Indianapolis population in need Fists of wadded paper, a twisted high heel and an empty bottle of Wild Irish Rose lie on the gravel chunks outside this old bridge’s support structures. There’s enough room to fit through a round hole in the truss that opens into the hollow interior above. In there, mounds of blankets and clothes look like sleeping people. But otherwise, the space is empty. We move on. The hole of the next truss is covered with a make-shift cardboard door. “Outreach,” says Lorraine Kramer, an outreach agent from the Indy Dream Center, as she taps on the cardboard. The door slides open and several hands reach down to grab water, snacks and sandwiches. If the weather is not too cold, four people, at least, sleep in the hollow truss.
Every night, 3,500 homeless individuals live in a similar way in Indianapolis. Every year, 15,000 local residents are homeless. These are figures reported from a 1999 survey conducted by the Coalition for Homelessness Intervention and Prevention (CHIP). Last month, volunteers and professionals alike met to update the numbers.
Volunteers crowded into the common room of the Central Avenue Christian Church waiting patiently for group assignments. Before hitting the streets, a training session was held in the chapel. The groups departed at about 10:30 p.m. — some for outside destinations, others for residential blocks.
According to Dan Shepley, executive director of CHIP, families account for the largest percentage of the homeless in this city. Other types and causes span the gamut. “There is no one profile,” he said.
The homeless census is required by federal law if local outreach groups want to seek funding. It can bring in $3 million or more for the community to help the homeless. The numbers are also used for planning, education and advocacy, for creating awareness and for program improvements.
Muddy ice crunches underfoot and the crystals are feathery in the flashlight’s circle. Up above, cars occasionally drive across the pavement. A crippled tent stands in the center of the damp sand. No one answers Kramer’s call, or they simply don’t want to answer, but people live there, under the bridge.
Many homeless are mentally or physically ill and caught in a cycle of poverty. Some are felons, released from prison having paid their dues but remain labeled. Some cases are surprising. Pastor Jim Thurston of the Indy Dream Center said some homeless have college degrees, were once star athletes and high-ranking military personnel.
“We have found,” Thurston said, “that there is a whole society that needs to be worked with to achieve a restoration in their lives — physically, mentally, spiritually and economically.”
Unfortunately, Indianapolis is not doing enough to provide this afflicted society with avenues to overcome their situations. “There’s an extreme shortage of housing for people who have low incomes in this community,” Shepley said. “We also don’t do a very good job of helping people who have either mental health or substance abuse problems to get back on their feet.”
The Los Angeles Dream Center, upon which the Indy Dream Center is modeled, occupies a 440,000-square-foot facility. It provides long-term housing, so people have time to reconnect with society. Thurston is working to create a similar facility here, a place that provides more than food, water and a place to stay for the night.
Similar to the drug addictions, mental illnesses and poverty cycles that are so often intertwined with homelessness, people sometimes have to be taken entirely out of the environment in order to succeed. But there is no magic bullet to end homelessness. “It takes a lot of care,” Thurston said. “It’s like bringing a child into the world.”