City's homeless find shortage of resources Shelters say need outstrips supply of housing for families and individuals.
By Rob Schneider
The Lighthouse Mission shelter hasn't had a spare bed in months. The Holy Family Shelter, which offers emergency assistance to families, uses couches in its dayroom as impromptu sleeping quarters. Even before Dayspring Center closed its family shelter on Central Avenue on Sept. 23, leaving 14 families in search of a place to stay, the city's homeless shelters were overburdened, trying to meet rising demand with limited resources.
Each year, 15,000 people become homeless in Indianapolis, a 1999 survey of the city's homeless population showed. The city has 16 facilities that offer emergency shelter and 44 that offer either transitional housing, where people usually stay for a maximum of two years, or permanent housing, linked to such services as mental health treatment and case management.
Altogether, 93 local programs spend $22 million annually to assist the homeless. Yet Indianapolis has just 416 beds for individuals and 390 for families available on an emergency basis, according to the Coalition for Homelessness
Intervention and Prevention.
"There are lots of programs, and they receive a fair amount of money -- millions of dollars," said Dan Shepley, executive director of the coalition, the lead agency designated to carry out the city's Blueprint to End Homelessness. "But Indianapolis is the same as many other cities -- we just kept seeing the situation getting worse."
According to a 2001 study conducted by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, 27 cities saw requests for emergency shelter increase by an average of 13percent over the year.
The Indianapolis coalition estimates the city needs an additional 316 emergency beds for individuals and 98 more for families. But advocates say adding more beds isn't the ultimate answer. Instead, Indianapolis needs to address the root of the problem: a lack of housing that people with extremely low incomes can afford.
In 1998, the Indianapolis Housing Task Force said Indianapolis needs at least 12,500 more rental units that people with the lowest incomes can afford.
A 1999-2000 survey by the Coalition for Homelessness Intervention and Prevention offered further evidence of the need: Of 173 people interviewed at food pantries and other sites, 47 percent said they spent half or more of their income on housing. Forty-one percent reported they had been in recent danger of becoming homeless, primarily because of trouble paying rent. In its search for answers, Indianapolis is looking to other cities for advice.
One of those is Columbus, Ohio, which has a program that assists families facing a housing crisis. Operated by the YWCA, the program has trained staff who do "triage" over the telephone, said Colleen Bain Gold, vice president of housing for the YWCA of Columbus. That means negotiating with a landlord over rent or dealing with overdue utility bills -- anything to keep a roof over the family's head.
"Our primary focus is to not even let them into a shelter, but link them with whatever they need to stay housed, because things seem to unravel further a lot of times when they enter a shelter," Gold said. And if families have no alternatives but to go to a shelter, the goal is to find them other housing within 14 days, Gold said.
While people with the lowest incomes are most likely to lose their homes, advocates say anyone in certain circumstances can become homeless. Executive Director Bill Bickel said he has seen a doctor and an attorney at Holy Family Shelter, while Bob Goodrum, director of Lighthouse Mission, said his clients include a college student who lost a part-time job and didn't have money for housing. About 10 percent to 20 percent of the men seeking shelter at Lighthouse are employed; at Holy Family, 50 percent of the families served had jobs when they became homeless.
That's why, in addition to finding more affordable housing, the mayor's blueprint calls for case managers, who can assist with services such as job training, substance abuse treatment and mental health services. Some programs already are in place. At Lighthouse, for example, if clients commit to gaining the life, educational and job skills to become independent, the shelter will allow them to remain longer.
One of the men taking advantage of the shelter's self-help approach is Damon Love, 53. After drug addiction cost him his job, his family and his home, Love enrolled in the mission's 30-week life rehabilitation program about a year ago.
Now drug-free, Love has just finished business technology and software applications classes and is scheduled to begin computer technology training classes later this month. He is working as an unpaid intern with a local utility comp and is looking for a paid position that will enable him to move out on his own.
For now, Love's home consists of a bunk bed, a small table and a metal closet. As modest as his surroundings are, Love said he would be lost without the shelter. "I wouldn't know where to go," he said. At the Holy Family Shelter, families usually remain for 30 to 45 days. "That's not much time, which is why shelters should not be substitutes for permanent housing," Bickel said.
Holy Family does have nine transitional housing units, but only those who are already in a shelter are eligible, Bickel said. "It's terrible to think that if you are fortunate enough to be homeless at a certain time, you might get in," he said.
Call Rob Schneider at 1-317-444-6278.
Copyright 2002 The Indianapolis Star