CHIP — “Homelessness is at a 5-year low in Indy. Here’s why advocates say that’s ‘unacceptable.’”

Holly V. Hayes, Indianapolis Star, May 23 2019
As cars speed by on Illinois St., Roberto Green, a homeless man, waits for handouts in downtown Indianapolis, Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018. He says he is waiting for disability. 

The results of an analysis announced Thursday by the Coalition for Homelessness Intervention and Prevention show Indianapolis’ homeless population has reached a five-year low. 

The analysis was done based on an annual assessment known as a point-in-time count, which takes place in cities across the country during the last 10 days in January and serves as a census of a city’s homeless population, sheltered and unsheltered. Indianapolis’ count was conducted Jan. 30.

For the first time in five years, the number of homeless individuals counted in Indianapolis has dipped below 1,600, to 1,567, a 7% decrease from 2018’s count. The report also indicates a drop in the number of families experiencing homelessness and a nearly 40% drop in chronic homelessness.  

But to city officials and homeless advocates, the data also shows there’s still work to be done.  

“While this is trending in the right direction,” said Chelsea Haring-Cozzi, the coalition’s executive director, “this number is still unacceptable.” 

Regina Gilbert, a homeless woman in downtown Indianapolis, holds a sign asking for some help, Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018
What is a point-in-time count? 

Such counts are conducted as part of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Continuum of Care. While the number isn’t intended to represent the city’s homeless on an average night, it gives local and federal authorities a snapshot they can use to allocate funding, develop programming and tailor outreach efforts. 

Counts from the previous five years help illustrate that Indianapolis’ homeless population is constantly in flux. At the beginning of 2018, there were 1,682 homeless individuals living in the city, compared to 1,783 in 2017; 1,619 in 2016; 1,666 in 2015 and 1,897 in 2014.

For the last two years, the city has also conducted a youth and young adult count, focusing specifically on those 25 and younger that are experiencing homelessness. The youth count is not federally mandated, but it is an emerging best practice. 

On Nov. 7, 2018, the date of that count, outreach teams found 183 youths and young adults were experiencing homelessness. The majority were African American, and many cited unemployment and mental health issues as contributing factors to their homelessness, mirroring some of the larger themes represented in the overall point-in-time count. 

A homeless man and his dog hang out on a corner in downtown Indianapolis, Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018

What does 2019’s count tell us? 

Despite a drop in the city’s overall homeless population, several key themes emerge when comparing data from 2018 and 2019, including an overrepresentation of African Americans.

African Americans represented 61% of the total count, according to the report, but only 27% of Marion County’s overall population.

Men are also overrepresented among Indianapolis’ homeless population. Nearly 67% of those counted identified as men, 33% were women and seven individuals identified as transgender.

Here are some other key takeaways from this year’s census: 

  • For those in families, the number of households decreased, but the number of people in families increased, indicating a growth in homeless families’ sizes. Eleven women reported being pregnant.
  • Seventeen percent of those counted are veterans.
  • The largest contributing factors cited were mental illness, chronic health conditions and physical disabilities.
  • Chronic homelessness, defined as one disabling condition and one full year of homelessness or four periods of homelessness equaling 12 months over the course of three years and a disabling condition, dropped by 39%. 

This year’s count was conducted in the midst of a polar vortex when wind chill dipped down to minus-19 degrees. Haring-Cozzi acknowledged weather likely affected the number of people counted as sheltered versus those counted as unsheltered. Sixty-six percent of those counted were in emergency shelters.  

Glenn Hudgins, a homeless man, does his laundry on Monument Circle, in downtown Indianapolis, Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018. He says he has been homeless for about 4 years. “Everyone knows me, in a good way,” he says about keeping himself clean, doing work when offered, and staying away from drink and drugs. 

Due to concerns of physical safety and lack of accommodations at shelters, Haring-Cozzi said the number of people who voluntarily identified themselves as transgender likely also underrepresents the transgender and gender non-conforming homeless populations.

Joey Smallman, left, and Alice Meow busk on a street corner in Indianapolis on Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018. The couple busks while living on the streets to purchase musical equipment

“I think there’s still a fear to come out in those ways and to find safe places to come into,” Haring-Cozzi said, “so we’re not capturing that.” 

What’s next? 

Nearly halfway through the first calendar year of the city’s five-year plan to end chronic homelessness, Haring-Cozzi said the point-in-time count reaffirms the need for service providers to diversify their staffs to more closely match the populations they work with.

“Without having perspectives at the table to better understand these issues, we’re missing that,” she said. “I think the first step is that conscious effort to call it out and recognize but then to take action.”

It’s also important to examine the systemic factors affecting the city’s African American population and understand how they may influence homelessness. African Americans, for instance, are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system and in Marion County eviction statistics.

“So, we have to better understand how does that impact our homeless system so that interventions can be maybe tailored differently before someone experiences homelessness,” she said.

For its part, Mayor Joe Hogsett and City-County Council President Vop Osili said, the city will remain committed to finding solutions. In February, the council approved $300,000 to fund an initiative that employs Downtown panhandlers to clean sidewalksand cover graffiti.

In January, Hogsett and the Central Indiana Community Foundation unveiled the Housing to Recovery Fund, which seeks to raise $4 million for services to sustain hundreds of supportive housing units and help the city’s homeless on their path to permanent housing.

That work, the mayor said, must continue.

“Now is not the time to stop. Now is not the time to celebrate,” Hogsett said at the Thursday press conference. “Instead, we should use the decrease of our city’s homeless point-in-time count as a reason to increase our momentum.”

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