An annual one-day count of the homeless in Bartholomew County turned up substantially more people than in recent years, although local officials were wary of year-over-year comparisons.
Twice as many homeless people were discovered in multiple areas in and around Columbus than had been found in earlier years, Columbus Township Trustee Ben Jackson said.
All Bartholomew County individuals in last week’s annual Point in Time homeless count were either individuals or unmarried couples, Jackson said. No homeless children were located, he said.
The Point in Time survey is a statewide effort that provides a snapshot of the number of homeless people living in each of Indiana’s 92 counties.
Because of changes in the way the survey was approached, this year’s increase is likely the result of different counting methods than an indication of a growing homeless population, Jackson said.
That included changing the order that sites were visited from previous years, as well as the time of the visits, the trustee said.
“We encountered a lot more chronically homeless, but I think they were always there,” Jackson said.
“They just weren’t there at the exact time we were in earlier years.”
The community’s willingness to develop different strategies for the homeless, as well as adapt to fact-based evidence, is a key reason why Columbus has become an important model for the rest of the state, according to Jacob Sipe, executive director of the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority.
Sipe was among several visiting dignitaries and potential funders who participated in the count that took place in areas where homeless are known to sleep and spend time, such as in parks or under bridges.
Indiana Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch originally was scheduled to be one of the visiting state officials but could not attend because of illness. Crouch’s chief-of-staff, Tracy Barnes, visited Columbus in her place.
In exchange for participating in the count, homeless individuals were provided free survival-kit care packages.
Efforts are made to ensure each participating homeless person knows about local facilities such as the Brighter Days emergency shelter on South Mapleton Street, as well as free hot-meal sites in the community, Jackson said.
Sipe said he was highly impressed with the many local groups that coordinate their efforts to jointly address homelessness, mental illness and substance abuse.
Although the Point in Time count has been criticized in some areas for not providing accurate year-round figures, that’s not the case for the Columbus area, Sipe said.
“When you have that many people with that much coordination, you can be sure the data is going to be as accurate this summer as it is right now,” said Sipe, who identified some participating groups as nonprofits, law enforcement, volunteers and public officials.
Jackson says that’s exactly what he and others — including Michele Lee, director of homeless prevention at Human Services, Inc. — wanted to impress upon Sipe and other visiting dignitaries and potential donors.
“We know we’ll never be able to completely eliminate homelessness,” Jackson said. “But if different organizations come together for a common goal and share responsibilities, we can be quite effective in reducing the problem on many levels.”
In past years, the Point in Time homeless count had mainly been used to determine funding levels for regions of the state. Columbus is located in Region 11, which includes Bartholomew, Brown, Decatur, Jackson, Jennings, Johnson and Shelby counties.
But this year’s count is especially important because it will help state lawmakers and agencies understand the true causes of homelessness, Sipe said. It provides valuable data as new strategies are developed to address homelessness, mental illness and substance abuse, he said.
Sipe said he was especially impressed with two facilities: Horizon House, a four-bedroom home that serves as an emergency family shelter at 724 Chestnut St., and the Recovery Engagement Center, a community center and resource location for people seeking recovery at 1951 McKinley Ave.
Since it opened last May, the Recovery Engagement Center has been effective because it is low barrier, which means there are few restrictions on who is allowed to spend their days there, Jackson said.
While mental health and addiction staff at the center are careful not to pressure people dealing with addictions into sobriety, there have been a growing number of clients who decide on their own to seek help, Jackson said.
“It’s a soft-sell,” Jackson said. “But it does work.”