Helping the homeless: County homeless numbers jump 10 percent; local family launches nonprofit

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From left, Marshall Gaw, Tanya Wilkison, Chris Williams and Tom Gaw run the family nonprofit, Rita’s Hope Foundation. (Photo by Sadie Hunter)

By Heather Collins

The Hamilton County homeless population has risen since Good Friday, March 30, and local nonprofits are joining forces to tackle the issue. 

The Good Samaritan Network of Hamilton County reports there are approximately 379 homeless residents in Hamilton County. Nancy Chance, founder and executive director of the Good Samaritan Network of Hamilton County, said 10 residents became homeless between Good Friday and early April.

Rita’s Bags are sleeping bags that include a toiletry bag. (Submitted photo)

“That’s a big jump,” Chance said. “In the last 10 years, I haven’t seen it jump that high.”  

Chance said most of the homeless in Hamilton County are suffering from medical debt, mental issues or job loss. A majority of the homeless in the county live with friends or relatives but do not have a permanent place to call home. Fifty-three of the homeless population in the county do not have anywhere to live. Chance said some of the homeless are working two to three jobs, living out of their cars in parking lots and utilizing local food pantries for food.

The Good Samaritan Network of Hamilton County provides direct and indirect services for those in need in Hamilton County. The network collaborates with nonprofit organizations to provide assistance and resources for the at-risk or underserved. One such nonprofit is the Rita’s Hope Foundation, a nonprofit organization launched to provide a special type of sleeping bag for the homeless.

Chance said she loves the bags provided by Rita’s Hope Foundation. The foundation has donated approximately 50 sleeping bags to the Good Samaritan Network to distribute to the homeless in Hamilton County.

Rita Gaw

“I am absolutely thrilled with the design and the way they help the families,” Chance said. “It’s a good support mechanism for our county.”

The namesake of the Rita’s Hope Foundation, Rita Gaw, had a desire to help the homeless. Her hope now lives on through the foundation, as she lost a battle to ovarian cancer at age 64 in 2017.

Before her death, Rita urged her husband, Tom, not to sit at home and mourn and encouraged him to provide a special sleeping bags for the homeless that could roll into a backpack and include an attached toiletry bag.

“She knew I would need something to do when she was gone, and she knew if she planted this idea in my head that I would do it,” Tom said.

Tom and Rita moved to the Carmel area in 1998 and lived in Westfield for 16 years before moving to Fishers three years ago. 

A homeless man uses a Rita’s Bag.
(Submitted photo)

Before her passing, Rita’s sisters visited and created the first 10 prototypes while Rita provided direction from her bed. 

“They made the first 10 right there on our living room floor,” Tom said.

Rita died June 22, 2017, on the couple’s 21st wedding anniversary. Rita was a registered nurse for 40 years before retiring from Community Health Network in Indianapolis in 2016. 
“She just felt bad for people not having a place to lay their head down at night,” Tom said. 

At her funeral, in lieu of flowers, the family asked that donations be made to help launch Rita’s Hope Foundation, Inc. The nonprofit officially launched July 17, 2017, less than a month after she died.

The organization is truly a family affair. Tom serves as president of the foundation, and Rita’s stepson, Marshall Gaw, is as vice-president. Rita’s son, Chris Williams, serves as treasurer and her daughter, Tanya Wilkison, serves as secretary. 

Tom said he manufactures and donates 15 to 20 sleeping bags per week. 

“Although I did start this in her name, as a way to honor her and still do, it has now become a purpose for me as well,” Tom said. 

Tom has created a seamless operation for production. He orders the sleeping bags in bulk from Walmart, gathers donated toiletries and has the sleeping bags sewn into a duffel bags at Georgetown Alterations in Fishers. The foundation produces warm- and cold-weather versions of the bags. 

Tom delivers the sleeping bags to The Good Samaritan Network, Wheeler Mission, Outreach Indiana, The Pour House and Homeless Initiative Program each week. 

Rita’s Hope Foundation has donated more than 300 bags in the year since it launched. The organization supports the homeless throughout Hamilton County and Indianapolis. 

“A lot of people aren’t really aware of the homeless population in Hamilton County,” Tom said.

Tom said his goal is to distribute 520 sleeping bags per year.

Tom said he’s seen homeless people in downtown Indianapolis using bags, which are bright red and emlazoned with the Rita’s Hope Foundation logo. The patch includes a humming bird, Rita’s favorite bird. 

The goal of Rita’s Hope Foundation is to give hope to the homeless. 

Marshall’s employer, Vine & Branch, Inc., is a donation drop-off location for donated items.

For more, visit ritashopefoundation.org

Step-by-step making a bag

  • Tom Gaw orders sleeping bags in bulk from Walmart.
  • Sleeping bags and duffel bags are sent to Georgetown Alterations in Fishers.
  • Georgetown Alterations sew the sleeping bags into the duffel bags with the Rita’s Hope Foundation logo.
  • A toiletry bag is attached by Velcro to the inside of the sleeping bag. Toiletry bags are filled with travel-sized personal hygiene items.
  • Toiletry bag and sleeping bag are rolled into the duffel bag for easy carrying.
  • Tom Gaw delivers the bags to homeless shelters and organizations each week.
  • The organizations then distribute the bags to those in need.

By the numbers

  • 379 — Homeless in Hamilton County
  • 53 — Homeless in the county who don’t have a place to stay
  • 50 — Bags donated by Rita’s Hope Foundation serving Hamilton County
  • 300+ — Amount of bags donated thus far by Rita’s Hope Foundation
  • 15-20 – Number of bags manufactured each week
  • 520 – Goal number of bags to be manufactured per year
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