He had just spent an evening sleeping under a bridge during a storm that brought 55 mph winds and an inch of rain. The same homeless man also had endured freezing conditions without a roof over his head.
Other homeless families sought refuge from the elements sleeping in tents in the woods.
Stories such as these were shared with volunteers at Eastside Community Center, one of the four checkpoints set up Jan. 30 in Bartholomew County to gather information on the plight of the homeless.
Eastside volunteers also visited with a mother who showed up with her two young children. She assured volunteers that the children were not staying with her when she utilized makeshift sleeping arrangements, often in her car.
But Lenore Hollowell, Eastside’s administrative assistant, said she worries about the truthfulness of such stories, since homeless parents are known to have fears their children will be taken from them.
The statewide event is held each year to help communities determine how to best serve the homeless, said Emily Duncan, spokeswoman for the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority.
In Bartholomew County, volunteers collected information, handed out care bags with food and basic necessities and advised homeless people where they could find help and emergency shelter.
Local and state homeless numbers are still being tallied and will be released by the state this spring, Duncan said.
In Bartholomew County, counts from each of the prior two years identified 52 people as homeless, a number officials acknowledge is fluid and difficult to track.
At another homeless counting station, the United Way of Bartholomew County’s Doug Otto Center, volunteer Patricia Dailey said she had talked to 11 people by 1:30 p.m.
People are deemed to meet the definition of homeless when they are in circumstances such as:
- Living in a place not meant for human habitation, in emergency shelter or in transitional housing.
- Losing their primary nighttime residence, which may include a motel or hotel or a doubled-up situation.
- Not having had a lease or ownership interest in a housing unit in the past 60 or more days.
- Attempting to flee domestic violence, having no other residence, and lacking the resources or support networks to obtain permanent housing.
Even if people who showed up at local checkpoints didn’t meet any of those definitions, volunteers took their information anyway. Alicia McCreary, United Way 2-1-1 director, said that’s because they wanted to gather a clearer picture of the homeless and emergency-housing needs in Columbus.
One 37-year-old man who came to the United Way station said he had no family, no job and no permanent residence.
When Dailey asked the man if he had a place to stay that night, he replied that he probably would, as he slept on friends’ couches most nights.
The man said it had been too cold of late to sleep outside, but he felt lucky that he was able to get food stamps recently. He was hoping to get a job roofing when the weather warmed up.
“They don’t want to stay too long at any one place so they’re not a burden to anyone,” said Dailey, who also volunteers at United Way 2-1-1, a resource and referral agency for residents.
The other two Jan. 30 county checkpoints were the Community Center of Hope and the public library in downtown Columbus.
Counting process changed
In past years, volunteers went out early in the morning to places where they believed homeless people might be sleeping, such as under bridges or in parks.
McCreary, who helped coordinate the count in a six-county region including Bartholomew, explained that the method was changed this year, in part for safety concerns. McCreary said they didn’t want to put volunteers at risk in case the homeless might become startled or frightened when wakened by a stranger.
Organizers also wondered if they were getting accurate results and wanted to try a new approach.
This year, they got the word out at free-meal sites and social service agencies that they were offering a care bag with food and other items.
They thought it might be incentive enough to encourage the homeless to voluntarily come to the checkpoints.
The reusable shopping bags included various food items, a coupon for a free meal at a McDonald’s restaurant, a pharmacy discount card, a listing of the free-meal sites in Columbus and other information on assistance programs.
Hollowell said the meal coupon was well received, and some families asked for more than one bag, even though only one was made available per family.
Eastside ran out of its initial allotment of eight bags by around noon and had to request more be delivered.
When one homeless man came in and Eastside had no bags, Hollowell gathered random items from the community center’s kitchen so he didn’t have to leave empty-handed.
“They were all really grateful,” Hollowell said.
Priscilla Scalf, Eastside’s executive director, said she hopes additional assistance can be gathered next year so that bags can include more items, such as blankets and a larger selection of food.
Challenges to overcome
McCreary said some of the biggest challenges to securing housing for homeless people are if they have mental health issues, have previously been evicted or have criminal records, especially if they are sexual offenders.
“These are hard to overcome,” McCreary said, adding that further study will continue to address these challenges.
Columbus Mayor Kristen Brown has formed an advisory council that is looking at safety, availability and affordability of housing in the city.
Helping lead that council is Elizabeth Kestler, executive director of Love Chapel, a community assistance agency funded by area churches.
Kestler said the city has programs available to assist homeless people willing to follow the rules and accountability measures set up to help them succeed.
Not everyone, however, is willing to abide by certain rules, such as not having drugs, alcohol or weapons in a homeless shelter, Kestler said.
Other community agencies get involved when problems involve drug addiction, mental illness and domestic violence, Kestler said.
“(Homelessness) can be a very complex issue with people who have barriers,” Kestler said, adding that fixing the problem is not as simple as having more money or building a new shelter.
Sue Lamborn, director of independent living at Human Services Inc., who also serves on the mayor’s housing council, agrees that challenges exist.
But she said discussions are under way on how best to address them.
“It takes a community effort and helping people understand the issues and barriers,” Lamborn said.