Battling homelessness relies on dedication, collaboration

By Lynn Sygiel, editor, Charitable Advisors

The thought process in itself is pretty elementary. Identify a problem, and then get smart heads get together to find a solution. On paper, it sounds good, but real life can be another story.

The problem of homelessness is an issue that has vexed politicians and social service agencies for a long time. It’s complicated because it is so multifaceted.

In previous nonprofit positions at the Damien Center in Indianapolis and the Orange County AIDS Services Foundation in California, Alan Witchey has worked with marginalized populations and saw how their plights can spiral into homelessness. Since 2015, he has been the executive director of the Indianapolis-based Coalition For Homelessness Intervention & Prevention (CHIP), and housing has become his primary job focus.

One thing he has come to believe is that solving the problem of homelessness has to be a group effort.

“Coming to CHIP was a great opportunity to think about how to solve homelessness from a collective perspective. An agency cannot solve a community problem alone. It can help people, and do good work, but it takes people working together, especially on a large issue like homelessness. One of the things, I think, has been very exciting is that I have really seen evolution and change in philosophy in Indianapolis among the homeless providers,” said Witchey, a 1990 graduate of Indiana University.

And what are some of the changes?

One is agreement to use a coordinated entry system. Together with providers, CHIP is launching a common housing application and vulnerability assessment.

According to Mike Chapuran, executive director of Family Promise, a nonprofit family shelter on the city’s Eastside, local shelters have verbally agreed to the updated system. Before now, a family seeking shelter would have to call each shelter to find one with a vacancy. Now, those seeking housing will complete an application, and CHIP will manage the list and prioritize the need.

And while it won’t immediately solve the capacity problem in the city for homeless families and individuals, it will prioritize housing, and add data to better understand the extent of the problem.  “That’s an enormous change for our community,” said Witchey.

CHIP realizes that the actual homeless numbers aren’t always easy to quantify. Every January, volunteers go to shelters, transitional housing and encampments to gain an annual Point-in-Time (PIT) count. This year’s results found the amount of people homeless in the city increased by 10 percent – giving Indianapolis the highest homeless count since 2014. Currently, 1,787 people are without homes, according to CHIP.

“We don’t ever think that we get to everybody, but we think we’re pretty good at counting, getting to a lot of people, not everybody,” Witchey said.

For example, the Hispanic homeless population is well hidden in Indianapolis and across the state. And Witchey believes there are other populations that are missed from the count.  The LGBTQ population, as well as some other youth populations, frequently double up or sleep on somebody’s couch and would be missed.

In July, CHIP teamed up with Outreach, which has been working with homeless youth for over 20 years, and the Indiana University Public Policy Institute (PPI) to conduct the first Youth Count Indy of ages 18 to 24. The data will help build a case for federal funding, expand advocacy efforts and educate the public. Outreach, a faith-based nonprofit, opened a new program facility on the city’s Eastside in April and hopes to serve more than 400 to 425 annually.

CHIP is not a direct service provider, but is helping to lead the way and change systems.

“I think we’re going in the right direction, and we still have a ways to go. There are some communities that are way ahead of us, and we haven’t been acting this way for a long time.

“You cannot expect a homeless service provider to be thinking systemically because they are dealing with the immediate crisis. People are walking in the door homeless every day, and they’re trying solve having no place to live,” said Witchey.

Chapuran agrees that his staff is constantly responding to a family’s crisis. When a mom needs a ride to work, it’s difficult say “no” because a collaborative meeting takes precedence. But he also understands it is important work for changes to happen.

Collaborative work can be challenging. While an agency receiving HUD funding has a requirement to participate in developing collaborative solutions, many of Indianapolis’ providers are privately funded. Witchey believes it’s CHIP’s job to build a compelling case to work together.

One of those changes has been the work of street workers. In August, CHIP hired Tom Tuttle, a social worker with 10 years experience, to manage the Street Reach Indy program. While a similar program to give money to organizations rather than panhandlers started in 2014, this one has a full-time position dedicated to outreach Downtown and work with businesses.

There was a time when every agency did its own street operation, sometimes reaching the same person in the same day. But that has changed in the past five years. Now, Professional Blended Street Outreach (PBSO) combines 22 different agencies and has standards for the way services are provided.

These teams provide first-response services to the city’s homeless and are made up of organizations that include local law-enforcement, nonprofits, health providers and mental health entities. Horizon House does the on-the-ground coordination.

CHIP has begun hosting quarterly provider meetings and creating common outcomes.  At these sessions, providers talk about how individual programs and agencies are doing based on those agreed-upon metrics.

Chapuran believes that Witchey is bringing providers the best practices from HUD and randomized studies that help support all of their work. Statistics show that 93 percent of the homeless who are rehoused remain housed one year later, and 94 percent of those who receive homeless prevention do not fall into homelessness over the coming year.

And while providers have made changes, Indianapolis’ housing resources have lagged. In his annual State of the City address, Mayor Hogsett committed to provide 400 additional spots for homeless residents.

According to CHIP, last year the city had 1,059 shelter beds, and 26 beds in two shelters dedicated to youth. While the city’s homeless population is smaller than other large cities, a study concluded that faith-based groups provide 77 percent of beds for Indianapolis’ homeless. So the city’s involvement is key.

Hogsett directive was simple. “We need this challenge as a community to push ourselves. And this community can rise to help solve it,” he said.

As part of the solution, CHIP, together with United Way of Central Indiana and Eskenzi Health, created and funded a new position called the Senior Strategy Director for Homelessness. Since August, Rodney Stockment has been on the job. He is responsible for helping to align the city’s efforts around homelessness and to address the challenge of finding the 400 additional beds.

“He really is mapping it out and going through all the different affordable housing projects and programs. He is finding out where there are empty units, where there are upcoming units and identifying those, so we can actually place people in them. And then, we’re working with different funders to help fund either temporary rental subsides or ongoing subsides to help people as they move into those units. So it really is a collaborative effort, but it’s great that we were able to create this position at the city,” said Witchey.

The funders envisioned a two-to-three year position focused on how to identify potential units and connecting homeless people to those units. By the end of September, Stockment had identified 168 units of the 400.

For additional assistance, CHIP brought members of the Cleveland Mediation Center to Indianapolis for a two-day divergent training on how to mediate crisis situations.

Chapuran said the training can help with immediate needs.

“We’re excited about beginning the conversation to see how we can with modest financial support and in-home case management potentially keep a family that needs housing in the home where they’re staying and help manage a conflict. While doubling up is not a perfect solution, if there’s no shelter space, it’s better than the street,” said Chapuran.

CHIP has also developed program standards and strategies for outreach, transitional housing and permanent housing.

And it has piloted new models. Over the last year and a half, Indianapolis has invested in a Housing-First model and tracked its progress. Called Penn Place, the 38 furnished one-bedroom apartments opened last winter. Residents are surrounded by support services. Witchey said an evaluation of the facility was just completed.

“A lot of those pieces have existed for many years here, but there wasn’t a sort of consistent effort to bring it here and have fidelity to that model. So we did that when we opened Penn Place about a year and a half ago, which was a collaborative between BWI Developers, Insight Development Corporation, Indianapolis Housing Authority, Eskenazi, Midtown Mental Health and Horizon House.

Are we close to solving the homeless problem?

According to Chapuran, “Other cities have demonstrated what’s possible. Utah, especially Salt Lake City has addressed and “solved” the problem of homeless veterans.

“We know that individuals are going to be without homes. There will be family that kicks them out, there will be evictions, but can we make sure that they have a roof over their heads on the day that they become homeless. There are cities that have done that.

“So in that sense, we know the solutions are out there. But in Indy right now, we are working towards them. Thanks to CHIP in the last year, especially, we are finally implementing and having the working groups create policies and procedures around what other cities are doing, and so that gives me a lot of hope,” he said.

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