Responding to growing challenges facing the homeless and downtown businesses

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — Downtown business owners bring up growing concerns over some of our homeless neighbors who they claim are overly assertive, and that is driving away customers they need more than ever. Local owners are already struggling to survive in light of COVID19 and the rioting, separate from peaceful protests, in May.

“It’s difficult,” George Stergiopoulos, owner of Giorgio’s Pizza and Greek Islands restaurant, said. “I mean we’re working short-handed; we’re trying to run our businesses under difficult conditions and now – we’ve inherited another job. We have to sweep our sidewalks every morning; we have to constantly tell people that they can’t sit at our four tables that we have here.”

John McGoff, Columbia Club President, raised similar concerns. He also brought up another issue business owners are noticing near Monument Circle and City Market.

“The secondary issue that people don’t realize is the feces and urine that are left over,” McGoff explained. “It’s a huge public health crisis that’s currently not being addressed.”

We brought those concerns to Matt Giffin, Deputy Director and Legal Counsel for the city’s Office of Public Health and Safety. To address the issue of homeless men and women using the bathroom in public outdoor spaces, the city put out port-o-lets and handwashing stations.

“To try to address the problem people are facing where they have needs as human beings and there was no place for them to go,” Giffin explained.

Stergiopoulos also pointed out many of the men and women are not wearing masks nor staying six feet away from others. Giffin said that is because the homeless men and women are exempt from the most recent public health order.

“There is a plan at this point to modify that rule so that it still applies when homeless individuals are outdoors and not congregated,” Giffin said. “But if they’re indoors if they’re in a shelter or they’re congregating in large groups, that order is going to be tweaked to make clear that people need to be wearing masks in those situations too.”

Giffin acknowledged it is difficult to require homeless men and women to obtain masks.

“The reason that there’s an exception in the public health rule is because it would be an unfair burden on people who are homeless,” Giffin said.

Steve Kerr, Wheeler Mission’s Executive Vice President of Advancement, knows how sensitive the balance is for business owners and homeless men and women. He said useful housing solutions with wrap-around services are crucial.

At Wheeler, they have had to put some capacity limits in place to protect those men in their care. He believes the increase in homeless men and women downtown is due to both COVID19 but also the warm weather.

“A lot of men that we serve, and a lot of men served in other shelters, just choose not to come inside,” Kerr explained.

Giffin said the city offers two temporary housing options through two hotels, and they are planning to open a third location next week. He said the Marion County Public Health Department also operates some locations too. Giffin agrees housing options and wrap-around services are key.

“A bigger picture effort that we’ve started here is to get as many people as possible into temporary hotel housing during this crisis,” Giffin said.

Giffin also explained the city is considering using some federal emergency funding for more temporary housing options. The goal is to have funding in place to help build more permanent solutions by the end of the year.

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