Improving efforts to house the homeless 

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On one of the coldest weekends of the year, homeless outreach providers found 186 people living on the streets of Indianapolis.

It's a much smaller number than the 1,647 tallied in a single night in 2012. Temperatures on the day of that survey, Jan. 25, ranged from 33 to 54. But organizers note that circumstances were much different this year.

"With the weather being as terrible as it was on the mornings we were outside, a downpour on the first day and 5 degrees and windy on the next two, we did not think we would find as many people as we did sleeping outside," Stephanie Sideman, program manager at the Corporation for Supportive Housing, said in an email.

Officials released the results of the survey, taken Jan. 28 through Feb. 1, at a public forum on Monday night. The count did not include people living in shelters, transitional housing, with friends or family, or those who simply might not have been found. An estimated 5,000 to 8,000 people experienced homelessness at some point last year, according to the 2012 report "Faces of Homelessness," issued by Indy's Coalition for Homelessness Intervention and Prevention (CHIP).

This year's survey marked a change in technique for the annual census, a reflection of the city's involvement with a national initiative, the 100,000 Homes Campaign, a grassroots campaign to house 100,000 of the nation's most vulnerable individuals living on the streets by 2014.

The campaign defines a "vulnerable" person as someone who has been on the streets for six months or more and has at least one of 12 exacerbating factors, such as: three of more ER visits in a year, HIV+/AIDS, serious mental illness, or being at least 60 years old or 24 years old or younger.

Nearly half of the people identified in this year's survey meet the program's definition of vulnerable.

Participation in the 100,000 Homes Campaign is a reflection of increasing collaboration among the city's outreach providers in an effort to achieve better long-term results through more efficient and effective support of the local homeless population.

"I've certainly seen increased collaboration and coordination amongst providers, and it seems to me that we're really moving forward in the right direction as a community," Sideman said.

"Through the 100,000 Homes Campaign, we've been working with providers to create one registry and one common application so that, down the line, we have no waiting lists for individual programs and the people who are the most vulnerable are the next in line for supportive housing units."

She noted that the Street Outreach and Rapid Response Team (SORTT) is "an integral part of connecting those people to housing."

SORRT started in 2011 as a collective of service providers, including: Horizon House, Pourhouse, Eskenazi Medical Group, Midtown Community Mental Health Center's Homeless Resource Team and the Community Outreach Task Force (or COT Force), which represents the combined efforts of police, court, ER, crisis intervention groups and homeless service providers. It is meant to streamline communication and prevent duplication of services among the city's outreach and triage providers.

"Currently, people experiencing homelessness may need to travel around and fill out multiple applications. This way we're cutting that process out," Sideman said, explaining that moving toward greater efficiencies has been part of what agencies have been striving as they collaborate on their ongoing Blueprint to End Homelessness.

Instead of arresting a homeless person who has come to the police's attention for loitering or disturbing the peace, members of the COT Force are trained to connect with the 24-7 SORRT response line in an attempt to connect the individual with services other than jail or the emergency room.

"We analyzed the data (from 2011) of 26 individuals that frequented the ER pretty much on a daily basis, sometimes twice a day," said Melissa Burgess, SORRT coordinator at Horizon House.

Serving those individuals through SORTT over a 12-month period resulted in a savings of $193,000, she added. In these cases, she noted, SORTT achieved a 96 percent drop in the cost of outreach services.

Overall, SORTT served 91 people that year.

"Everybody sees homeless people, but not everybody sees what's going on behind the scenes, which is the exact work that COT and SORRT are doing and is the goal of the 100,000 Homes Campaign — just improving the quality of life, besides just reducing the tax payer dollars," Burgess said.

"We are really collaborating and coordinating with the ever-shrinking pots of money. But it's increasing our coordination because we're realizing we're all very passionate about this."

A little more than a year ago, CHIP issued the first draft of its Blueprint To End Homelessness.

"After putting a draft out there was some community feedback stating that there should be some more involvement from the community," Sideman said. "So, they designed a process that took place over 2012 to help all partners invest — supportive service providers, business, faith-based groups — and really bring everyone together to address how we can move forward."

The next plan, Blueprint 2, is still being discussed and planned, but the timeline has been pared down from 10 years to a three-to-five-year plan to make it more feasible, said Christy Shepard, CHIP's executive director.

"The community has true ownership in this plan," Shepard said.

The plan's second iteration is due for release in March.

"The first Blueprint didn't go far enough," said Julie Fidler, human services grant manager in the Indianapolis Department of Metropolitan Development.

"This second process has been fantastic and these meetings have been well-attended. For the first time, this year, we're going to be able to help fund SORRT. Because of a change in the regulations, now we can fund operations and outreach.

Fidler later added in an email: "I can say without qualification that Indianapolis is poised to be a top-performing community in preventing and reducing homelessness because we have the very best providers and partners."

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