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Jennings Sunday: More families without homes

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A possible drop in federal funding could blunt efforts to serve the homeless in and around Jennings County, leaders of two agencies say.

The Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority conducted its annual Jennings County point-in-time survey of homeless individuals Jan. 30 at the Good Samaritan Food Pantry. That information will be used to determine appropriate funding levels to address the problem in each county.

However, the lack of a homeless shelter in Jennings County, coupled with problems in assessing the county’s homeless problem, could result in less assistance, Jennings County United Way Executive Director Cheri Massey said.

The Jennings County Emergency Shelter closed at the end of November because of a lack of community support and funding and in part from disagreements about its operation.

The North Vernon facility did not accept anyone who had been convicted of a felony, largely because of the shelter’s proximity to St. Mary’s School.

Massey said another problem is that most homeless in the county are difficult to reach because they live out of their vehicles.

“These people are always under-counted here,” she said. “They are resistant if you approach them, because they are afraid you might use the information they give you against them.”

Lori Dimick, deputy director of community services for the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority, said she expects the homeless problem to get worse nationwide because the federal $1.5 billion Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program, which began in 2009, ended at the end of last September.

The regional numbers indicate a growing problem of homelessness.

“The number of homeless families in Region 11 nearly doubled from 2011 to 2012,” Dimick said.

Besides Jennings, Region 11 includes Johnson, Shelby, Decatur, Brown, Bartholomew and Jackson counties.

In previous years, the community development authority combined homeless surveys taken in each county into a regional report. While a county-by-county report will be made public for the first time this year, program coordinator Angie Hass said results for Jennings County homeless county won’t be released until late spring or early summer.

The stereotype of a homeless person as a middle-aged alcoholic male living in a skid row district or wandering as a hobo is far from the reality of today, Massey said.

Today, in the North Vernon area, you’ll find many more wives and girlfriends fleeing from abusive homes, she added.

One of the fastest-growing groups of local homeless is former two-income families who suddenly and unexpectedly lost a significant amount of income through little or no fault of their own, Massey said.

“They were making it, but then one or both spouse’s income fell through; and suddenly, they weren’t making it,” she said. “The middle class is shrinking. It’s scary.”

While homelessness is a sizable crisis in itself, Massey said it often snowballs into other social problems for adults that include higher divorce rates and spousal abuse.

Children also can be battered.

But even without the violence, homeless kids often go hungry or feel exhausted moving from one temporary place to another, according to Massey. As a result, they are unable to perform adequately in class.

“Poverty is chaos,” she said. “And it’s such a vicious cycle.”

While substance abuse is a factor in some cases, Massey said many homeless are former military personnel suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

The Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority reported they surveyed 690 homeless veterans residing in the seven-county region in 2011. That number dropped to 652 last year.

Since today’s homeless in Jennings County don’t match stereotypes of the past, Massey said their situation is often unknown to others.

“If you don’t encounter folks like that on a regular basis, you may not know,” she said.

She added that many without a permanent residence are too embarrassed to admit it to others for fear of being critically judged.

Homeless surveys are more successful in larger communities with shelters and other resources, Massey said. Those resources make pinpointing those without a permanent residence easier for government officials.

Massey added that many resources available now are all at capacity.

“House of Hope can’t accept any more. There’s a couple that a church is trying to keep in a hotel. I sent a family with kids (Feb. 1) with a shelter list to a Columbus shelter, but I don’t know if they’ll be helped there. They had tried to find a low-income apartment to rent in North Vernon, but nothing was available,” she said.

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