for Harbor House Crisis Shelters and can be reached at Visit Harbor Houses to learn more.