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
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 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
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
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
"... 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
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
TheCoalition 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
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
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,"
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,
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 Program
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.
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
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
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
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
1033 E. Washington St., 317-423-8909
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.
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.
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
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.
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.