Homelessness in Indianapolis 

A welcome sign adorns the entrance to a homeless encampment. - MIKE ALLEE
  • A welcome sign adorns the entrance to a homeless encampment.
  • Mike Allee

Editor's note: While researching this story we met a wide variety of individuals who had an intimate familiarity with homelessness. This story is meant to acclimate the reader with a population that eludes many of us: people we may stereotype or even refuse to acknowledge. Yes, mental illness and substance abuse can be found among their ranks, but so can advanced degrees, children and ongoing careers. Considering that one out of two Americans is poor or low-income according to the latest census data, many of us are simply one paycheck away from joining them.

The first thing you see when you walk into The Jungle is a small ceramic plaque that says "Welcome Friends." Walk further into The Jungle and you'll see a small tree in the middle of the clearing. Little American flags are pushed in to the flesh of the tree and a small wooden cross dangles from one of its limbs.

"There's only three rules in The Jungle," a man says to me, smiling from beneath his large moustache. "Get wood. Get water. Keep the camp clean."

Next to me, a woman is showing off her two gold rings. One is from Kmart and the other is from a pawnshop.

"He even started crying when he gave me this one," she says, referring to her boyfriend.

The Jungle is one of the many homeless camps around Indianapolis. These two people are part of the camp's population that usually hovers around six. It's the cleanest and most organized camp in Indianapolis, according to its members.

The Jungle has a large outhouse; the ground, even though it's dirt, is swept; there's a small makeshift kitchenette with a plethora of pots and pans; and there's a large building where wood is stored.

I'm with Melissa Burgess and Marie Turner, members of Horizon House's Street Outreach Team (SORT). They are checking on their clients who receive medical treatment at Horizon House.

The next encampment we go to isn't as nice. It's by railroad tracks, as are a large majority of the camps, and is hidden behind thick brush. We push our way through to find a tarp strewn over the ground.

"Knock, knock," says Burgess.

No response. She lifts the tarp and there's a sleeping bag on the dirt and leaves.

We leave to search for the next camp. On the way, Burgess drives by the Pine Street Bridge camp. She doesn't want to stop because it's dangerous, especially at night.

"Drugs, alcohol, violence ... "

"And rats!" Turner says, stopping Burgess in mid-sentence.

One of the men living at the Pine Street Bridge camp eats roadkill. The city wants to clean up the camp, which includes setting traps or putting out poison for the rats, but one concern is the man might eat the dead rodents. If that happened, he could inadvertently poison himself.

We drive by the Pine Street Bridge camp, park next to more railroad tracks and search again.

Most of the camps are empty, but we find in one a nervous-looking man who refuses any assistance offered to him.

We approach another camp, duck underneath brush and limbs and almost have to crawl to get to it. I stand up inside and I see a dead body. Oh my god, I think to myself. They must see it, too. Why are they only walking by it?

Burgess sees the look on my face. "It got me the first time, too," she says.

I go up to the body and see that it's only a mannequin. A cigarette dangles from the lips, its arm is propped up on a crutch and its head is a shaved coconut.

No one else is there.

"Watch out for the booby traps," Burgess says a moment before I almost trip over a well-hidden trip wire. She tells me how people sometimes will sharpen the roots of a bush to a point and put a trip wire in front of them.

"Sometimes you get guys who are vets and it's almost like Vietnam," Burgess says.

Front row is Leah and Whitey; back row Devonte and Essence: These four are residents of the Pine Street encampment. - MIKE ALLEE
  • Front row is Leah and Whitey; back row Devonte and Essence: These four are residents of the Pine Street encampment.
  • Mike Allee

The issues

The homeless population is a transient one and, therefore, it's not easy to get an exact head count.

The last official count conducted by the Coalition for Homelessness Intervention and Prevention (CHIP) in Marion County took place on Jan. 27, 2011. On that night, CHIP identified 1,567 people without permanent housing. [Editor's note: the next census will be conducted at the end of this month.]

That number doesn't include everyone, such as those on the edge of homelessness who might be staying with friends or family.

"The 1,500 is folks who sit neatly within the HUD (Housing and Urban Development) definition," says John Joanette, executive director of Horizon House. "You have sofa-surfers who aren't counted in that 1,500. That is very much on the low end of who is dealing with homelessness on any given night. That 1,500 are folks who are living on the street and the folks who are living in shelters." [Editor's note: Three in-depth interviews with people experiencing homelessness tell the stories of Marie, John and Mike.]

Joanette estimates between 4,500 and 7,500 people in Marion County experience homelessness every year.

"They're counting individuals they see on the streets," says Cheryl Herzog, development coordinator at the Dayspring Center. "I think those numbers you see are an underestimate."

Regardless of whether CHIP's numbers reflect an exact count, the report captures some the underlying causes of homeless in Indianapolis: 416 people in shelters and 41 people on the streets cited losing their jobs as the reason for their homelessness.

With the slumping economy, it should come as no surprise that this was the number-one reason cited in the CHIP report for homelessness.

Other reasons cited for the cause of homelessness were "asked to leave," "evicted" and "other."

Over half, 51 percent, of people in the CHIP report cited problems with alcohol or drugs: 425 people cited alcohol problems and 379 cited problems with drugs.

The families and children

The night the CHIP survey was conducted, 248 people under the age of 18 were counted. This was the third-largest age group among those counted. But, those 248 were also the youth who fit within HUD's definition of homelessness.

The McKinney-Vento Act requires public schools to identify students without permanent housing. Under this act, 2,925 children were identified as living in homeless conditions in Marion County in 2011.

Of those, 938 children were under 8.

The reason most of these children weren't counted on the night of the CHIP survey is because 90 percent of them were doubled up with family or friends.

Individuals aren't the only ones who experience homelessness; entire families do as well. The night of the CHIP survey, 155 families were counted, totaling 444 people.

The Dayspring Center is an establishment offering housing to families only. The center has 14 rooms onsite, but can house more by utilizing rollout beds and cots for larger families.

"Annually, we assist 150 families and we see about 450 kids," Herzog says.

Even though those numbers are large, most families have little desire to utilize Dayspring, she explains, adding that the decision comes down to what support systems they are able to marshal.

"The only difference between them and us is that we have a support system with us," Herzog says. "If you lost a job, you might have family who will assist you financially or put you up. We're a last resort for them. They really don't want to come here. What's hurting them most is the job market. Fifty percent of adults who come here are working; they just don't make the income to support housing for their family."

Similar to almost every homeless service organization, the center offers more than just a bed for the night.

"We're connected to educational institutions to try to get kids and adults in classes," Herzog says. "We have life-skills training here. We work with Art with a Heart; we try to provide recreational opportunities for the children. We also work with other service providers like Holy Family shelter. We work with different organizations for mental health and counseling. Anything they need, we make."

School on Wheels, for instance, visits the center four days a week to provide homework support for children.

For 10 years, School on Wheels has provided tutoring and supplemental educational resources to kids experiencing homelessness and to make sure all kids have backpacks, school uniforms and supplies, according to chief executive and founder Sally Bindley.

"When the kids come home from school, we want to make sure they do their homework and study for their tests," Bindley says. "Just because they're homeless doesn't mean their job as a student needs to suffer."

School on Wheels provides daily academic tutoring for children and is present in 12 homeless shelters in Indianapolis.

Bindley said they have seen up to 500 children every year and the numbers have been increasing.

"Since this time last year, our numbers are up." Bindley says. "We have 34 more kids."

More children means more strain on funds and supplies.

"When you look at what we're available to do, we have under a $600,000 budget," Bindley says. "It costs us $1,000 to put a child through our program. We need more tutors, more supplies. We're looking for more volunteers right now. We're looking to increase our donations to address this growth."

School on Wheels is the only provider of academic services to homeless children in Indianapolis.

"When a family becomes homeless, there's a lot of factors, a lot of different spokes in the wheel," Bindley says. "There's a lot of service providers and we're all working on our own little piece."

Homeless resident of Pine Street encampment
  • Whitey is a resident of the Pine Street encampment.
  • Mike Allee

The vets

"... to care for him who shall have borne this battle, and for his widow, and his orphan" — Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address

On the night of the CHIP count, 262 veterans were homeless in Marion County.

The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates about 3,600 veterans are homeless on any given night in Indiana. In Marion County, about 700 to 900 veterans are homeless on any given night, according to the Hoosier Veterans Assistance Foundation.

HVAF provides a multitude of services to homeless veterans, including a variety of housing options.

"We have a little over 200 vets (as tenants) that are male and female," says Debra Des Vignes, the HVAF public relations coordinator. "We have apartments and homes all across Indianapolis. We have 13 properties, one with multiple homes, so if you count that we have 18."

The most recent addition to HVAF's housing options is Manchester Apartments, which is attached to HVAF's headquarters in downtown.

With these new apartments, the foundation can provide housing options to 51 more veterans. This brings the number of veterans they can house to just over 200.
But, it's still not enough.

"I think we're seeing more (vets)," Des Vignes says. "During the winter months the need is extremely high. The need is at the highest it's ever been. We have a waiting list of about 100 vets who still need housing."

The foundation also offers what they call their REST program — residential, employment, substance abuse treatment program.

It is a 22-bed housing program paired with structured class work and educational workshops based on the 12-step recovery program. Program participants are offered individualized case management to help with mental-health issues or barriers preventing them from obtaining and maintaining stable, permanent housing and employment.

Participants can stay in the program for up to two years.

The money and the housing

The Coalition for Homeless Intervention and Prevention has taken the reins in leading Indianapolis and its homeless service organizations in combating the problem of homelessness.

CHIP is an organization that brings together the city's homeless service organizations to help them better serve clients and work toward a common goal.

In 2002, CHIP developed its "Blueprint to End Homelessness," a plan to end homelessness in 10 years.

"The first (Blueprint) to End Homelessness rolled out in April 2002," says Michael Hurst, CHIP program director. "The goals and strategies in it were designed to be carried out over 10 years. With all of the changes that occur within a community, in 10 years it can be obsolete pretty fast."

On Nov. 11, 2011, CHIP released a draft of their new plan, Blueprint 2.

"One of the goals that is laid out in the new plan is a lesson learned from the last one," Hurst says. "You can have great ideas about ending homelessness, but if you don't have steady funding, nothing's going to happen. So, this offers a proposal for an increase in state sales taxes of one quarter to one half of a percent that would go to a permanent fund."

Hurst emphasizes that the idea is simply a proposal.

Julie Marsh, Domestic Violence Network chief executive, isn't sure the public will be willing to accept this initiative.

"It's a bold move, but we don't know if it will fly," Marsh says.

If the goal is to create a large pool of money quickly, the tax increase could do that, but other alternatives need to be considered, Marsh says.

According to Blueprint 2, Indianapolis, the 12th largest city in the nation, does not provide tax dollars to battle homelessness. All larger cities in the U.S. make public funds available, according to Blueprint 2. This disparity is what prompted CHIP to call for the tax increase.

This discussion brings up the larger problem, which is dwindling funding and resources for homeless service organizations.

"There's not dedicated funding in Indy to address the issues that will help individuals get out of homelessness," Hurst says. "Indianapolis gets about $3.2 million and nearly all of that is restricted to providing housing. There are 20 or so organizations that apply and get that funding. They can do housing with that money but it can't be used to provide services."

Indianapolis receives the $3.2 million from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) every year with the stipulation that no more than 20 percent of that money can go to services. HUD also provides about $800,000 worth of grant money that can be used for services.

A lot of homeless service organizations in Indianapolis rely on private donations and grants for the majority of their funding.

"There isn't nearly enough resourcing," Joanette says. "We do a lot with every penny that comes in the door at Horizon House."

Kay Wiles, supervisor at the Homeless Initiative Program, echoes Joanette.

"We're almost 100 percent grant-funded," Wiles says. "We don't get a lot of donations. The amounts of funds aren't going up in the pot, and there are more people requesting funds from the pot. So the pie pieces are getting smaller and smaller."

Another resource that is more abundant and readily available is abandoned houses that could be utilized to provide housing.

According to Blueprint 2, between 8,000 and 10,000 abandoned houses exist in Indianapolis.

"It makes much more sense to catch houses before they fall into such hopeless disrepair, rehabilitate them as needed and make them available at affordable rents to homeless families," Blueprint 2 reads. "The concept is simple; the process is not. The city is willing to make these houses available for such purposes, but there is a cost — $2,500 for nonprofits with 501(c)3 designation. And there has to be a willing owner. "

Blueprint 2 asks for the assistance of faith-based organizations in purchasing these houses, maintaining ownership and also engaging tenants to address any issues that might prevent them from staying housed.

One homeless man, whose name is withheld at his request, had similar ideas that came out of his work.

"There's plenty of abandoned homes around that the city owns that they're ready to tear down that they don't even take the initiative to tear down," he says. "Homeless people, drug addicts use these buildings to get high, to stay out of the weather, everything else. Why not start a program — like I said, I'm the superintendent of a construction company — why not start a program to rehab these houses? Teach the people a trade."

Fire is an essential component to survival for the homeless. - MIKE ALLEE
  • Fire is an essential component to survival for the homeless.
  • Mike Allee

Defining success

I'm waiting outside the doors of Horizon House. It's 11:30 on a mid-November morning and exceedingly cold outside. There are five others waiting in line. They have large, stuffed backpacks and sleeping bags. Two of the men are animatedly discussing possible job opportunities. The others look stoic.

Joanette, executive director at the Horizon House, opens the door, greets me and leads me around his organization's building.

The building's main room is where the clients stay. Its high ceilings and open floor layout allow everyone to be seen easily. Off that room is a small hallway where hot coffee and donated baked goods are available. There's also a small room where laundry machines and telephones are available for client use.

But, most importantly, it's warm.

Joanette explains that clients can use Horizon House as their permanent address to receive mail and also to register to vote.

He unlocks a door and shows me an area where clients can get their hair cut. He shows me the section of the building that houses a branch of IU Health Center where clients receive medical care. He shows me the large room with computers that are used to help clients develop their professional skills, create a resume and search for jobs.

"My goal each and every day is to work myself out of a job," Joanette tells me. "That's what success looks like. The way our staff, and myself included, move forward is that we focus in on the successes we can see and support them."

About 20 percent of Horizon House's clients work at least part-time. Some of them also attend college.

"We measure success, especially with the demand on our services, by seeing the steps each individual takes each day here, big or small," Joanette says. "Just to get someone in off the street, that's a huge success."

Horizon House and other organizations doing similar work find jobs for their clients every day. They enroll them in schools. They give them a hot meal. They give them socks, shoes and a winter coat. They show them how to read, write and use a computer. These organizations provide services that many of us take for granted every day.

Joanette shows me all of this in his building and tells me what's available through other service providers. It seems like every detail has been thought of, but I still have to ask, "Why are people homeless?"

"I think we have to go back to what the root causes are; we need to look at educations," Joanette says. "We need to look at underprivileged individuals without a great education and no great support.

"The short-term look is having the resources to work with the barriers in one's life. What my agency does is we intervene once those issues have taken place — the education issues, the addiction issues. The long-term look is 'We've got to solve the systematic problems.' Until we have those things solved as a whole, all we can do is put a Band-Aid on these issues. All we can do is fight every day for those resources that will change people's lives."

He continues: "The average age of a homeless youth is 7. The average age of a homeless person is 8. These kids start out already at a deficit. There's just not adequate opportunities for people in our society. And then there's veterans. How can we expect them to give what they give for us to be a free society and then not give them the adequate resources? That's just unconscionable.

"I think this is the broader conversation of inequities and also about the disparities of wealth in our country. The American dream, that's a sham anymore."

Help for the homeless:

Here are some organizations dedicated to serving people experiencing homelessness in Indy. If you'd like, share this page. Who knows? You might encounter a homeless person – or know someone headed that direction – who might need this information.

Horizon House

1033 E. Washington St., 317-423-8909

Services: Alcoholics Anonymous group; assessment and referral services; case management; civil legal services; clothing distribution; computer literacy; employment placement program; financial literacy; food service; housing placement and assistance; info port library classes; job readiness training; laundry; mail pickup; medical care; mental health counseling; probation services; restrooms; showers; street outreach; support groups; temporary storage; transportation; telephone access; veteran's services; women and children's area.

Hoosier Veterans Assistance Foundation (HVAF)

964 N. Pennsylvania St., 317-951-0688

Services: transitional housing; employment services; Residential, Employment, Substance Abuse Treatment Program (REST); case management; Homeless Prevention & Rapid Re-Housing Program (HPRP); Veterans Service Center: "on-site supportive services to homeless and near homeless veterans. Services include food, clothing, personal hygiene items, household goods, drop-in shower facilities, transportation, housing and employment assistance and financial benefits counseling," according to their website.

Wheeler Mission Ministries

205 E. New York St., 317-635-3575

Services: Center for women and children; men's residential program; S.T.E.P.S. Program (Steps Toward Economic and Personal Stability); emergency shelter; food service (lunch to previous night's occupants, dinner at 5 to 5:30); work therapy; winter contingency program; mental health services; Health Care Hebron Addiction Recovery Program for Men; Higher Ground Addiction Recovery Program for Women

Dayspring Center

1537 Central Ave., 317-635-6780

Services: emergency shelter for families; food and clothing; case management; recreational and educational opportunities for children; Wellspring Cottage for "...families that have graduated from an emergency shelter program, who need extra time to address more deeply rooted issues that led to their homelessness. For example, drug addiction, insufficient skills, large debt, or lack of education," according to their website.

Holy Family Shelter

907 N. Holmes Ave., 317-635-7830

Services: emergency shelter; breakfast, lunch, dinner; telephones; laundry facilities; transportation; case management; job referrals; job training; childcare program; parenting classes; nutrition classes; medical services; legal assistance; counseling; GED preparation course; domestic violence counseling; financial literacy/recovery program; addiction treatment; recreational programs; transitional housing.

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