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Editorial: Homeless plight about more than a place to stay

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IT has been four years since the discovery of the body of a Columbus man in a semi-trailer. He had been using the semi for shelter and had frozen to death.

The man’s plight became a rallying cry for the community to address the issue of the homeless in Columbus and Bartholomew County. A small group of activists went so far as to establish an independent and loosely structured emergency shelter that eventually failed.

They and others urged the development of a more structured shelter arrangement, one that would particularly address the needs of single individuals. While some of these people have questioned the commitment of the community to do something meaningful about the overall problem of the homeless in the area, the issue certainly has not been ignored.

Indeed, Columbus’ Horizon House does offer shelter to homeless families. The Columbus Township trustee has available four sleeping rooms with shared bathrooms and kitchens. Human Services Inc. and Love Chapel can house people temporarily at local hotels.

The services provided those in need of housing go beyond temporary shelter and include programs that stress intensive case management and follow-up assistance.

For years, volunteers and social service agencies have conducted a so-called homeless count in an effort to more clearly define the extent of the problem. The information gathered from these surveys has been useful in confirming that there are homeless people in Bartholomew County, but officials acknowledge that the numbers yielded likely understate the extent of the problem.

The last two surveys marked a departure from past practices when volunteers took a proactive approach in seeking homeless people, even going out late at night or in the early morning hours to check for people living in situations such as in a park or under a bridge. That practice was dropped because of security concerns and replaced with a method whereby “count” stations at various sites throughout the county were established.

Organizers developed extensive public information campaigns to alert qualified people of the count and offered care bags containing food and other items as an enticement to participate in the program. The offer yielded a noticeable response as volunteers at some of the sites reported they had depleted their allotment of care bags.

Even with that kind of response, organizers note that the count of homeless people to be released later this spring likely will understate the true situation. Nevertheless, the important question to be answered is how to use the information gathered.

This much has already been determined. The problem of homelessness is complex, with no one-size-fits-all solution.

There are segments in local society that fall outside the services offered those needing shelter. While emergency shelter is available in family situations, area agencies draw the line at individuals such as sex offenders, convicted arsonists, violent offenders and alcoholics or addicts who are still actively using.

The man who froze to death in the semi-trailer four years ago had a long history of severe alcoholism and had refused numerous attempts by his family and area agencies to get him help.

While there is no question that homelessness is a problem in this community, it is one that involves a number of parallel issues, all of which defy simple solutions.

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