Five Year Fix: Combating Homelessness

Dec 17, 2015

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Housing and Urban Development dollars must be used to improve the quality of life for low- to moderate-income residents. In Fort Wayne’s HUD Action Plan, the city aims to decrease and prevent homelessness by providing more affordable housing and increasing educational and employment opportunities.

However, the City also acknowledges that there’s no simple solution to combating homelessness.

Fort Wayne’s Director of Neighborhood and Housing Services Heather Presley-Cowen says self-sufficiency is key to getting both situationally and chronically homeless individuals back on their feet.

“If we want to eradicate homelessness, we know that a big role is preventing it in the first place,” she says. “Ultimately, the goal is to help everyone on that spectrum, from homeless to self-sufficiency, to reach a higher level of self-sufficiency.”

In November, the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development -- the group responsible for distributing HUD dollars -- released their 2015 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress.

According to HUD, nearly 600 homeless individuals in Indiana found homes in the last five years, and family homelessness declined by 30 percent.

HUD’s Midwest Regional Administrator Antonio Riley says Indiana is well ahead of the national curve when it comes to combating homelessness.

“The drops that we’re seeing in Indiana is higher than the national average drop decline of some 26 percent,” he says. “Because in two of our COC’s in Indiana, we’ve had a drop of unsheltered homeless of 58 percent in one and in another 68 percent.”

However, there is some skepticism over these statistics.

Richard Cummins is the executive vice president of The Rescue Mission in Fort Wayne, and he says the metrics used by the Department of Housing and Urban Development are unreliable.

“They do that on one day in the wintertime to get just a snapshot. But I will tell you this, last year we served 1,275 of those 400 men, women and children.” Cummins says. “So we know that the number is much larger than the number HUD is probably calculating.”

Indeed, HUD’s numbers were generated on a single evening in January 2015. Cummins says the Rescue Mission has seen an increased need for assistance, and they’re having a hard time keeping up with the demand.

“We have seen a rise here at the Mission,” he says. “In fact, we are pretty much out of bed space at this point, and we’re utilizing cots as it gets colder. So we turn our chapel every night into a makeshift dormitory, and tonight we’ll have at least 40 men sleeping on cots because the other beds in the shelter are full.”

Vice-chairperson of the Fort Wayne Housing Authority Andy Downs says it’s a difficult issue for the City to not only solve, but also simply acknowledge.

“When you talk about Fort Wayne, rarely do you hear people say they don’t have an affordable place to live because we are such an affordable community,” says Downs. “There is no one way to solve this problem, and that’s one thing that Fort Wayne recognizes and a number of other places do.”

Downs mentions that many of those in need are on the verge of being homeless, or are situationally homeless due to a change in personal circumstances. He says these individuals are in need of stabilization in their housing and living situations so that the City can help before things gets more dire.

Self-sufficiency, on the other hand, is a more significant issue, and despite a number of programs seeking to tackle the problem, it remains very broad.

“If you talk to everyone who was involved in those programs, we will tell you there aren’t enough resources to address the issues. That’s in part because the issues are quite different,” he says.

“For some people, they don’t know the importance of cleaning and maintaining property. For other people, it is literally a problem to be able to budget and understand how to use money.”

Presley-Cowen knows it’s a vast issue with no immediate answer or solution, but she says the City plans to constantly discuss and monitor homelessness in Fort Wayne, and adapt accordingly.

“We continue to have those conversations and our goals reflect the focus on these broad issues of decreasing homelessness, preventing homelessness, promoting self-sufficiency with knowing that every year in that annual plan, the strategy might be slightly different,” Presley-Cowen says.

Cummins at The Rescue Mission says he can think of a few things the community can do to help those in need.

These needs range from adding a resource center for the chronically homeless, creating an emergency shelter for women and children and another shelter for men.

Until those issues are addressed, he says the Rescue Mission will continue its Real Change program, with the hopes of getting its residents not only basic needs, but also what it takes to be productive in the community.

“We need to be change agents that can help people deal with the root causes of homelessness,” says Cummins. “We think that sheltering, giving clothing and food are not enough. That’s just basic needs. But if you don’t deal with underlying issues, you will have a revolving door.”

The City hasn’t laid out specific quantitative goals to combat homelessness, but they did state their desire provide assistance in rental and employment opportunities, as well as connecting homeless individuals to jobs and education.