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The Journal Gazette

  • File A vacant building at 400 E. Washington Blvd. is the site of a proposed new homeless shelter.  

Sunday, October 16, 2016 10:00 pm

Let's energize homeless as we revitalize downtown

Melissa Gibson

Twelve years ago, at just 19, I set foot into Charis House for the first time. I’ll never forget that day. After my interview, I had decided that there was no way I’d take the job. I had no idea about the relationships between homelessness, mental illness and substance abuse. There wasn’t enough money in the world to make me work with a bunch of addicted and mentally unstable women. But as I walked toward the exit, a beautiful, brown-eyed girl of about 5 years old asked me why I was leaving. She wanted me to stay and play. She made me promise to come back.

Over the next decade, I devoted my life to serving the homeless. I learned their names. Their stories. Hugged them. Laughed with them. Celebrated with them. Cried with them. Watched them struggle to not just survive, but grow. And just as I watched their struggles, we struggled as an organization to meet their evolving needs. I left the Rescue Mission on the cusp of its hotly contested proposal to relocate its men’s facility to the east side of downtown.

Lately, the loudest argument against the proposed move is that a "mega shelter" doesn’t fit with a vibrant, inviting and economically prosperous downtown. Let’s be clear: Economic development and human development are not mutually exclusive.

According to the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, people living without basic resources or access to social services, and those living with mental illness, addiction and trauma, can’t contribute to the economic growth of a community as their more stable counterparts do. Lopsided growth in human development versus economic development can result in lessened economic growth.

Some say that they agree with the above statements, they just don’t want the shelter downtown. They use Charis House’s 2010 move to the Wells Street Corridor as an example of how awful shelters are for businesses and neighboring residents. They attribute property value decreases from 2008 to 2010 to Charis House. They don’t mention that, at the same moment, the housing bubble burst and the Great Recession hit. They infer that Charis House’s residents loiter, defamce property and are a great source of crime. They don’t mention the astounding number of drug busts in the Bloomingdale neighborhood. That area has become rife with criminal activity all on its own. The reality is that the Wells Street Corridor has grown significantly. Outdoor sports operations, thriving restaurants, more activities on the bridge than ever before and Headwaters Junction have all come into play in recent years.

Opponents of the mission’s proposal say a better way to help businesses absorb the economic impact is to spread smaller shelters all over the city. But think about economy of scale. To cover the proposed increase in beds (not including existing beds) would require 14 smaller shelters. It would be grotesquely inefficient and expensive, making for terrible stewardship of donations from more than 35,000 mission supporters. When run effectively, large-scale shelters can actually stimulate economic growth and increase property values (check out Project H.O.M.E.). Based on estimates by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, by adding 198 beds and centralizing services, the mission will save taxpayers $7.9 million a year by staving off incarceration, welfare programs, emergency room visits and other expenses for those individuals.

The perception among critics is that the mission’s presence promotes homeless encampments, panhandling and public health issues downtown. But the mission has very little involvement with the unsheltered homeless in our city. And the reality is that the unsheltered have the most propensity to cause the issues cited. To deal with those problems, we need to address another issue: street outreach. These teams track down the homeless in abandoned buildings, encampments and under bridges. They provide them with with food, clothing, bedding and more. They’ll even do their laundry and provide transportation. In doing so, they enable the homeless to continue living on the street with no desire for the "Real Change, Not Spare Change" offered at The Rescue Mission.

The homeless are not downtown because the mission is, the mission is downtown because the homeless are. A full 92 percent of homeless individuals identify as coming from central city or urban fringe areas. These people were a part of the fabric of our community before they became homeless. Pushing them out is not the answer to sustainable economic growth in downtown Fort Wayne. Revitalizing the community requires revitalizing its individual parts (people) so that economic growth can continue across all sectors.