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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 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."