Blueprint to end homelessness 

Can Peterson's plan work?

Can Peterson’s plan work?
It’s easy to imagine that the Linwood Apartments at the intersection of Washington Street and Linwood Avenue on the near-Eastside might once have been a pleasant place to live. Clustered around a grassy common area and surrounded by tall, shady evergreens, the three sturdy red brick buildings today look dilapidated and disused.
“I think the dimensions of what he has undertaken as mayor are more than perhaps we realized, but it’s the right thing to do. The mayor is the first to say that this is a 10-year plan.” —Deputy Mayor Jane Henegar
Partners in Housing, a local non-profit developer specializing in housing for the homeless and other special needs tenants, has seen the latent potential in these 70-year-old buildings, and recently announced it will begin major rehabilitation work on the property this fall. When completed in 2004, the Colonial Linwood campus will provide 106 units of housing for low-income individuals and families. Using the innovative concept of “supportive housing,” the units will be linked with an array of supportive social services to provide counseling, job training and placement, access to mental and physical health care and other forms of assistance to help tenants stay housed and healthy. Over the past decade, Partners has created 141 such units, including the Blue Triangle and Burton Apartments, for the homeless, people with AIDS, people with mental and physical disabilities and others in need of affordable housing. All the units at Colonial Linwood will be available to people living on less than 30 percent of Area Median Income ($18,870 in 2003). “We like older buildings — there tends to be something nice about them,” says Frank Hagaman, president of Partners in Housing. “Colonial Linwood is a beautiful location. It looks like a college campus. When it’s rehabilitated, this is going to be quality housing for people of very humble means.” The Colonial Linwood project represents the first major move toward the goals outlined in the 10-year “Blueprint to End Homelessness in Indianapolis” unveiled by Mayor Bart Peterson last April. “Addressing the needs of our homeless citizens is absolutely critical,” said Peterson in last year’s State of the City address. “I intend to go to work with our whole community toward the Blueprint’s ultimate goal — bringing an end to our national shame: pervasive homelessness in the richest country in the world.” Work on the Blueprint began in 2000, after surveys conducted by the Coalition for Homelessness Intervention and Prevention — the agency now charged with implementing the Blueprint — found that homelessness in Indianapolis was on the rise, particularly among families and the working poor. CHIP estimates that more than 15,000 individuals are homeless in Indianapolis each year, an average of 3,500 each night. The invisible homeless When asked to imagine what homelessness looks like, an image of a lone man, sleeping in a doorway or panhandling on a city sidewalk might come quickly to mind. In reality, the face of homelessness has changed dramatically in the last two decades. Families are the fastest growing homeless population in the U.S., and 39 percent of all homeless are children and youth, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. Claudia, age 52, exemplifies the growing trend of the invisible homeless. A native Chicagoan with a kind face and a soft, eloquent way of speaking, Claudia is currently a resident at the Blue Triangle. She spent the past several years without a fixed place to live, getting by with staying with friends or in motels, and working day labor jobs. “I didn’t really think of myself as homeless at the time, but I was,” she muses. When Claudia decided to go back to school to become a certified nursing assistant, she knew she needed a stable living situation. “I didn’t want to have to think about where I was going to stay next — I just wanted to work and go to school.” Since moving into the Blue Triangle in January, Claudia has been working part-time as a fund-raiser for the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra — a job she really enjoys — and has benefited from the wide range of support services available through Blue Triangle, including access to health care. She firmly believes this comprehensive approach to housing is the most effective for people who are ready to work to break the cycles that contribute to homelessness. “I think it’s good that the mayor is thinking along these terms,” she says, although she’d also like to see an improved bus service to cut down the two-hour commute it often takes to reach better-paying jobs available in the suburbs. After she passes her CNA certification test and finds a good position, Claudia plans to move into her own place. Like Claudia, about half of homeless adults in Indianapolis are employed, working an average of 30 hours a week, often at very low wages, though CHIP found that one in five homeless adults in Indianapolis has some college education. The full-time wage needed to afford a two-bedroom apartment at a fair market rate in Indianapolis is $11.31 an hour; a minimum wage worker would need to work 88 hours a week just to pay the rent. Unsurprisingly, “inability to pay rent” is cited as a leading cause of homelessness, both in the CHIP surveys and nationwide. “Just getting a job is not going to get you an apartment,” Claudia cautions. The Blueprint targets housing and services at the homeless or near-homeless populations considered to be in greatest need of assistance, including street homeless, veterans, survivors of domestic violence, people with substance abuse problems or mental illness, youth aging out of the foster care system and people leaving the criminal justice system. With a projected cost of $72.6 million in the first five years, the Blueprint promises to create 1,700 units of supportive housing for these populations, and to link 400 existing units with support services to help tenants remain housed. The Blueprint falls short of substantively addressing the needs of the additional 45,000 Indianapolis households considered at-risk for becoming homeless because a severe shortage of safe, affordable rental housing forces tens of thousands of families to spend more than 50 percent of their income on rent. Families in this situation must often choose between paying utility bills and buying adequate food in order to try to make rent each month. A single medical emergency, car breakdown or lost job can leave these families unable to pay their rent, meaning they must “double up” in a friend or relative’s house, or seek emergency shelter. An evolutionary process It is estimated that Indianapolis will need an additional 316 individual and 98 family units of emergency shelter housing just to keep pace with current demand. But instead of building more homeless shelters to address the short-term needs of the homeless and near-homeless, the Blueprint advocates a wholesale shift in the city’s policy, from spending some $22 million a year trying to manage the problem, to attempting to eradicate homelessness by creating new housing units, linking housing to social services and providing rent vouchers and assistance to help at-risk families stay housed. CHIP director Dan Shepley says that while many cities focus efforts on the chronically homeless, “Our approach was different in that we tried to provide equal attention to people who are at risk of homelessness, either because they’re coming out of foster care, or out of prison, or their family is living in housing they can’t afford to live in.” According to Housing and Urban Development, this preventative approach is more cost-effective in the long run: The estimated cost of an emergency shelter bed is $8,067 more than that of providing a year’s worth of Section 8 rental assistance vouchers. Although Peterson has already received national recognition for the Blueprint, including an award from the National Alliance to End Homelessness, the city has moved cautiously in putting the ideas in the Blueprint into practice. “I think the dimensions of what he has undertaken as mayor are more than perhaps we realized, but it’s the right thing to do,” says Deputy Mayor Jane Henegar. “The mayor is the first to say that this is a 10-year plan. It will continue to be an evolutionary process for the entire community.” The Colonial Linwood is the only new housing to be announced under the aegis of the Blueprint so far, but several other early objectives are moving forward, including establishment of a system to distribute rental assistance vouchers to 125 tenants being treated for mental illness or substance abuse, and creation of a Funders Council of public and private entities that will assist with realizing different aspects of the Blueprint. Henegar and Shepley say securing funding remains the greatest challenge in making the Blueprint’s promises a reality — 95 percent of funding is expected to come from sources other than state and local public money, the majority from the federal grants and tax credits and private foundations. A drop in the bucket? The 1,700 units to be created under the Blueprint by 2007 will help to alleviate the city’s affordable housing scarcity. The Blueprint does not, however, substantively address the true extent of the shortage of 12,500 units identified by the Indianapolis Housing Task Force in 1998. Five years later, after a two-year recession that has hit Indiana particularly hard, Indiana School of Law professor Florence Roisman believes the demand for housing for low-income households is even greater today. “The economy has gone to hell, so there are many thousands more homeless people than there were at the time [the Blueprint was released]. Foreclosures have shot up, people have been laid off. However bad the problem was, it’s worse now. To produce 1,700 units is a drop in the bucket compared to the need.” Roisman, a scholar and activist on poverty and housing issues for more than three decades, is frustrated by what she views as the limited scope and slow pacing of the Blueprint. Roisman cites five sources of low-income housing — The Lionel Artis, The Blancherne/Link-Savoy, The Hoosier, The Blocks Building and the Fall Creek YMCA — that Indianapolis has lost in recent years. These buildings, once affordable to people at the lowest incomes, were allowed to fall into disrepair and forced to close their doors, or were sold to developers for conversion into housing for middle- to high-income residents. The Fall Creek YMCA dormitory, still habitable, remains closed while the YMCA, the city and possible new owners debate its future. Though the Blueprint is far from adequately funded, in contrast, the city has already committed to invest $18 million in one high-income housing development, the Artsgarden Tower, where rents will range from $900 to $4,500 a month. “The Blueprint is completely empty rhetoric. What has happened since the Blueprint was published is that the already inadequate stock of low-income housing has been reduced,” Roisman says. “Can the city point to any addition to the [low-income] housing stock? Where is the housing?” Deputy Mayor Henegar says the city would like construction and rehabilitation of Blueprint housing projects to progress more rapidly, but defends the city’s investments in luxury developments. “We want to keep projects that generate property taxes and retain individuals who contribute to the economy, and stimulate it to the benefit of people all the way down the income ladder — we need to do a balance.” Roisman believes that the city has not devoted adequate financial resources to truly make headway on the affordable housing shortage. “There are a limited number of ways in which to develop housing for poor people. It’s very expensive,” she says. Roisman cautions that the Blueprint budget’s heavy reliance on federal funding — nearly half its projected budget — may be unrealistic, given this year’s HUD budget cutbacks of 10 to 30 percent, coupled with the recent announcement that the Bush Administration will seek to dismantle the Section 8 voucher program, and turn it into a block grant program similar to the TANF welfare reform of the late 1990s. Two bills to that effect have been introduced in Congress this session. A recent analysis from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that 113,000 to 137,000 Section 8 vouchers would be cut under the 2004 budget, and that restructuring the program would mean frozen funding levels and cuts to services for the foreseeable future. Already, under-funding of Section 8 means that 5 million eligible households nationwide are unable to receive vouchers, and it is difficult to see where Indianapolis could find additional vouchers for use in Blueprint projects, given that there are currently more than 2,000 families already on the Indianapolis Housing Agency’s Section 8 waiting list. Partners in Housing’s Frank Hagaman seems to share Roisman’s concerns about how the Blueprint will be financed. “I’ve been part of the Blueprint process from the beginning. I have always been that voice that has said, ‘This is a lovely plan, but there are certain realities that I’m familiar with, and reaching these financial goals is going to be very difficult,’” Hagaman says. “The practical reality is that it takes lots and lots and lots of money to create affordable housing, and those financial resources are very scarce these days.” Hagaman says that past Partners projects such as the Blue Triangle required more than a dozen different sources of funding. CHIP’s Shepley agrees that fluctuations in federal funding and foundation giving are a concern, but Henegar is cautiously optimistic. “While we can’t look in a crystal ball and predict what’s going to happen with HUD, there are very positive steps being taken. There have been all kinds of expressions of interest [from funders].” Just a penny The city has so far overlooked one source of funding many affordable housing advocates, including Roisman, Concerned Clergy and state Rep. Bill Crawford, say is crucial to the success of the Blueprint: the Marion County Housing Trust Fund. Created in 2000 to disperse funds for low-income housing projects, the trust fund is an effective tool that has gone largely unused because it lacks a dedicated source of revenue to generate income. Last fall, City-County Councilors Lonnell Conley and Monroe Gray introduced the “Just a Penny Will Help So Many” proposal to raise revenue for the housing trust fund with a property tax increase of 1 cent for every thousand dollars of assessed value. It is estimated that the slight increase would generate $3 million annually for the housing trust fund. Loathe to advocate raising taxes, neither the mayor nor council leaders lent support to the proposal, but Deputy Mayor Henegar reports that the city is working hard to identify a way to secure revenue for the trust fund without a tax increase. “We know that an ongoing source is necessary for the Marion County Housing Trust Fund to have any real impact,” says Henegar, who hopes to announce an alternative plan later this year. “How’s [Mayor Peterson] going to do that — print money in the basement?” responds Roisman. “I have no idea what he could possibly have in mind.” Crawford believes that the property tax increase is the most efficient way to get money flowing into the Housing Trust Fund, and that without such a stable, long-term source of revenue, the city will be unable to make serious progress on the Blueprint. “We’ve got a major crisis that is not being addressed, and cannot be addressed through the housing trust fund, absent a significant infusion of money,” Crawford says. “There’s nothing blocking us, except a lack of political will on the part of city leaders to significantly address this problem. One penny on the overall assessed property valuation is not going to break anybody.” Conley and Gray plan to introduce the “Just a Penny” proposal again this fall, and Crawford believes that public education will help to win public support for the measure. Councilor Jackie Nytes believes a broad community education effort is the key to getting the tax increase through the council. “My own personal feeling is that the citizens will support revenue initiatives when they clearly understand how the money will be used, and they are confident it will be administered well,” Nytes says. “I think it’s saleable.” Keeping the promises All the stakeholders in the Blueprint, including those like Roisman and Crawford who take issue with the way it is being carried out, agree on one certainty: It will take a monumental and sustained investment of time, money and political and civic energy, far beyond the 10-year scope of the Blueprint itself, to ensure that every Indianapolis resident eventually has a safe, decent place to call home. Less certain is how soon the city will secure funds to fully implement the Blueprint, and what will be done in the meantime to accommodate the 3,500 or so people who find themselves homeless each night, and those many more who teeter on the precipice of homelessness every month when the rent is due. According to Crawford, the city will lose another 220 units of low-income housing this month when the Weyerbacher Terrace apartments at Fall Creek and Illinois are closed because the building owners are in default. These tenants, all Section 8 recipients, will enter a housing market where decent affordable housing is already scarce, and is now more so with the loss of the Weyerbacher. Henegar maintains that a slow but steady start to the Blueprint will pay off in the coming years. “If we don’t take the time now to change the way we do business, 10 years from now it will revert to what we all know, which wasn’t the worst, but we weren’t diminishing the problem — we weren’t solving homelessness. As frustrating and trying on peoples’ patience as the beginning of this process may be, I think it’s really important to try to make long-term changes.” Roisman dismisses the city’s cautious approach. “This Blueprint makes promises. Has anybody done anything to keep the promises? Where’s the beef? Where’s the housing? It’s not there.” Can Mayor Peterson make good on his promise that Indianapolis can end homelessness in 10 years? Only time will tell, but CHIP’s Dan Shepley says the city must aim its sights no lower. “Unless you raise it to the level of saying we’re going to end homelessness in 10 years, we will continue to just tinker around the edges and maintain what we do now. All indications are that homelessness just gets worse. More people lose their homes every year, and it’s just not acceptable that we continue to tinker around the edges while thousands of people end up becoming homeless.” Claudia from the Blue Triangle says that Indianapolis already has more resources in place to help the homeless than other cities she’s lived in, and that community involvement from churches, neighborhood groups and individuals is the key to making further progress. “People should not just rely on the mayor,” she firmly believes. “They have to work with him. You have to learn to fight in a positive way to change things. I see lots of good that can be done.”

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