Michelle Bradford has been looking after the homeless for her entire adult life.
A self-described “farm girl from Trapp,” Michelle has always had a soft spot in her heart for those with no other place to go. It was that compassion and a strong belief in God she credits with the success of the Beacon of Hope Emergency Shelter, which has operated independently in Clark County for nearly three years.
The Beacon’s independence has offered many advantages to Bradford. She and the other members of the Beacon’s board of directors are able to run the shelter with their own particular style, one that is willing to give everyone a second chance.
“Everyone deserves love,” Michelle said. “How are you going to get off drugs when most of your life has been crap? We have gotten at least 200 people into rehab.”
The Beacon, located on Bypass Road, can house up to 70 people, each for 90 days. Michelle and a group of 13 volunteers keep the shelter in operation 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Nobody staffing the Beacon is paid for their work, including Michelle.
But for her, the money has never been important. Michelle said she has always taken steps to help those less fortunate even before it was her full-time job.
She recalled how several years ago, while she was out of town, someone she knew broke into her home and stayed there. When she came back and found out the person broke in because he was homeless, Michelle let him live with her for more than a year.
On weekends before she opened the Beacon, Michelle said she would request donations of food, blankets and other items and take them to some of the homeless people she knew living throughout the community.
“I would go places a person usually shouldn’t,” she said. “I would go a mile down some train tracks, into the woods where I knew people were living.”
When the Clark County Homeless Coalition was formed, Michelle began volunteering for the group, eventually running the organization’s emergency shelter overnight.
But Michelle felt she was being called to do more. She wanted to start her own shelter to help better meet the needs of the homeless population.
Much of her inspiration came from a homeless veteran she knew named Chuck, who lived near the Peddlers Mall and didn’t have any living family.
“I got really close to Chuck while he was living at the emergency shelter,” Michelle said. “It took a lot for him to learn how to trust, and he started trusting me and we talked a lot and I learned a lot about him.”
When the emergency shelter closed, Chuck didn’t have anywhere else to go. He went back onto the streets before finding a temporary place at the Salvation Army in Richmond. But once he left, he was again alone with nowhere to go.
“I got a phone call from a friend who also volunteered there that Chuck had passed away,” Michelle said. “He just fell over with a heart attack. He was at an old closed down gas station and they found him laying by the pumps. That broke my heart.”
Michelle and some of the people at Peddlers Mall who knew Chuck began a campaign to get him a proper burial. Eventually, word of their work reached the Patriot Guard Riders, who took over the project and gave him a funeral with full military honors.
“After that happened, God started pressing upon me to open a homeless shelter,” Michelle said.
She said a year went by before she began seriously considering the idea, and when she did, she didn’t know where to start.
Using Google and some connections she had in the community, Michelle went through the process of applying for a 501(c)(3) and writing up articles of incorporation. She found board members to run the shelter and a small space on Talbott Avenue to let people stay.
“We opened up Jan. 6 with $500 in our pocket not knowing where the next dollar is going to come from” Michelle said. “It’s crazy how it’s happened but that’s the way it works.”
The Beacon’s business model hasn’t changed since then, with the month’s bills covered by donations from individuals, churches and businesses.
Since its opening, the Beacon has moved to a new, larger location on Bypass Road.
Michelle said the going has not always been easy. Sometimes residents clash with each other, or bring contraband items like drugs and alcohol into the shelter. Michelle said the Beacon has a strict rule against being drunk or high while at the shelter, and she regularly drug tests the people who stay there.
“If they come in drunk or high once, I tell them to go straight to bed and sleep it off,” she said. “Twice is on purpose and they are forced to leave.”
The Beacon only has one facility for 70 residents — with a diverse group of residents at any one time because it accepts everyone. Michelle said recently the shelter had 22 children living there with their families, bringing unique temporary needs with them. Other times, the shelter houses a lot of elderly people.
Yet another challenge for the Beacon is overcoming stigma associated with homelessness. Michelle said one of the goals at the shelter is to help people find steady employment so they can live independently, but many times, applicants will not be considered because of their homeless status or — in some cases — criminal backgrounds.
“It’s easy to sit and say ‘go out and get a job,’” She said. “But how are they supposed to?”
She said the struggle to find employment and stable housing sometimes doesn’t work out for some people, either because of society’s perception of them or their own “demons that still need to be faced.”
Sometimes, Michelle has to let people go after 90 days, but she always tries to impart on them that someone else cares about them.
“At least they were loved.” §