In the past decade, Indianapolis has made virtually no progress in solving the problem of homelessness in the city. Now, social services agencies are re-evaluating their approaches.
Alan Witchey, executive director of the Coalition for Homelessness Intervention and Prevention (CHIP), said his organization’s data shows small changes in homelessness numbers over the past 10 years, including an increase in the number of people accessing emergency homeless shelters and a slight decrease in homelessness in total. But the numbers of unsheltered homeless people and families experiencing homelessness have not changed.
CHIP was among a group of social service agencies that gathered recently to discuss the state of homelessness in Indianapolis. The event was held at the Indianapolis Urban League, where 25 percent of the clients experience homelessness. IUL President and CEO Tony Mason said the issue is particularly important to his organization.
“The issue of homelessness is important to us, because it’s an economic empowerment issue, it’s a health and quality of life issue,” he said. “We also know that the data out there tells us that Indianapolis has one of the fastest growing child poverty rates in the nation, second only to Detroit. We rank 48th out of the largest cities in the U.S. in upward mobility, meaning that if you are born into poverty, you are likely to remain there.”
As is the case with many social ills, people of color are disproportionately impacted by homelessness. Though 27 percent of the city’s total population is Black, African-Americans account for 51 percent of the homeless population. Kay Wiles, director of HealthNet’s Homeless Initiative Program (HIP), said 62 percent of her organization’s 3,500 clients in 2015 were Black.
To address the issue, Wiles said organizations like HIP and CHIP are trying to pool limited resources and reorganize their efforts.
“But while that’s going to organize our resources so they’re more efficient, it’s not going to create new resources,” she said. “Every day, there are women and children who don’t have a place to sleep in our community.”
Wiles said the city is so short on resources that her organization tells homeless women and children when the shelters are full — and they almost always are — to seek shelter in the hospital emergency room. If the ER turns them away, Wiles tells them, the nearby White Castle is open 24 hours.
“There will still be women and children without a place to sleep. I own that every night when I go home … but I think everybody in our community should own that,” she said.
Beyond people having no place to stay, Witchey says, homelessness is the key to so many other issues plaguing the community.
“(Problems in) education, income/financial stability, health, basic needs … we have a skewed view on how to solve those as a community. I guarantee you are never going to move the needle on those issues unless you move the needle on homelessness,” he said.
Homelessness is a major component contributing to each of those areas, but Witchey said people are in denial.
“We think we can change education if we just focus on improving education with kids, if we tutor them better, if we work on teacher education … but the truth is, there are kids who are experiencing homelessness every day,” he said. “Until we start saying we have to deal with homelessness and all of its complexity and causes — drugs, addiction, foster care, re-entry from incarceration, domestic violence — those other problems are going to stay.”
Some small steps are being taken in the right direction, such as the passage of the homeless protection act and the upcoming opening of the Reuben Engagement Center, Witchey said. He said the Reuben Center, which will house homeless people who have addictions, “is supposed to be a game-changer,” and it marks a major first.
“For the very first time ever, our city is actually going to put city funding toward helping to end homelessness (with the opening of the Reuben Engagement Center),” he said. “Indianapolis, among the top 25 metropolitan cities, is the only city that doesn’t contribute city dollars to helping to end homelessness. We can do better as a community.”
Wiles said organizations will also look at alternatives to the “housing-ready” approach they’ve been using, which focuses on preparing homeless clients to live on their own before providing that opportunity. Instead, Wiles said people should first be housed, and then be provided with resources to maintain it.
“You can’t resolve your crisis in public,” Wiles said. “We have to stop thinking that way.”
Overall, Witchey said there are ways to make a change, and it’s time.
“There are successful ways to end homelessness, and it does happen,” he said. “But it cannot be the same. The numbers of homelessness have not changed dramatically in the last 10 years, and it’s because we’ve done the same things. We must change the system.”