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Editorial: City must tackle homelessness, panhandling problems downtown

October 5, 2018

There might be no more startling statistic released in the past year than one from Downtown Indy Inc., which found in a survey that only 55 percent of those who use downtown view it as safe.

Compare that with just six years earlier, when 80 percent of survey respondents said they felt safe downtown.

It’s an indicator too scary to ignore because it can affect the mindset of people who want to live and work downtown, the companies that want to locate in the central city, and the organizations that want to plan their conventions here. In other words, it has everything to do with the economic vitality of downtown.

The sentiment could be driven by a number of factors, but a big one is likely the increasing number of people panhandling and sleeping on downtown sidewalks.

That’s what led City-County Councilors Michael McQuillen and Susie Cordi—both Republicans—to introduce a controversial ordinance last month that would make it illegal to sit or lie on the ground during most of the day in downtown Indianapolis. The ordinance includes exceptions for people who are homeless when shelters don’t have space.

IBJ appreciates that McQuillen and Cordi are trying to do something. But we are not prepared to endorse the ordinance at this point. We have concerns—as do many of the proposal’s critics—about criminalizing homelessness, something the courts have said cities can’t do.

What we do wholeheartedly endorse is a multi-year, multi-disciplined effort to combat the complex problem of homelessness. Fortunately, the Coalition for Homelessness Intervention & Prevention already has created a path.

In July, CHIP released the Indianapolis Community Plan to End Homelessness, which calls for drastically reducing the length of time anyone in Indianapolis spends without a safe place to live by increasing affordable housing and supportive services.

To reach its goal of having no family spend more than 30 days without safe, permanent housing, the plan calls for adding 1,700 subsidized and supportive housing slots in the city and expanding and improving services that prevent people from returning to homelessness.

Mayor Joe Hogsett backs the plan, saying in a statement when it was released that “homelessness can and must be solved in Indianapolis.” IBJ looks to him and the City-County Council for strong leadership and funding of this effort.

Already, Hogsett’s administration has taken concrete steps to address homelessness, assisting in opening the Reuben 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 challenges. And the administration has worked to create permanent supportive housing units for 400 more residents.

We applaud those efforts.

But those steps will not necessarily solve downtown’s panhandling problems.

Hogsett said last month his attorneys are vetting the language in the council’s proposal to ban sitting and lying on downtown sidewalks. We urge him to do more, to look to other cities to see how this problem might be addressed and find a solution that makes people feel safe again downtown.•

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To comment on this editorial, write to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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