CHIP — Here’s what Joe Hogsett and Jim Merritt say they’ll do to end homelessness in Indianapolis

Holly V. Hays, Indianapolis Star, September 25, 2019

Mayor Joe Hogsett and his Republican challenger, Sen. Jim Merritt, broke down their strategies for combating homelessness in Marion County Wednesday evening at the Coalition for Homelessness Intervention and Prevention‘s annual Celebration fundraiser.

While topics such as infrastructure, business and economic development and public safety have dominated both campaigns thus far, homelessness continues to be an issue for Marion County. According to the coalition, nearly 1,600 people are experiencing homelessness on any given night in Indianapolis.

More of a Q&A and less of a debate, the candidates had three minutes each to respond to pre-taped video questions from members of the community that were hand-picked by the coalition. The questions covered the state’s high eviction rate, Downtown panhandling, homelessness among veterans and racial disparities.

Here’s what you need to know about Wednesday night’s discussion:

The state of Indy’s homeless

Each year, CHIP and its partner agencies conduct a point-in-time count, which represents a snapshot of the city’s homeless population on a single night in January. 

For the first time in five years, the survey revealed the number of people experiencing homelessness in Indianapolis has dipped below 1,600, to 1,567, a 7% decrease from 2018. The report also showed a nearly 40% drop in chronic homelessness.  

However, there are over- and under-represented populations in that count. Of those nearly 1,600, more than 60% were African American, and only seven individuals self-identified as transgender, something the coalition’s executive director, Chelsea Haring-Cozzi, previously told IndyStar is a sign that the city needs to be doing more to reach its transgender and gender non-conforming homeless populations, which, statistically, should be higher.

For the last two years, CHIP has also conducted a youth and young adult count, focusing specifically on those 25 and younger. On Nov. 7, 2018, the date of that count, outreach teams found 183 youths and young adults were experiencing homelessness. 

While the number of people experiencing homelessness on any given night in Indianapolis is down this year — fewer than 1,600 — numbers from the last five years prove that the city’s 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. 

What they’ve done

Since taking office in 2016, Hogsett has announced several ambitious initiatives to combat chronic homelessness.

In partnership with CHIP, Hogsett’s administration in 2018 announced a five-year plan to end chronic homelessness in Indianapolis by decreasing the amount of time a person or family spends in a shelter to a maximum of 30 days. While it’s too early to measure its impact, the plan included efforts to make available more permanent supportive housing and transitional housing units. 

Earlier this year, Hogsett and the Central Indiana Community Foundation unveiled the Housing to Recovery Fund, which seeks to raise $4 million for services to sustain such housing units. Around the same time, the City-County Council approved $300,000 to pilot a program that would connect Downtown panhandlers with employment opportunities such as graffiti removal and cleanup.

“Homelessness and panhandling are separate challenges,” Hogsett said Wednesday, “that require separate interventions and separate solutions.”

Following the last legislative session, Gov. Eric Holcomb signed into law a Merritt-authored bill allowing certain representatives of homeless youths to have access to their identification information, such as their birth certificate, photo ID or driver’s license. It also allowed the Indiana Department of Workforce Development to allow a young person’s representative to register them for the high school equivalency exam. 

The goal of the legislation is to remove barriers to education and work for young people experiencing homelessness.

Sen. Jim Merritt, Republican challenger for Indianapolis mayor, participates in a moderated discussion on homelessness at the Indianapolis Marriott, Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019. Merritt and Joe Hogsett participated in the discussion during the Coalition for Homelessness Intervention and Prevention’s annual Celebration fundraiser. (Photo: Jenna Watson/For IndyStar)

What they’ll do

Merritt’s biggest policy announcement came with the first question of the night, when the candidates were asked if they would take into account the experiences of the city’s formerly homeless residents in developing policy.

The state senator said he wanted to create a homelessness commission comprised of Diamond Service Award winners (an award given by CHIP to individuals who have overcome homelessness), health care and business leaders and IMPD to collect data and measure the impact of the policies in place and find collaborative solutions. 

Merritt also said he wanted to see a third-party organization, such as conservative think-tank Sagamore Institute, complete an analysis of the fiscal impact homelessness has on the city.

“We’ve come so far,” Merritt said, “but I think it’s a good idea to start looking at our performance and seeing where we might be missing, and where we might be succeeding.”

When asked what their administrations would do to address the state’s eviction rate  — which is higher than the national average — Hogsett pointed to local efforts including investments in creating an Eviction Prevention Fund and a Landlord Loss Mitigation Fund.

“With respect,” Hogsett said, “state law, today, is unfavorable to tenants.”

“That’s exactly right, mayor,” Merritt said. 

Merritt, who has served as a state senator since the 1990s, said that as mayor, he would go to the Statehouse to advocate for legislation to ensure “landlords are playing fair with tenants.”

Hogsett’s campaign has previously criticized Merritt’s voting record on housing, including legislation that restricted the allowance of emotional support animals in rental homes to fines for nuisance violations. 

With regard to racial disparities among the city’s homeless, Hogsett said a holistic approach is needed: criminal justice reform, increasing access to mental health services and substance abuse treatment, and improving outreach and services to prevent an individual’s return to homelessness. 

Merritt deferred to a soon-to-be-released “African-American agenda” for specifics, but said his main role as mayor will be listening, hoping to bridge the gap between Indianapolis’ minority communities.

Merritt also said listening to stakeholders and veteran service organizations will be key when it comes to addressing homelessness among veterans.

“No one should live in a cardboard box,” Merritt said, “especially a veteran.”

Hogsett said the city needs to continue partnering with service organizations in its housing-first approach to effectively eliminate veteran homelessness — something three states and 78 cities have done, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

“Point 1: It can be done,” Hogsett said, “and it must be done.” 

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