The Journal Gazette
Sunday, August 08, 2021 1:00 am

Flattening the slippery slope toward homelessness

John Christensen

I got the call about two months ago.

He said he was having a disagreement with his landlord about his rental payments. His records show he paid too much. The landlord said the opposite and refused to show receipts to prove it.

So my friend simply stopped paying his rent to get his landlord's attention.

In less than a week, he and his family of six were evicted.

Right or wrong, Indiana's laws overwhelmingly favor the landlord. So, with no place to live and a young family in tow, my friend had some tough choices ...

1) Go to court, where his landlord has much more experience and many more resources at his disposal to plead his case – not to mention the luxury of time as the landlord is not desperate to make sure his family is housed while the court process moves slowly and methodically.

2) Find family or friends to move in with temporarily. With an eviction notice on his record, landlords are not required to rent to him no matter how much money he has in the bank. He is essentially shut out of renting where he wants, when he wants.

3) Find a shelter. Fort Wayne is blessed with several ministries catering to people experiencing homelessness, but most do not allow families to stay together. His wife could take the kids, but he would need to find a different solution unless there were available rooms at Vincent Village or Just Neighbors – the only two shelters that accept families.

As my friend navigates the system, his options, his household belongings and his family, he needs to continue getting to work as he can't afford to lose his job. Luckily, it is summertime so he at least doesn't have to worry about getting his kids back and forth to school.

But the trauma associated with his kids being in their home one day and out the next is a completely different challenge that he and his wife will likely be dealing with for years to come.

For now, he and his family are still living with a friend and hoping he can convince his dad to co-sign for a future rental as a way to overcome the eviction notice on his record. But my friend's personal example is typical of how slippery the slope is – even without the element of job loss, health issues, family trauma or mental illness that can also be direct paths to experiencing homelessness.

A simple disagreement/confusion over payment history in what is currently a one-sided conversation as far as Indiana law is concerned can easily cause irreparable damage to an individual – or even to multiple generations when a family is affected. The No. 1 indicator for experiencing homelessness as an adult is experiencing it as a child.

Vincent Village celebrated our 30th year of existence in 2020. We are proud of our legacy and our partnerships with Just Neighbors, The Rescue Mission, The Rescue Mission's Charis House, Habitat for Humanity, the City of Fort Wayne and so many others in our mission to end the generational cycle of homelessness one family at a time.

But we are also saddened that the system doesn't help our collective organizations do more to address the core problems instead of just focusing on treating the symptoms.

None of Vincent Village's clients are asking for handouts. Instead, they want a hand up.

They want to be seen and heard. They want to be given the benefit of the doubt. They simply want the opportunity to be successful.

Fort Wayne can choose to do better. The Rescue Mission's current community education campaign says it all. The lack of a home does not define a person's worth or talent. It is instead a symptom of the real problems of isolation, ignorance and ineffective public policy.

We can change the slippery slope that is affecting families of all income levels with a commitment to more affordable housing, minimizing absentee landlords, more support for services and training, and, most important, a generous heart to see and hear the people around us. 

John Christensen is board chair for Vincent Village. 

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