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Monday, October 25, 2021

African Americans still heavily overrepresented in local homeless population

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More than half of those experiencing homelessness in Marion County earlier this year were Black or African American, and the number of unsheltered homeless was up by 77%.

That’s according to the 2020 Point-in-Time (PIT) Count conducted by the IU Public Policy Institute and Coalition for Homelessness Intervention and Prevention (CHIP) in January.

Chelsea Haring-Cozzi, executive director of CHIP, described the PIT Count as a one-night census and said it’s generally a representative number for what homelessness looks like in Indianapolis throughout the year — although the proportion of those who are unsheltered and sheltered can shift with the seasons.

Housing advocates and experts are predicting a wave of evictions as people struggle to make rent during the COVID-19 economic collapse, but that wouldn’t be reflected in this count.

The racial disparities are a common feature of the annual count. African Americans represented 61% of the homeless population in 2019 and 54% this year. African Americans are about 30% of the population in Marion County, according to census data.

“Homelessness is the failure of almost every other system,” Haring-Cozzi said.

That includes education, criminal justice, employment and health care. There’s a false perception that people become homeless as the result of making bad decisions, Haring-Cozzi said, which redirects blame from systemic failures to individuals.

Among the 132 people who were chronically homeless, 31% identified as Black or African American, and 60% were white.

The total number of people experiencing homelessness rose slightly to 1,588. Almost three-quarters of the homeless population in Marion County is male, and the vast majority of people experiencing homelessness are in either emergency shelters or transitional housing.

Unsheltered homeless — the most visible of the homeless population — accounted for a little more than 10% of the count this year.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) mandates a count of people experiencing homelessness in order to receive funding.

‘I have to make it work’

Anthony Ford has spent roughly the last four years on the streets of Indianapolis. He’s a slim man, 27 years old with a scruffy beard and tattoos down his arms.

Ford has a girlfriend and can stay at her place occasionally, but she lives in Section 8 housing and he has a felony record, so he can’t stay with her for more than a few days at a time.

“This lifestyle of being homeless, being on the streets, that’s not me,” Ford said as he sat along the wall of a building on North Delaware Street, diagonal to the transit center. “This lifestyle will turn you into a totally different person.”

Ford does his best to distinguish himself from other people experiencing homelessness, especially those who are most visible on downtown streets. He doesn’t spend the last of his money on drugs or alcohol, he said, and he’s quick to talk about how he actually has a job through an Indianapolis Department of Public Works program that pays ex-offenders re-entering the workforce to clean up roadside litter.

The perception that unsheltered homeless people use all of their money to fuel drug and alcohol use leads to further stigmatization of a group of people who rarely have a way to defend themselves. At the same time, around 40% of chronically homeless people identified drugs or alcohol (or both) as a disabling condition, on the PIT count.

Ford, who has six children, has been close to getting into housing, but the landlord learned of his felony record and backed off. Still, he’s a hopeful person with a sense of pride.

Asked what he wants people to understand about him and other people who don’t have permanent housing, Ford said he wants understanding.

“When you see me, it might have just been a hard day for me,” he said. “I have to do what I have to do to get by. I have to make it work, feed my kids, all that stuff. It’s like, ‘Damn, I just need $1.75 to make it back home or make it to work.’” 

Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.

Anthony Ford, 27, stands for a picture by where he was sitting on North Delaware Street with his Indianapolis Department of Public Works shirt hanging out of his back pocket. (Photo/Tyler Fenwick)

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