Staff member Jodie Pattman serves food donated by Windmill Grill with resident Carolyn Fisher on Monday at Howard Haven in Kokomo, which is one of the last county homes still operating in Indiana. Photos by Tim Bath | CNHI News Indiana
Staff member Jodie Pattman serves food donated by Windmill Grill with resident Carolyn Fisher on Monday at Howard Haven in Kokomo, which is one of the last county homes still operating in Indiana. Photos by Tim Bath | CNHI News Indiana
KOKOMO — Thelma Whitaker found herself stranded in California with no money, no car and no way home.

The 66-year-old Russiaville native had been abandoned there by her significant other earlier this year. Her family arranged a flight back to Indiana, but without any income to pay for an apartment, Whitaker had few living options.

That’s when a family member suggested she reach out to Howard Haven.

Since 1857, the county home, historically referred to as the poor farm or asylum, has served Howard County as a “permanent home for the helpless and unfortunate poor,” according to a commissioner who approved its construction.

After living with a niece for a few weeks, Whitaker moved into a room at Howard Haven in June. She receives three home-cooked meals a day, laundry service, utilities and amenities like cable TV — all for $41 a day.

“I’m glad I found someplace,” Whitaker said. “I’m from Russiaville and Kokomo, and I never even knew about this place. But it’s safe here, and I’m satisfied.”


Indiana’s county homes have provided that safe haven for over 160 years.

The first state constitution ratified in 1816 included a stipulation that provided “one or more farms, to be an asylum for those persons who by reason of age, infirmity, or other misfortunes may have claim upon the beneficence of society.”

From 1831 to 1860, all of Indiana’s 92 counties established a poor farm that operated as the state’s first version of a social-safety-net program, according to research conducted by James Glass, owner of Historic Preservation & Heritage Consulting.

The asylums eventually morphed into the county home system in which the board of commissioners maintain and fund the facilities.

Now, just nine county homes remain in operation, serving as independent group homes for Hoosiers who can’t afford high-cost assisted living facilities but don’t need the medical care at a nursing home.

Budget cuts, delayed maintenance and changing priorities in county government have led the facilities to shutter one after another in the past few decades. Nearly half of the historic buildings have been demolished.

The most recent example came in February, when St. Joseph County officials narrowly voted to shut down Portage Manor, saying the 115-year-old building needed renovations and that the home had been running deficits in recent years. More than 100 residents were displaced to other care facilities around the county and state.

St. Joseph County had operated various county home facilities since 1846.

Officials at the nine county homes still in operation are battling to keep the doors open and stay relevant as federal programs like Medicaid and Medicare fill the mandate first issued to county poor farms in 1816.

Some administrators are left wondering: Can they survive?


When Jayme Smith took over as superintendent of the Carroll County home in February, her only goal was to keep the facility from closing.

The Delphi native has worked at Carroll Manor since 2006. Her mom had been an assistant there for over two decades, giving Smith years of behind-the-scenes experience related to how the facility operates and how county officials fund it.

That funding has Smith worried. The home doesn’t receive tax dollars and the budget is solely paid through residents’ rent, she explained.

Earlier, county council members had voted to slash the food budget and cut an administrative assistant position. That came after the 123-year-old facility ran up a deficit during COVID, when no new residents moved in. Sixteen people currently live at the home.

“I was afraid that they would just close it,” Smith said. “I just felt like it was my calling to go and save it. The residents need this place. They love it here.”

Carroll Manor highlights the crux of the problem facing county homes. Their survival depends almost entirely on whether elected county officials buy into their mission and are willing to continue to foot the bill for residents.

Eighty-three counties have already decided the investment isn’t worth it.

That hasn’t been the case in Howard County. Commissioners last year approved $450,000 in American Rescue Plan dollars to install a new kitchen, flooring and other upgrades, according to Howard Haven Director Jennifer Brower. The building was constructed in 1955 to replace the former home.

“They literally put their heart into our Haven,” she said. “We are very fortunate because many county homes do not get that.”

Commissioners have also approved the lowest rental rate of any county home in the state, charging around $1,250 a month for the all-inclusive services provided to the 19 residents currently living at the facility.

In Hendricks County, commissioners have taken a unique approach to keeping their 155-year-old home open. Officials have partnered with Hendricks Regional Health to operate Cypress Manor, the last and oldest continuously operating county home in Indiana.

That agreement has allowed the county to renovate parts of the building, include restoration of a curved central staircase and repurposing a former cell block as a community space for residents.


Even with support from county officials, nearly all county homes rely on funding from the state’s Residential Care Assistance Program (RCAP) to cover rent for those who can’t afford it. The payout per resident jumped in 2008 from $20 a day to $40.75, but hasn’t increased since.

Now, in a historic first, the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration’s Division of Aging is considering doling out extra grant money to county homes, providing a financial boost to the cash-strapped facilities.

The administration said in a statement it is “exploring additional funding to RCAP providers and facilities in the form of a grant from existing appropriated dollars for the program, but no final decision has been reached.”
Brower with Howard Haven said the news could mark a major turning point in how the remaining county homes are funded. The extra dollars could go toward hiring more staff and paying for critical upgrades to the aging buildings, she explained.

“That’s going to be something big for us,” Brower said.

Indiana Landmarks, a nonprofit organization aiming to save historic buildings, has also made a major push to open up grant dollars and historic tax credits to facilities to help pay for repairs and improvements.

In 2014, the group listed the state’s 48 still-standing county home buildings on its Top 10 Most Endangered list, explained Mark Dollase, vice president of preservation services.

Since then, five have been added to the federal National Register of Historic Places, including three that still operate as county homes. The designation allows the facilities to apply for grant dollars. The former Knox County home was specifically listed on this year’s endangered list.

“We do still have some really amazing county homes in the state of Indiana,” Dollase said. “Whether they’re still being used as the institution or they’re vacant or in distress in some way, we care about all of them.”


On a weekday morning in August, residents at Parkview Home in Frankfort sat on the large front porch enjoying the shade as the temperature climbed above 90 degrees. The facility’s long-time outdoor cat, Scruffy, made the rounds, getting pets and ear scratches.

Chris Overman, superintendent of the county home, made small talk on the porch before heading inside to check on lunch for the 19 people living at the 105-year-old building surrounded by pastureland and fields. Residents here were once required to work for their room and board.

Overman, an Army veteran, has managed the facility for the past 10 years. In that time, Parkview has become a home away from home.

“These people are like family,” he said. “I mean, you sit and eat lunch and watch TV together every day for 365 days a year for years and years. We have guys you ask for their emergency contact, and they’ve got nobody. We’re it.”

Although the purpose and role of county homes has changed since 1816, Overman noted, one mission remains: providing a safe place and a family atmosphere for those who can’t afford assisted living and have nowhere else to go.

Funding to hire staff and maintain the building to meet that mission is a constant struggle, he explained. Federal programs may fulfill that role for some.

But Parkview Home is just what the residents need, according to Overman.

Smith with Carroll Manor agreed. Even with budget cuts from Carroll County officials making it difficult to operate, the new superintendent has signed on for the long haul to keep the facility open for the residents who have found refuge there.

“I don’t feel like I could leave now if I wanted to,” Smith said. “I would feel like I was letting them down, and they need this place. My hope is that it will be here for another 150 years.”

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