If you’ve spent any time in Downtown Indianapolis, you’ve seen them. The city’s homeless sit — and often sleep — on the sidewalks, under bridges, in alleys.
Whether afflicted by mental illness, addiction, poverty or abuse, the people living on the street rely on the kindness of strangers and outreach workers who try to connect them with health care, veterans’ benefits, food and shelter.
Now comes a plan to end the city’s chronic homelessness by 2023. Led by the Coalition for Homelessness Intervention & Prevention (CHIP) and the city of Indianapolis, the initiative is the result of more than a year of collaboration among multiple partners.
The plan’s cost isn’t yet clear and backers intend to seek financing through various public and private sources, but it mirrors efforts in other U.S. cities in its focus on finding more permanent solutions to the problem, including by boosting the number of permanent supportive housing units rather than relying on transitional housing programs.
The goal of the five-year plan is to reduce the amount of time an individual or family spends in a shelter from the current average of 86 days to a maximum of 30, which the plan’s sponsors consider a reasonable amount of time to find housing.
To that end, a “surge” of 1,100 additional permanent supportive housing units, which pair housing with case management and support services, will need to be identified, adding to the 1,000 available now. Also needed will be nearly 700 rapid rehousing units, which offer temporary assistance to the homeless. Currently, the city has about 200.
There are an estimated 553,742 people in the United States experiencing homelessness on a given night, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. In Indianapolis, nearly 1,700 people are sleeping in temporary shelters, transitional housing or on the street.
The city’s numbers have fluctuated over the years — the one-day Point In Time count in Indianapolis this year actually indicated a decline from 1,783 to 1,682 of homeless on the street, but those numbers are just a snapshot of the problem due to the transiency of the population.
Women and children are the fastest-growing segment of the homeless population, both locally and nationally, according to CHIP, with 85 percent of homeless families headed by single women. Eighty percent of homeless women have experienced domestic violence.
Putting shelters out of business?
The plan’s announcement comes just one month after Wheeler Mission unveiled a $12 million fundraising campaign to triple the size of its Center for Women and Children in the old Dearborn Hotel on East Michigan Street. The initiative dovetails with Wheeler’s 125th anniversary celebration in October.
The idea of expanding shelter space is not antithetical to the goal of reducing overall homelessness, said Alan Witchey, formerly executive director of CHIP and now CEO of the Damien Center.
“Even in the best-case scenario, where we meet the goal of people being homeless 30 days or less, where are they for those 30 days? They’re in shelters,” Witchey said. “Wheeler is responding to a community need. We helped them identify the need for more family shelter space.”
Every night, families are turned away from one of the few shelters in the city that accept women and children, including Wheeler, Holy Family and Dayspring Center, he said.
“We critically depend on the shelters in this community … but frequently people get into shelters and have a hard time getting out because there is not enough housing.”
The problem, said Deputy Mayor Jeff Bennett, is not unsolvable. “We don’t have to build (units) from scratch.”
Rather, city agencies and nonprofit partners can work with developers and landlords to identify vacant apartment units that would be suitable.
Housing for veterans
Already, the Gene B. Glick Co. has pledged to set aside 50 units for homeless veterans.
As one of its charitable entities, the Glick Co., which manages 20,000 apartment units in 13 states, has a not-for-profit housing foundation that owns 5,000 affordable apartment units in 30 housing properties.
David Barrett, Glick’s president and CEO, said the philanthropic arm of the company is piloting a program to house 15 homeless veterans in Indianapolis right now. Working with the Veterans Administration, it has housed six vets since May and has identified eight more who are awaiting housing as part of the pilot.
Veterans comprise about 7 percent of the homeless population nationally, with approximately 40,000 counted in the 2017 Point In Time count. In Indianapolis, the veteran homeless count was 261 this year, down from 328 last year.
“I think we all are troubled at the explosion of the homeless population, and we wanted to be part of the solution to this problem,” Barrett said. “There’s no reason why veterans who’ve served our country so well should go without a home.”
While apartment vacancies are at all-time lows in Indianapolis, Barrett said, “we certainly have enough to house 50 veterans.” That’s the relatively easy part, he said. For the initiative to be successful, support services have to be in place.
The Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program provides rental assistance, while the Glick Family Housing Foundation covers administrative costs and other expenses, Barrett said. Each property has a service coordinator employed by Glick onsite to provide support services to tenants in need, including assistance with benefits, transportation and medical care.
Eventually, the goal is to roll out the program throughout the foundation’s properties.
Commitment from mayor
Bennett, the city’s deputy mayor of community development, said developing that pipeline of more than 1,000 additional units over five years is a realistic goal. It’s a matter of aligning all of the city’s resources to make it happen.
“We have a commitment from the mayor,” he said. “It is one of his priority issues.”
Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett has been vocal in his support for more supportive housing for the homeless. When he first took office in January 2016, the city was facing a significant cut to Continuum of Care funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, but a local planning improvement effort resulted in increased federal funding in both 2017 and 2018.
In last year’s State of the City Address, the mayor issued a challenge to identify an additional 400 units of permanent supportive housing for the homeless, a goal the city says has been fulfilled.
Last year, the city provided more than $600,000 in Emergency Solutions grant funding for rapid rehousing, according to the mayor’s office. It is working with several local organizations to apply for additional housing vouchers for veterans and to increase the number of local landlords willing to house formerly homeless tenants.
“We know providing housing is one of the most important tools to increase the success rate of an individual experiencing homelessness,” Hogsett said, “but it is not the whole solution, which is why we are tackling this challenge from many different angles. Working with CHIP and our partners in the community, we’ll continue to try to reach every individual in need through advocacy and outreach.”
The challenge now is to work the plan, Witchey told a large group of donors, partners and interested nonprofit representatives last month. “We don’t want this to be a plan that sits on a shelf.”
Four homeless populations will be targeted: the chronic homeless (those who have experienced homelessness for a year or longer or have had four episodes in the past three years), veterans, youth and young adults (ages 12-24) and families.
“As a city, our approach to ending homelessness can no longer stop with simply providing temporary shelter or transitional housing,” Witchey said. “We must increase affordable housing and supportive services so that the most vulnerable members of our community have a place to call home.”
Teresa Wessel, executive director of Indianapolis day shelter Horizon House, served on the steering committee that helped develop the plan, which she calls “transformative.”
“The collaboration through this process demonstrates our commitment to ensure everyone is housed and connected to care,” Wessel said. “The supportive services are critical to help neighbors achieve and maintain their self-sufficiency.”
By 2023, the goal is to ensure that 92 percent of formerly homeless individuals and families remain housed after two years.
“We believe that homelessness can and must be solved in Indianapolis, and we know that by coming together as one community — faith leaders, business professionals, social services professionals, public servants and individual citizens — we can prioritize our resources to do just that,” Hogsett said.
There is no dollar amount affixed to the initiative, but CHIP envisions reaching the unit goal through subsidies from sources including the Indianapolis Housing Agency, Indiana Housing & Community Development Authority, Department of Housing and Urban Development and private developers.
The city has budgeted roughly $15.5 million on homeless initiatives in 2018, including local, state and federal dollars. This is in addition to what service providers, homeless organizations and others are spending.