City turns to hotels to help house homeless through pandemic winter

Making sure that Indianapolis residents experiencing homelessness can escape the cold at night looks different this winter. Hotels are being called on to handle overflow caused by social distancing in shelters.

Every year, Wheeler Mission and the Coalition for Homelessness Intervention and Prevention, in collaboration with the city, draft a plan to ensure that anyone experiencing homelessness has adequate shelter on cold winter nights.

That plan usually involves adding as many cots and mats as Wheeler Mission’s shelters can hold, often with people sleeping very close to one another. But packing residents inside congregate settings isn’t an option in a pandemic.

With that restriction and with the prospect of a Dec. 31 expiration of a federal moratorium on evictions and foreclosures, the city, the public health department and shelters have had to collaborate on—and find funding for—a new strategy.

Indianapolis joins San Francisco, New York, Columbus, Ohio, and other cities that are reserving hotel rooms for the homeless.

The city of Indianapolis used a portion of its Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funds to reserve roughly 200 rooms at a local hotel since early in the pandemic for high-risk individuals. The Marion County Public Health Department has also reserved hotel rooms for homeless residents who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.

Now, the city plans to spend roughly $4.5 million on winter contingency operations, which include 275 hotel rooms for overflow shelter and financial assistance for Wheeler Mission to support food and staffing from November through March.


All rooms will be reserved through March, using both CARES Act funds and additional city funds if necessary. The city has said money in the general fund that hasn’t been spent in 2020 could be used to cover hotel expenses in 2021, although a possible second federal stimulus package might include local government funding.

“This plan will provide safe food and shelter options to our most vulnerable residents through the winter months, no matter what the season has in store,” Mayor Joe Hogsett said in written comments last month when announcing the winter contingency plan. “Our continued collaboration with CHIP and Wheeler Mission has been essential as we adapt to the challenges posed by COVID-19.”

Without the hotels, providers say, the situation would be dire.

“If those hotels were not available, we would be in crisis mode scrambling to try to find a place for people to sleep,” Steve Kerr, executive vice president of advancement at Wheeler Mission, told IBJ.


The hotel rooms also provide greater opportunity to connect individuals or families experiencing homelessness with wraparound services to help them get on a path to improve their housing situation, said Matt Giffin, interim director of the city’s Office of Public Health and Safety. While staying at the hotel, people are encouraged to leave only for work and school, as opposed to some shelters where guests have to leave in the morning.

Last winter, staff at Wheeler Mission’s Shelter for Men had 400 beds and mats available each night, and another 93 at Wheeler’s separate Men’s Residential Center. In case of overflow, a local church had space for another 70 men. Altogether, the sites offered 563 beds.

About 100 beds were available to women and children at Wheeler Mission’s Center for Women and Children, with another 50 spaces reserved at a local church for overflow.

This winter, to allow for social distancing, just 250 beds are available at the men’s shelter, and the residential center is capped at 60. Add 100 rooms available now reserved the Extended Stay America near the airport, and the total number of beds available for men this year is about 150 fewer than in 2019.

Availability for single women and families is actually higher this year. About 100 beds are still available at the Center for Women and Children, and 175 overflow rooms are reserved at the Hampton Inn Indianapolis Downtown Circle Center.

But beds are already filling up fast, even ahead of the coldest winter months.

Giffin told IBJ almost all the Hampton Inn rooms for women and children are already being used. Rooms remain available at the Extended Stay America hotel reserved for men.

The city is paying the Extended Stay $55 a night per room and the Hampton Inn $88 a night per room, a discount from what each hotel would offer to the public, Giffin said. Both hotels told the city the rate is enough for them to at least cover their costs. The city solicited quotes from a wide range of potential hotel partners and selected what it believes is the most cost-effective choice given the needs of each shelter.


Shelters are serving more families than in years past, said Chelsea Haring-Cozzi, executive director at CHIP. “They’re seeing numbers they’ve never seen before.”

In previous years, families might have been able to double up with friends or family during the winter, but the pandemic has made that harder.

Haring-Cozzi said CHIP and Wheeler Mission are monitoring shelter demand and exploring other options in case even more space is needed. And they’re closely watching what happens with the Centers for Disease Control’s eviction moratorium, which is set to expire Dec 31 unless it’s extended.

Haring-Cozzi said that, while eviction doesn’t always lead to homelessness—that path’s not linear—it can contribute.

“What we really don’t want to see is new households becoming homeless,” she said.

The number of people experiencing homelessness in Marion County in early 2020 increased 1% from early 2019, to 1,588, according to the annual point-in-time count, conducted each January to give the community a baseline to the state of homelessness. But the last count was before the pandemic.

Kerr said Wheeler Mission is already seeing numbers this winter that it doesn’t usually see until January or February.

“Absolutely we’re concerned … what may happen when rent relief expires and there may be more people who end up homeless,” he said. “The bottom line is, we’ll find the space. That’s what we do in the winter.”•

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