Hogsett declines to take position on proposal that targets downtown panhandling

Mayor Joe Hogsett on Wednesday declined to take a position on the controversial Republican-led proposal that would ban sitting and lying down on public streets and sidewalks in the Mile Square.

Advocates for the homeless say passing the plan would equate to criminalizing homelessness.

The proposalsponsored by Republican council members Mike McQuillen, the minority leader, and Susie Cordiwas introduced into the Democrat-led council on Monday. It will now go through the council’s committee process, where it is not expected to have wide support without major changes.

Hogsett told reporters Wednesday that he is working with the council on the proposal and that the language is being vetted by city lawyers.

“I think it’s inappropriate for the administration to take a position until we fully appreciate the language and any kind of constitutional problems that might occur,” Hogsett said.

But he did plan to promote an event Wednesday afternoon where his administration will work with community groups to try to canvass the downtown to connect people experiencing homelessness with a new city registration system that would allow them to get on a waitlist for permanent housing.

Hogsett acknowledged that homelessness downtown is an issue and said his administration has taken concrete steps to address it. It assisted in opening the Rueben Engagement Center, which provides shelter, case management, mental health evaluations and housing referrals to the homeless, specifically those who are suffering from substance abuse or mental health issues. And the administration has worked to create permanent supportive housing units for 400 more residents.

“All of those are evidence of how seriously we’re taking homelessness in the downtown area. I would emphasize what the administration is focused on are the root causes of homelessness, not necessarily how to disperse law enforcement in ways downtown that addresses what I think is a legitimate growing concern of the fear of crime.

Deputy Mayor Jeff Bennett told reporters that the city previously had a waitlist for homeless housing, but there was “never really hope of timely housing through that list.”

The city said its new coordinated entry list has sped up the process. Since April, the average wait is 71 days to get housed, compared with 98 days previously. The city is trying to get the average wait down to 30 days.

The GOP proposal’s fate is unclear. It was assigned to the council’s rules and public policy committee chaired by Democratic Council President Vop Osili.

Osili told IBJ on Wednesday that he wanted to have “discussions and collaborations to address the broader range of issues around homelessness.”

But he said he believed it would be a long-term process of working with other social service and city agencies to figure out the best way forward.

“I think elements like housing, social services and wraparound services, emotional and mental health services, need to be factored into solutions that are long-term and sustainable,” he said.

Local social services agencies appear to be firmly against the proposal.

A statement Monday released by the Indianapolis Continuum of Care, a collection of a variety of groups that exist to try to serve the homeless, said the proposal only seeks to "relocate the problem."

"This proposed ordinance moves a problem from downtown Indianapolis to other areas in Indianapolis, but does not solve the homeless plight," according to the statement. "In addition, law enforcement resources should be focused on the more severe areas of crime that plague our city.  Studies show that such laws criminalize homelessness and have proven to disproportionately target and harm people in a community experiencing homelessness when exercised in other cities."

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