Indy plans low-barrier shelter with relaxed admission rules for homeless

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INDIANAPOLIS — Last January, the City of Indianapolis and its partners conducted their annual “Point In Time” survey of homeless persons and came up with a total of 1,928 homeless individuals: 21% more than the year before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and the highest number counted in the last 10 years.

Homeless care providers say that number is almost certainly more due to the uncounted persons who are without permanent shelter, moving from couch to couch or doubling or tripling up with other families in a single dwelling.

The city has now released its study of building a low-barrier shelter for homeless persons with relaxed admissions rules when it comes to intoxication, addiction, behavioral or circumstantial issues.

“We’re looking at beds, not in the thousands, not in the several hundreds,” said Andrew Merkley, Office of Public Health & Safety housing specialist. “They may be for emergency beds, for medical respite. They might also be a bridge bed for somebody who has recently become homeless but is also waiting on a housing unit to open and they would use that bridge bed for several days until there is a housing unit to move in to.”

Lori Casson, executive director of Dayspring which houses 16 families at a time, said homelessness is more than not having a roof over one’s head or a place to spend the night.

“To treat just the housing part would not do justice to whatever the problem is,” she said. “What we really do is look at what brought that person to their state of homelessness and try to put the resources in place to address those.”

The onset of the pandemic forced OPHS to develop a temporary housing solution for those without shelter in order to minimize their exposure to COVID-19 in traditional homeless shelters.

The city contracted with the Crowne Plaza Hotel on South High School Road near the site of the former terminal at Indianapolis International Airport where 160 mostly single adults rode the pandemic out.

“We learned very quickly that we need case management and it needs to be intensive case management daily at the facility,” said Merkley. “If we do bring a navigation center to the city, it would be everything that could be needed: Getting someone signed up for Medicaid or Medicare, getting them access to a license so they can get into a home, getting them into physical and behavioral health services, everything you could think of we would have at that hub.”

The report found that more than 200 people whom the city housed in various hotel configurations during the pandemic have moved into transitional housing and not necessarily returned to the streets.

Mayor Joe Hogsett set aside $12 million in next year’s city budget to build a low-barrier shelter, its design and location yet to be determined.

“I think that the community has to be informed and educated,” said Casson. “I think everything starts with education. And also the city or the community is going to have to have some policies and procedures in place to protect both the neighborhood and the neighbors.

“I think the education of the neighborhood, the education of the people surrounding the facility where they intend to build is going to be critical and crucial,” she said. “You can’t put it in a cornfield somewhere and expect people to be able to get back and forth to the facilities and to the services being provided.”

Casson said she expects the demand for emergency housing, especially for women and children, to explode in the coming months with the ending of the rent moratorium that delayed evictions during the worst days of the pandemic.

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