Homelessness in Indianapolis

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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


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


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.


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


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


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."


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


The money and the housing


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


"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


, 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


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."


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


"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


"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


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.,


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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