by Shari Finnell, editor/writer, Not-for-profit News

In recognition of National Homeless Awareness Month, Not-for-profit News gained insights from nonprofit leaders on the latest efforts to support those experiencing homelessness.

When Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb issued a “stay-at-home order” on March 23, 2020, it became painfully clear that not all Hoosiers would have an equal ability to safely navigate the global pandemic of COVID-19, including people experiencing homelessness.

“It’s hard to be safe when you don’t have a home,” said Chelsea Haring-Cozzi, executive director of the Coalition for Homelessness Intervention & Prevention (CHIP), the organization leading The Indianapolis Community Plan to End Homelessness 2018-2023. “The way people were able to stay safe during the pandemic was to stay in their homes and engage in all the hygiene practices. That’s really scary if you don’t have that home in the midst of a public health crisis. It really elevated the nation of housing really is healthcare. We have to continue investing in and supporting permanent housing choices for people.”

Since the outbreak of COVID, community leaders and government officials have combined efforts to meet the needs of the city’s homeless as their numbers have swelled — to 1,928 on any given night based on a January 2021 point-in-time count. That’s up from 1,588 in January 2020. While some of those differences may be traced to a different counting method — over a five-day period instead of a one-night period, numerous factors have led to an increasing number of people experiencing homelessness, Haring Cozzi said.

In the past, Haring-Cozzi said, people may have avoided being counted in the homeless system because they relied on couch surfing for shelter. “What we saw this last year with COVID, people who may have stayed with family and friends found that was no longer a viable option. People are now saying, ‘I can’t run the risk of additional people in my house outside of the family unit.’”

Also, with social distancing rules in place, congregant housing, like Wheeler Mission’s shelters, were required to reduce the numbers of guests to abide by guidelines for social distancing during the pandemic.

Clearly, those challenges aren’t over. “We’re still in the midst of the pandemic,” Haring-Cozzi said. “Because of COVID, there are more people experiencing homeless, living unsheltered, and who are housing unstable.”

Another major complication in meeting the needs of those facing homelessness is inadequate staffing, according to Perry Hines, chief development officer for Wheeler Mission. Employee shortages have made it increasingly difficult to support initiatives to expand services at a time when they’re most needed. During a normal year, Hines said, the organization would serve 700-800 people with beds and/or meals at its facilities. In 2020, that number climbed to 1,200-1,300 per day because of the increased need, he said. 

“This year, we are planning for increased demand. What that means is finding beds and anticipating an increased need for food and social services — especially during the winter contingency time frame, which is Nov. 1 through March 31,” Hines said. 

However, some of the programs needed to support individuals and families experiencing homelessness, such as overseeing accommodations in hotels, require additional staffing, Hines said. 

“We are severely lacking in employees. We need help. At any given time, we will have 20 to 30 job openings. Our employees have a tough job. They’re on the front lines,” he said. “A lot of times our employees can go to McDonald’s and get $15 an hour. We don’t pay $15 an hour, so that makes it real tough to keep things in place. On top of the demand for more services and more people coming into your doors, you’re having a tough time getting qualified people to help open the doors.”

Planning a future with minimal homelessness

While the impact of COVID has been devastating for many individuals and families with inadequate housing or no housing, it has been impactful in accelerating collaboration around how to imagine alternatives to homeless shelters, Haring-Cozzi said. 

One of the primary ways that leaders are envisioning a new path is by considering alternatives to the prevailing sheltering model.

“A lot of sheltering is based on these congregate models,” Haring-Cozzi said. “That doesn’t allow for spaces where people can isolate and have privacy and for family units to stay together. The pandemic and the use of hotels really opened up a lot of our community leaders’ eyes on how to create safe sheltering models — one that serves public health purposes and serves the purpose of keeping families together. It becomes housing-centered.”

Those experiences helped shift the conversation to how to get people connected to permanent housing, Haring-Cozzi added. “We have started some intentional work around shelters being part of a rehousing process and not a destination — not a place where people stay for long periods of time,” she said. 

Another layer of support that needed to be addressed is the access to technology, according to Haring-Cozzi. With so many services going virtual during the pandemic, including mental health services, many people experiencing homelessness didn’t have the technology to access them. “We realized we have to make services accessible in a different type of way,” she said.

Hines also said that efforts must focus on expanding support services, including those that address mental health and addictions, to ensure that the needs of a segment of the population experiencing homelessness are met. 

“We are always asking how can we do more beyond addressing the immediate needs? That’s the emergency shelter part. We also are asking how can we solve the underlying problem? That’s the social work part,” Hines said. “We know that there are a lot of joblessness issues that result from mental health and addiction issues. Our hope and dream is that we want to end homeless in Indianapolis but that means addressing both the structural issues as well as the underlying causes.”

Haring-Cozzi said that she is hopeful that significant change can be realized as a result of the millions of dollars in federal funds targeted to homelessness throughout the nation, including Indianapolis. “This is probably a once in a lifetime opportunity to take these federal resources and really focus on how you shift systems and how you help support people getting back into permanent housing,” she said.

She also said that the collaboration around addressing homelessness — among nonprofit agencies, service providers, and government entities — will be instrumental in realizing real change.

“I’ve seen collaboration this past year in ways I have never seen it before,” she said. “We’re all working under the same shared agenda. We’re trying to keep people healthy and then get them into housing. That’s significant. This last year really helped kind of solidify that shared vision. We don’t want to manage homelessness. We really want to move towards ending it.”