City report calls for low-barrier, service-rich shelter for homeless residents

A new report from the Indianapolis Office of Public Health and Safety calls for creation of a new, “low-barrier” shelter featuring a high concentration of services meant to help homeless people get back on their feet.

The report, released Wednesday evening, recommends that Indianapolis add more beds, largely via a new facility, as well as fund and train staff for the new shelter, concentrate a range of resources and services at the shelter to make it a “navigation center,” and help developers build more affordable, permanent housing units featuring supportive services.

The City-County Council has already set aside $12 million in federal American Rescue Plan money for whatever plan officials decide to pursue.

“What the providers in Indianapolis are doing isn’t wrong—they’re doing a great job—but it’s identifying a gap in services that is needed,” OPHS Director Lauren Rodriguez told IBJ. “… We need a ‘navigation center,’ or a hub, that will combine all the services that we have in Indianapolis.”

More Indianapolis residents were homeless in 2021 than have been in at least the last five years, according to annual point-in-time counts mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. A reported 1,928 people were homeless on one night in January 2021, a 21% increase from the 1,588 counted the previous January.

And Indianapolis doesn’t have enough shelter beds for them all. There were 1,597 beds available in a range of housing types in 2021, according to an annual HUD housing inventory count—a gap of 331 spots.

But the help shouldn’t end at beds, officials say.

“Beds are definitely needed … but they’re not the center of the hub,” Rodriguez said. “The center of the report is that we need to be able to provide a place for those who are experiencing homelessness to have a bed, but also have a place to get a driver’s license, to get enrolled in permanent housing, to get enrolled with health care, so they’re not worrying about transportation to all these different service providers.”

Indianapolis has already piloted the “navigation center” concept. This year, the city reserved hundreds of rooms in local hotels to use as overflow shelter units, allowing for social distancing in traditional shelters. Hundreds of households stayed in the Crowne Plaza Indianapolis and other hotels, largely paid for with federal funds.

“The benefit of Crowne Plaza was that people were staying for a longer period of time and developed relationships with case workers, didn’t have to leave at 6 a.m., could go to their job and come back, or maintain a job while they were going through this process,” said OPHS spokeswoman Caroline Ellert. “And that’s kind of something that we don’t really have in Indianapolis, or didn’t.”

The new shelter would also be “low-barrier,” minimizing the policies and other features that can lead homeless people to avoid and distrust shelters.

The report identified commonly reported barriers such as shelter policies that turn away those with criminal histories, ban drug and alcohol use, require documentation, enforce strict rules, and separate families, partners or pets, according to the report. Many shelters around Indianapolis allow only people of certain genders, ages or other demographic characteristics.

Other barriers include lack of shelter safety, limited access for people with disabilities, narrow shelter hours and bad experiences with shelter staff.

City-County councilors initially wanted the report to examine feasibility of a sanctioned homeless encampment near downtown, but amended the legislation to include a shelter.

The report concluded a camp “is not a long-term solution to ending homelessness,” adding that the people living there would still be homeless and that the camps themselves are expensive to set up and maintain—draining resources that could go toward initiatives with “greater impact.”

So what’s next?

Rodriguez said the city will talk to service-provider partners and people “with lived experience” to get feedback on what’s needed and what’s possible.

Deputy Mayor Jeff Bennett, at a City-County Council committee meeting featuring a presentation on the report, said the city also still has “questions to answer on real estate.” The real estate due diligence, he later told IBJ, would likely begin in early 2022.

As for the one-time $12 million in federal funding? That would go toward construction of the facility itself, but not operating costs, Bennett said. If the project moves forward, those would become part of the city’s budget.

“We’re paying now, in lots of ways, for having people experience unsheltered homelessness,” Bennett said. “There’s probably an argument to be made that it would be at least as cost-effective, and certainly much more humane and housing-focused, to have a navigation center like this, with low-barrier beds.”

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2 thoughts on “City report calls for low-barrier, service-rich shelter for homeless residents

  1. A centralized hub for services makes sense, including mental health, drug and alcohol treatment, job training and placement. But shelters that don’t ban drug and alcohol use and don’t enforce rules? Not real life and not safe.

    1. I welcome being corrected, but it seems that “low barrier” shelters are the sort of thing you implement when you want to get people off the streets (where they scare people away from coming downtown) and you’re more concerned about the end result than the “how”.

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