Council, mayor to consider permanent homeless encampment site near downtown Indianapolis

Politics

INDIANAPOLIS — Elisa Hammer spends her days shivering hard against the cold in a tent on a side street just east of downtown Indianapolis overlooking northbound I-65 because she frankly doesn’t think she has any other place to go after leaving her overnight shelter just a little bit after dawn every day.

“I stay in a shelter, but I don’t get to go in until 4 o’clock in the afternoon. So we stay here because we have to leave at 8 o’clock in the morning, so we don’t have anything to do,” Hammer said, pulling a thin coat across herself to stay warm.

Three nylon tents, the insides lined with blankets and sleeping bags, flap in the frigid breeze as air temperatures struggle to rise above freezing with a hint of snow in the air.

A bit of trash is scattered outside the front doors, such as they are, and litters the approaching drive to the sad compound beneath a grimy overpass where two IMPD officers, assigned to the Downtown District’s Homeless Outreach program, arrive to check on the residents.

“My parents kicked me out, they didn’t accept me for who I was,” said Hammer, who appeared to be in her 40s. “They was jealous and angry, and I didn’t have a choice but to live on my own.

“It’s cold, frustrating, wet, yeah, but it teaches you a lot of stuff,” she said.

“Like what?” I asked.

“How to appreciate life and how to really value things and to appreciate people not for what they do but what they are.”

Appreciating people for what they are, and trying to safeguard their rights while protecting their lives, was the intention of Chapter 231 of the Municipal Code adopted in 2016. The so-called “Homeless Bill of Rights” sought to establish that the state of homelessness was not a crime, and it committed the city to lending a helping hand should a homeless person want to accept.

But the proliferation of tents this past year on downtown streets and curbs and parks, and persons lounging with their belongings all day on Monument Circle, has forced city officials to recognize that not only the rights of the homeless but also the rights of the community must be protected.

Monday night the Indianapolis City-County Council will start to consider those two conflicting but concurrent rights concepts with the introduction of Proposal 76 to amend Chapter 231.

The proposal would give the Marion County Public Health Department and IMPD greater authority to determine if a makeshift encampment on a curb, sidewalk, riverbank or beneath an overpass constitutes a public health for public safety hazard. Such encampments would be banned from public property and limited to seven days in place. Charitable institutions and individuals would be restricted to specific locations to hand out clothing, food and supplies to the homeless.

“We don’t wanna say, ‘Don’t bring food,’” said Wheeler Mission Executive Vice President of Advancement Steve Kerr. “But I think that they want to regulate it and control it and then provide sanitation devices afterwards is another good scenario.”

The city would also seek out a piece of property, likely zoned industrial, in the greater downtown area where a homeless encampment site could be established with trash and sanitation provisions, restrooms and showers, on-site management and access to transportation and service providers.

“I think it’s a brilliant idea. I think that they should do that, and I’m really thankful that they are,” said Hammer. “We need coffee, we need refreshments, we need socializing, we need a love life, friendships and hang out.”

Kerr said that while he would rather the homeless spend the night inside away from the elements, he realizes indoor living isn’t for everybody.

“There are so many people experiencing homelessness who don’t want to come indoors, they don’t want to come to an organized shelter, a mission, a provider or what have you. So, if they are going to be outdoors, let’s make sure they’re safe and protected,” he said. “If they’re not going to come indoors, then let’s provide the services where they are in a measure that is going to make a difference in those folks’ lives.”

Council President Vop Osili, who is co-sponsor of Proposal 76 which was drafted by Mayor Hogsett’s Office of Public Health & Safety, issued the following statement:

Proposal 76 strikes a balance between reaffirming the City’s commitment to protecting the dignity of our homeless neighbors and the need to make sure our city’s streets, sidewalks, and public places are safe, clean, and accessible for all our residents and visitors. I believe this measure will help address this difficult issue, and I look forward to discussion of Proposal 76 in committee.

Chelsea Haring-Cozzi, executive director of Coalition for Homeless Intervention and Prevention, also issued a statement:

We are very interested in the ordinance being introduced at tonight’s City-County Council meeting and will be listening in closely along with the rest of our stakeholders to learn more about what it entails. We are also eager to have a seat at the table beside our partners within the Indianapolis Continuum of Care and its governing board, the Blueprint Council, to give valuable feedback as this proposal evolves. Regardless of the developments of the current proposal, CHIP remains steadfast in our commitment to stay focused on permanent housing solutions and to prevent and end homelessness in Indianapolis.

Once approved, the mayor’s office would have until July 1 to firm up details on such an encampment site and report back to the council.

Until then, Hammer is prepared to ride out the winter listening to the roar of interstate traffic below her curbside campsite.

“I think that we’re beautiful people and that we really do have hearts. We do know the struggle, and we do care,” said Hammer just before I handed her a sweater I found stashed in a closet this morning. “We’ve all been abused.”

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