Homelessness in Indianapolis 

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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."

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