Stewart outlines an overview on how the city could approach the homeless population issue

Mike Wolanin | The Republic United Way of Bartholomew County President Mark Stewart welcomes guests to the United Way of Bartholomew County annual meeting at The Commons in Columbus, Ind., Tuesday, June 20, 2023.

United Way of Bartholomew County shared the first details regarding its new homelessness initiative during Tuesday night’s Columbus City Council meeting.

The initiative, previewed by Columbus Mayor Mary Ferdon during her first State of the City address, is a collaborative effort between United Way, the city council, and Ferdon’s administration.

United Way of Bartholomew County President Mark Stewart gave a high-level overview of the homelessness situation in Columbus, followed by a detailing of four strategies and supporting activities that he said could help curb its prevalence.

“We’ve always had a homeless population, but over the last few years, there does seem to be a perception anyway, that the number of homeless people within our community is increasing,” Stewart said. “And this does not only impact those people who are homeless, but it also impacts the entire community. It impacts our health system, businesses, public spaces, social service organizations, code enforcement— just to name a few, the list goes on beyond that.”

Stewart said estimates are that about 70 people living in an emergency shelter and “above 30” who are “unsheltered within our community on any given night— tent, automobile (et cetera). That is a very conservative number, but I feel comfortable saying that number with the understanding that it is probably quite a bit bigger than that.”

The proposal sets forth what Stewart called an “aspirational vision,” with a hope that the introduction of the initiative will lead to a situation where more people in the community are escaping homelessness than becoming homeless, known as a state of “functional zero.”

“Embedded in that is that one of our visions would be that when homelessness does occur, that it should be rare, that it should be brief, and it should be non-recurring,” Stewart said. “So that when we tackle it, we get it right the first time.”

The initiative was a discussion item during the meeting, meaning nothing was voted on. The council would have to fund the initiative itself at a later meeting, although many of the members voiced clear enthusiasm for the idea.

When asked what causes homelessness, Stewart pointed towards a myriad of factors which he said are often times compounded for those experiencing homelessness. Some of these reasons are the shortage of affordable housing, mental health issues, substance abuse issues, domestic violence, involvement with the criminal justice system, systemic poverty and more.

“Most people can rebound from having one of these, but when they start to gain on top of each other, that’s when people tend to fall more into that homeless category, perhaps chronic, or it becomes more difficult to come back.”

In United Way’s research, Stewart said 30% of those that are homeless are dealing with substance abuse, 30% are experiencing some sort of mental health issue, another 30% are dealing with family breakdown or an economic setback and 10% are living on a fixed income.

Stewart said as well that 80% of people who are homeless may have some sort of non-diagnosable cognitive impairment.

“If you, on the street, speak to someone who is homeless, you can see it, you can kind of tell very often, right, so it might not be diagnosable. But when you are sleeping outside, when you do have a lack of nutrition, when you don’t know what your future holds, that puts us into crisis mode, puts us into trauma mode.”

Furthermore, the idea that there are many people are “homeless by choice,” Stewart said, is not supported by any evidence.

“The fact of people wanting to be homeless or choosing to be homeless is believed to be a pretty rare occurrence.”

Stewart divided those that are homeless into four categories— “literal homeless,” “near homeless,” “youth homeless” and “episodically homeless.” Literal homeless means what it sounds like— someone who is residing somewhere not intended for human habitation or someone living in an emergency shelter. Near homeless alludes to people who are within 14 days of being homeless, so the person could be on the verge of being evicted or foreclosed upon. Stewart referred to this group as a kind of “pipeline” to becoming homeless.

Although Stewart said it can be hard to gauge the exact number, “hundreds” of kids within BCSC are considered homeless by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). This means they may be living with friends or a family member, but are still in a “tenuous situation.”

Stewart said 70% of instances fall into the episodically homeless category. These are people who do become homeless but eventually get back onto their feet, Stewart said.

“Those are people that generally, kind of get down on their luck. Those are people who maybe they miss a paycheck for one reason or another, (are) living on the margin and something goes wrong,” Stewart said.

The strategies that United Way proposed are “rooted in best practices” that other communities in the United States used to make significant progress in reducing instances of homeless individuals. Stewart mentioned Bakersfield, California, Rockford, Illinois, Milwaukee, Wisconsin and others as examples.

The four strategies outlined in the proposal include:

  • Working together as a community to significantly reduce the number of people who experience homelessness.
  • Implement five modifications to the homeless service delivery system to streamline the process of getting people back onto their feet and into stable housing and stable jobs.
  • Make recommendations on targeted community investments into homeless related services.
  • Robust communication with stakeholders and the public.

Some strategies were accompanied by various supporting strategies.

For the first strategy, the proposal suggests holding two public workshops to receive input from the community on possible solutions. Stewart said that they would want to get input from the homeless population to learn about their experiences and find out what their frustrations are.

Council members Frank Miller, Grace Kestler, and Elaine Hilber organized a public workshop back in November that is similar to what the proposal is suggesting. Council President Miller said he intends to see sessions like it come back now that the initiative is getting its feet off the ground.

“By no means are we stepping back from it, if anything we want to be more invigorated within the process and I’m hoping the rest of the council, we feel the same way that we want to see this move ahead. We want to be participatory in the whole process.”

Hilber said they were able to collect a large amount of input during the November session and United Way’s expertise can help them make sense of it.

“I feel like bringing in the United Way makes a lot of sense, that there are people who have that skill set and who are able to analyze that information and use it towards a solution,” she said.

Modifications referred to in strategy two are the establishment of a coordinated entry system for people experiencing homelessness and a coordinated assessment tool to be used by frontline workers who interact with the homeless.

“What we propose is a system whereby anyone could have (an app on their phone) that could immediately provide that person with resources that they wanted to know— where the homeless shelter was, or what resources were available, or it can actually make a direct referral to someone who can then contact that person to begin the process of getting them back into stable housing,” Stewart said.

Strategy two also calls for the implementation of a “Homeless Response Team,” made up of service providers who can support people searching for stable housing and a “Street Social Worker,” pilot program.

“We’re talking about the complex issues that are involved within homelessness, and the only way to address that is on a person by person basis,” Stewart said.

The street social worker would go out to “find, help, address folks who are homeless and (design) resources that help for that particular person, then provide targeted recommendations on investments designed to reduce homelessness in our community,” according to Stewart.

After Stewart finished, Councilman Tom Dell expressed his support.

“I really appreciate you developing this program, now it’s up to us to fund— I think this is a way we can start, some way we can see some results, this is a way we can make an impact on a population that needs our help,” Tom Dell.

Councilman Josh Burnett supported the initiative and said that in order for it be successful, there should be involvement on all levels on the community, like has been does with the Alliance for Substance Abuse Progress (ASAP).

“Homelessness doesn’t know where the city and county ends,” Burnett said. “… (I) hope you get the opportunity to do this at the county council or commissioner’s meeting, because I’m sure that they would want to be involved.”

Councilwoman Grace Kestler said the approach outlined in the proposal “is absolutely what we need,”and comes at an opportune time as the city is conducting its first housing study in over a decade.

“That’s an entire spectrum of housing and types of housing and everything. The key of homelessness (is that they are) people who are out of the house. It is a pipeline, whatever that first step looks like, so I think that study will inform this study and vice versa.”