An Approach That Deserves Emulating

A recent report in the Indianapolis Star focused on the lack of affordable housing in Indianapolis and the state.

The research had been done by SAVI, a program of The Polis Center at IUPUI that partners with United Way of Central Indiana. SAVI is an online community information system that provides data to government agencies and organizations, and maintains a website making that data freely accessible. (The paper no longer has the resources to independently research such matters.)

In Indianapolis, there are only six affordable rentals for every 10 extremely low-income households, and .there are virtually no vacancies in that category units, making it hard–if not impossible– for extremely low-income households to find an available unit.

Since 2017, the city has supported the construction of 3,842 units of affordable rental housing and 887 permanent supportive housing units by private and nonprofit developers, according to an IndyStar analysis of city data. Permanent supportive housing units are a type of housing for formerly homeless people that includes social services and often cover rent with housing vouchers.

Of the affordable rental units, no more than about 744 are reserved for and required to be affordable to very low-income individuals, who are those making $32,000 for a one-person household or $41,000 for a three-person household.

The city has also supported the creation of 333 affordable homes for lower-income households to own.

That still leaves a shortage of 33,600 homes.

Indiana’s legislators evidently took time out from their obsessions with women’s reproduction and CRT to pass  a bill last session creating a new statewide affordable housing tax credit. The city believes that will boost local government’s ability to build low-income housing using the federal low-income housing tax credit program.

The lack of low-income housing and the growth of homelessness are hardly new problems, here or elsewhere. Municipal governments and CDCs (Community Development Corporations) all struggle with the issue, recognizing that the lack of housing feeds into a number of other social ills, especially crime, so I was fascinated to read about an approach being taken by Kansas City that seems promising.

Kansas City began with an intervention aimed at the most dire manifestation: homelessness.

In order to help alleviate homelessness—and to improve the cleanliness of the city—Kansas City’s Public Works department is collaborating with local nonprofits to create new jobs for some people who are unhoused. The employees of the Clean Up KC initiative were paid to pick up litter from underserved inner-city areas for three months. It’s been crucial—not just for keeping the city cleaner, but for improving chances that they find housing, for which employment is a major criteria. At the end of the program, many have moved into housing, and a new cohort of workers will start a new pilot soon.

The approach being tried by Kansas City recognizes the inter-relationship of social problems, and of the challenges faced by folks who have fallen on hard times–or never known any times that weren’t hard.

Crucially, finding housing is often easier with employment, as it’s more appealing for private landlords and sometimes on a list of criteria for public housing. As part of the program, the nonprofits also helped the workers navigate the housing system. “A goal of this is helping them to create a sustainable, successful life,” Parks-Shaw says. “And you can’t do that without housing.”

Research has shown that investments in programs to help people who are unhoused reduces spending for cities—and taxpayers—on healthcare and emergency department visits.

The obvious question about this particular approach is: what happens to these people when the program–and employment–end?

For the program graduates, there may the opportunity for full-time employment. Kansas City’s Full Employment Council will provide the additional training and certification needed to work for the city on a permanent basis. “I see this as a win-win for our unhoused individuals, and a win-win for the city at a time when we’re struggling to fill positions and meet the needs of our community,” Parks-Shaw says.

That paragraph reminded me of long-ago proposals addressing joblessness by making government the “employer of last resort.” 

In Kansas City, providing employment through government addressed much more than homelessness; not only did formerly homeless people find housing, but workers removed litter and piles of trash from city streets, enhancing the municipal environment.

If America ever emerges from the cold civil war and focuses on solving public problems, Kansas City may provide an approach to emulate. 


About “The Least of Us”….

Sunday sermon time…

Homeless people make most of us uncomfortable. The reasons vary: some people are frightened or intimidated, believing that unkempt and sometimes strange-acting street people pose a physical danger. Others feel guilt over a comparatively privileged status. Still others simply lack compassion and want “those people” to stop cluttering “their” landscape. A San Francisco Catholics Church evidently fell in the latter category.

First the water rained down, and then the condemnation rained down — and on Wednesday, San Francisco’s embarrassed Roman Catholic Archdiocese said it would tear out sprinklers that have been dousing homeless people sleeping in the doorways of its premier church in the city.

I’m sure Jesus would have been proud….

Here in Indianapolis, we haven’t been hosing down the homeless, but we’ve been hosing them in other ways.

As I’ve previously written, last year, a local group of independent filmmakers documented the City’s embarrassing treatment of homeless individuals (and the fact that NO public dollars are spent on programs to help them). The film actually motivated citizens to demand action by the City County Council–and the Council responded by passing a “Homeless Bill of Rights.” (Can we spell “democracy in action”? Very encouraging.)

Then the Mayor vetoed the ordinance.

The “usual subjects” defended the Mayor’s veto, because (wait for it) the constitution already gives homeless folks these rights. (Which were being so carefully observed by local authorities…)

The Huffington Post has an interesting report on the veto, under the headline: Hoosier Reputation Taking a Beating. (That’s a bit unfair–thanks to our legislature, our reputation is already pretty badly damaged….)

Prior to the historic vote and once humanitarian arguments were set aside, both sides debated the cost of granting equal rights to persons without housing. Opponents of the HBR feared high litigation costs should persons experiencing homelessness file lawsuits demanding equal access to public places.

I hate to point out an inconsistency here, but if homeless folks already have these rights, then they also already have the right to sue. And I haven’t noticed any “flood of litigation” over the City’s constant violation of those rights.

Proponents of the HBR cited statistics proving the cost of incarcerating the persons experiencing homelessness — something that is done now because homelessness is effectively illegal in Indianapolis — makes the HBR a cost saving measure.

We can argue costs and abstract rights until the cows come home, but I can’t get one scene from the documentary out of my head: the police trashing the pathetically few possessions of homeless people in an encampment that had become a sad but supportive “community”–throwing into dumpsters the books, chairs, tents and other items that these down-and-out folks had managed to hold onto, and telling them to scatter, to “go somewhere else.”

But not telling them where, because in Indianapolis, there are few, if any, places to go.


Save the Date

I’ve written before about  Uncharted: The Truth Behind Homelessness.

The film focuses on how Indianapolis deals with its homeless population. It illuminates the issues that all major cities have to confront about their homeless citizens: downtown panhandling, homeless camps in the way of urban gentrification, underfunded human services, and endless debates over whether local government has an obligation to provide services to homeless people and if so, the nature of those services.

You won’t be surprised to learn that Indianapolis doesn’t do very well dealing with these issues–which may be why Mayor Ballard has thus far refused filmmakers’ invitations to view the documentary. That’s too bad; I have seen it twice, and I can attest to the fact that it is meticulously even-handed; interviews with a number of City representatives are included, and there are no “bad guys” hung out to dry.

Plus, it is a really gripping, well-done film.

The filmmakers, A Bigger Vision, have invited the community to attend one of two free screenings at the IMA on August 30th, at 1:00 pm and 4:00.

You can get tickets here.

You can see a trailer here.

The issues are anything but simple, and (despite the Mayor’s evident fears) their treatment is non-accusatory. Anyone concerned with the quality of life—let alone the quality of mercy– in Indianapolis should make an effort to attend one of the upcoming showings.


Documenting Shameful Behavior

A few months ago, I got a call from a young man who wanted to interview me about Indianapolis’ homeless problem. Why me? He had interviewed service providers, police officers and others involved with Indianapolis’ homeless on a day-to-day basis, but was looking for someone who could address the policy choices involved. I said, sure, come on over.

In due course, three young men came over with camera and other gear, and we talked about the city’s recent forced removal of a “tent city,” the fact that there is nowhere for homeless people to go for anything other than short-term (10 day) shelter, and–especially–the fact that Indianapolis (unlike other cities our size) budgets no public money to address homelessness.

They wanted to know why the city can find dollars to support sports teams, to subsidize development projects and even to build a cricket field, but somehow cannot find resources to help  people dealing with the loss of their jobs and homes–not to mention those with mental health problems. They wanted to know why these vulnerable people were ignored until someone complained of a “camp” at which time they were forcibly removed, their few meager possessions trashed, and they were ordered to go…somewhere else.

And they wanted to know why Mayor Ballard refused to talk to them.

I didn’t have very satisfactory answers to those questions.

The truth of the matter–as we all know–is that the political system responds to people who have “voice,” people who can  volunteer or contribute to campaigns, people who “know people,” who can have dinner or drinks with elected officials, and who can otherwise make their policy preferences known.

The trio left, and I didn’t hear anything more until a couple of days ago. They’d finished the documentary, Uncharted: The Truth Behind Homelessness and invited me to see it. Despite their youth, the product was impressive. Good production values, a thorough and even-handed treatment of the issues involved, and a genuinely gripping story.

Don’t take my word for it, though–watch the trailer, and then buy tickets to the first showing, at 2:30, at the IUPUI Campus Center on Saturday, May 31st. I plan to attend, even though I’ve seen it once.

Perhaps this will spark a conversation that Indianapolis needs to have.