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The Journal Gazette

  • Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette A homeless camp is hidden among the honeysuckle near the St. Marys River east of the Wells Street Bridge last month.

Sunday, June 12, 2016 6:57 am

Leaders offer their thoughts on helping our city's homeless

Downtown Fort Wayne’s renaissance creates a strong impetus to address homelessness. Riverside encampments mostly overlooked by motorists traveling to and from the central city pose a challenge as the city works to make the area north of Superior Street inviting to developers, residents and visitors.

Solutions to that challenge, however, best come from those who work with the homeless community day in and day out. Asked to identify the one thing that could make a difference, their thoughts are a reminder that homelessness isn’t unique to one segment of the population and there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

Annual efforts to count the number of homeless people in Fort Wayne have found about 500 people living on the streets, but city officials estimate the number is closer to 3,000. Some find temporary shelter with friends or family or in motels. Community shelters offer about 500 beds, more than half of them operated by the Rescue Mission. Officials there are looking to relocate. The men’s emergency shelter, at 301 W. Superior, is landlocked and over capacity. The Rev. Donovan Coley, CEO and senior pastor of the Rescue Mission, said months of conversations on site selection, project scope and financial impact will proceed, with board approval, to “deeper engagement with our community in casting the vision for a capital campaign.”

“The Rescue Mission, along with others, will be speaking very strongly to our community, especially for those who cannot speak for themselves,” Coley said. “Homelessness and poverty will not go away, but our community has the ability to drastically reduce the numbers of people who are facing poverty, homelessness, mental illness and trauma if we communicate better, collaborate more widely.”

The city has been criticized for its approach toward residents living on the streets. A pending lawsuit challenges raids on encampments and destruction of personal property. City officials argue they provide advance notice and time for belongings gathered to be recovered, but that they have an obligation to discard and destroy materials that present a risk to public health and safety.

Fort Wayne isn’t alone in facing problems created by homelessness.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has moved from supporting transitional housing to a “housing-first” approach (see sidebar), emphasizing basic shelter. The debate has created some divisions among those who serve the homeless.

Individuals on the streets are just one piece of the challenge. The Fort Wayne Area Planning Council on Homelessness is one of 14 regional councils focused on ending homelessness in Indiana. Its members include representatives of community shelters, non-profit agencies, local government, the Fort Wayne Housing Authority, Park Center – all working to find a solution.

To that end, some proposals:

The Rev. Donovan A. Coley Sr., CEO/senior pastor, Fort Wayne Rescue Mission

The issue of homelessness is very complex, but is often approached simplistically by the naïve, misguided and often too emotional guilt-ridden community member. Many serve this population with good intentions, but with misguided approaches that often cause more harm than good. The Rescue Mission does not condemn such persons, but would encourage some to assess what they do in the light of “long- term” impact.

What is needed is a comprehensive and concerted approach to address the devastating impact of mental illness on our community. To compound their dilemma, the majority of people who come to The Rescue Mission for services have been plagued by early childhood trauma and addictions which lead to delinquency for some, resulting in homelessness for too many.

The Rescue Mission continues to shape its programs and services to address the root causes and not just the fruits of homelessness. With that in mind, we are continuing to deepen and widen our strategic partnership base to include mental health, medical care, trauma-informed care along with community advocates who are committed to doing “no harm.”

An expanded facility is being planned to address the growing need for emergency shelter for men, increased emergency shelter for women, and a one-stop shop community resource center staffed by local experts and partners who will bring services to the homeless and near-homeless.

As The Rescue Mission, we are committed to economic and regional development, and believe strongly that our collective message is weak if proper human development is left out of the conversation.

Denise Andorfer, executive director, Vincent Village

Last year 52 families stayed at Vincent House Transitional Shelter, and another 125 were turned away due to lack of space. Most are hardworking single moms who have been victims of domestic violence, suffer mental illness, a physical disability, health crisis or suffered childhood trauma such as physical or sexual abuse. The stereotype of the old man in the park is just one segment of the population who finds themselves homeless. Families who are homeless with no transportation, no family support, limited education or job experience have an uphill climb in a housing market that is not affordable and wages meant for teenagers.

The good news … everyone can help the situation today by either being a thinker or a doer. If you’re a thinker, ask yourself: This person was born into violence, crime and trauma and grew up with so many barriers that many working and middle class Americans did not face. Most important, they were not in a loving and nurturing home and were told they are dumb and worthless. Stop judging the poor. Most are hardworking and don’t deserve to be labeled as lazy or wanting to live off the government. To believe we were all given the same opportunity to succeed is not accurate. If you’re a “doer,” you can act today to help. When you’re at Wal-Mart or Meijer, buy a soap, shampoo, diapers or wipes for a shelter family. Buy an extra blanket or comforter. Volunteer at a local shelter to mentor or teach a skill. Think of your life without your support system, without an education, a vehicle bought for you, a job at your family company, a work ethic modeled for you. Think about the uphill climb and put your arm out to pull someone up. Everyone has had important individuals in their life; for many of us our parents, but also friends, teachers, mentors, bosses who have extended their arm to us. Stop complaining about the state of our community and be part of the solution.

Barbara Cox, co-founder of Shepherd’s House

In 1998 we had a dream to serve the homeless population – those struggling with alcoholism and chemical dependency. We literally opened the doors in faith – having no clue what these people would need – to instill hope and rebuild their lives.

After nearly 20 years running Shepherd’s House, we are still concerned about the growing homeless population. It isn’t just a couple of drunks living in the woods because they don’t want to work. We have mentally ill as well as women and children who just can’t make it financially. Most of us are only one paycheck away from destitution – then living in a car or on the streets. We’re not talking about a dog. They are people living on the streets, subjected to the bitter temperatures and vulnerable to theft and predators.

They have no mailbox, making it difficult to receive their disability check or food stamps. They can’t physically carry all of their possessions, so many times their belongings are stolen. They aren’t able to carry regular-size toiletries, so we try to keep them supplied with the hotel sizes.

I wonder if it’s possible to construct “tiny homes” with no plumbing, but a kitchen, pantry, sink, sofa, closet, bed and communal bathroom facilities.

The homeless would be able to secure their clothing, bedding and possessions. They would be safe with a roof over their head.

If this dream becomes a reality, the tiny homes will need to be inspected each week, and our veterans will step up to the plate to do the inspections at no cost. We can put together dinners for them. Together, we can start at ground zero and put these lives back together – giving them hope.

Rusty York, director of public safety, City of Fort Wayne

Public safety and public health are critical to the success of cities. In Fort Wayne, public safety and public health are top priorities to keep residents, businesses and visitors invested in our community and all we stand for.

The Fort Wayne Police Department recognizes homelessness is a community challenge, not just a city government challenge. It’s a challenge being experienced all across the country.

Our officers don’t actively seek to make life difficult for homeless individuals. Our response is complaint- driven, and it is our goal to ensure that conditions surrounding homeless encampments do not compromise public health or safety. Open communication with public health agencies, community partnerships and homeless advocacy groups has improved the protocol and policies we have in place.

An area we’d like to see get more attention is the underlying reasons for why and how someone becomes homeless. I believe that confronting those issues through programs that address mental illness, addictions, alcoholism and other trauma could have a tremendous impact moving forward.

I’ve been encouraged by the partnerships that have been established in our community that seek to help people get out of homelessness and into shelter or housing, while supporting efforts to keep people stably housed to prevent homelessness.

It’s important for the community to know that we’re doing more now than ever before to address this challenge. Community partners and city government work hard each day to find long-term solutions to a situation that doesn’t have easy answers.

Sally Segerson, founder and president of Street Reach for the Homeless

Years pass and life changes. With the passing of those years, the “face” of homelessness changes likewise. We must not lose sight of our common humanity as we view it. Two short syllables “home – less” often serve as nothing more than a stereotyped label and causes us forget the person it comes to describe. A person with hopes, with dreams, with fears and frustrations, but most importantly, a person of value, a person of worth.

From the deinstitutionalizing of many of our nation’s mentally ill during the early ’60s to the continuing changes and funding for treatment of chronic addictions, many who once received services now find them intrinsically complex or simply absent. The turn of the economy, loss of employment and benefits, all contribute to the changes in this past decade. Veterans, physically handicapped, working “poor”, the list goes on and now brings the “face” of the common man to the streets, to abandoned buildings and homes, to emergency rooms and even the criminal justice system in our community.

The emergence of “Housing First” offers the greatest opportunity for so many as it works to connect individuals and families to permanent housing without preconditions or barriers to entry. Supportive services are offered to maximize housing stability and prevent a return to homelessness.

Housing First will take vision, will take funding and will take a community to say it cares! Yet, it must be more than just conversation. It must lead to action for some of Fort Wayne’s most marginalized citizens. It is action that simply cannot be delayed.