VIEWPOINT: The changing face of our homeless

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The face of the homeless is changing in our community. Two decades ago, the image conjured up by Indianapolis residents would be that of a panhandler near the Circle or the occasional man with the “Will work for food” sign standing just off an exit ramp;
homeless families were virtually nonexistent.

The fact is, this image is about half right-literally. Single homeless men make up around 60 percent of the homeless in our city. Remarkably, the other 40 percent are the fastest-growing segment of this population-homeless families, typically a single adult and two or three children.

Consider that more than half of the homeless individuals served at Holy Family Shelter near downtown are children. In 2006, the Catholic Charities program served 306 homeless families, which included 866 people, of whom 490 were children. Homeless children are diagnosed with learning disabilities, such as dyslexia or speech and language impediments, twice as often as other children.

Fewer than 18 percent of Marion County families receiving public welfare are also given a housing subsidy. Families in the county receiving public aid who are employed-the working poor-earn an average hourly wage of $7.62. Many working people without housing
subsidies spend significant portions of their incomes on dwellings and child care, leaving them in poverty and at risk of becoming homeless.

Compounding the problem is a lack of affordable housing, a situation that continues to escalate. The waiting list for the Section 8 government-subsidized housing program is closed and there is little other subsidized housing in the community.

Homeless people, especially the growing number of families, must be cared for; however, because there is no government program in place to provide an adequate number of affordable dwellings, homeless shelters must fill the gap in permanent housing for poor families instead of serving as temporary crisis relief. It also means homeless families are often forced to take housing that is substandard and beyond their financial means, resulting in high rates of homeless recidivism.

A permanent solution must be found. A good place to start would be fully implementing the city’s 2002 Blueprint to End Homelessness. This initiative called for developing 1,700 affordable rental-housing units with appropriate support services over five years, but so far it has fallen far short of its goal, with only about 600 units completed. The program requires active participation of all sectors in the community and should be revitalized and adequately funded, so it can achieve its goal.

Addressing the issues that underlie homelessness also is critical to achieving a solution. Good news on this front came recently when Midtown Community Mental Health Center announced it would assume primary responsibility for the program that helps these vulnerable people combat mental health illness and addiction, so they can achieve a successful recovery. The Action Coalition to Ensure Stability Program was in danger of ceasing operations when the center, a division of Wishard Health Services, agreed to sponsor the program to help homeless residents secure housing and deal with other issues.

Homeless families are often considered our city’s “invisible homeless.” It is the very fact that they are not seen that is central to the problem. Despite our incredible generosity as a community, we have an out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality when it comes to homeless families.

The community must act now to reverse this mind-set. Those who are disturbed by being asked for their spare change by the single men downtown will really be uncomfortable having to step over the mother with three kids sitting on a piece of cardboard outside a downtown building. Sadly, we are not too far from that reality.

Siler is executive director of Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

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