One of the first – and last – issues brought up during our “Talk the Vote” session in Mount Vernon last fall was homelessness.
Residents expressed concerns about the number of unhoused individuals in the city – and wondered aloud how this social issue might be mitigated.
This is the first of a three-part series looking into potential solutions to the problem. First, we’ll take stock of the current situation in Mount Vernon and Knox County – whether homelessness has risen or fallen in recent years, what structures are currently in-place to mitigate it, and what those on the front lines consider leading causes of homelessness locally.
Then, we’ll begin to examine ways other cities have mitigated the issue in recent years.
MOUNT VERNON — Julie Miller knows a thing or two about homelessness.
In fact, Miller lived and breathed it at 18 years old.
But that’s not why she took the newly-founded executive director position at The Winter Sanctuary, Knox County’s seasonal homeless shelter.
She took the job after being on the nonprofit’s board, combing through applications and interviewing potential candidates for the position. None fit the bill in Miller’s mind.
She saw the candidates in supervisor roles, but not as an executive director – or what she saw as a ‘CEO.’
Miller believes it was a call from God to apply for the position herself.
She resigned from the board, worried it would be seen as a potential conflict of interest if a board member was appointed to the position, and the rest is history.
Miller previously served as Knox County’s health commissioner for 12 years before retiring July 1. She will begin her new role in August.
Her first assignment? Looking into the numbers locally. How many Knox County residents are homeless? And how have those numbers fluctuated in recent years?
The Winter Sanctuary provided emergency on-site shelter for 118 different guests and 226 individuals received advocacy services in 2020, according to Operations Manager Joe Springer.
Those numbers fluctuated slightly in 2021, with the agency providing shelter for 90 guests and advocacy services for 234. They appear on-track to hit similar marks in 2022, with 52 shelter guests and 107 advocacy recipients through July 1.
Most of the guests are from Mount Vernon, Springer said, because that’s where most of the county’s resources are concentrated.
Guests develop goals and strategies for success with Springer, with success gauged on how well they follow through with the program. The goal is usually either maintaining housing or reuniting with children, Springer said.
“It’s my job as an advocate to get them there,” he added.
The shelter operates November through April, at 120 S. Norton Street.
Miller is wary of The Winter Sanctuary introducing a year-round shelter. Instead, she wants to address the problem that she believes is a strong contributor to homelessness in Knox County: Lack of affordable housing.
“It’s not a full year because we need to look at the issues interfering with them being successful,” Miller said.
How one community has responded
One community that found an actionable solution toward homelessness was western Indianapolis, where homelessness was acknowledged and addressed with proven results.
Two organizations, Helping Veterans and Families (HVAF) and Woda Cooper Companies, helped provide housing for veterans and the wider unhoused population, according to WRTV Indianapolis.
The two homeless organizations collaborated to create a 61-unit, high-quality affordable housing community called Proctor Place with 15 units set aside for unhoused veterans, WRTV reported.
The $12.6 million development was funded through housing tax credits allocated by the Indiana Housing & Community Development Authority (IHCDA), said Karen Bernick, director of corporate communications for Woda.
HVAF has longstanding experience assisting unhoused and at-risk veterans and their families through housing, employment services and providing basic items such as food, clothing and personal hygiene supplies, Bernick said.
“HVAF was an ideal partner as the largest non-profit organization serving veterans facing homelessness in the state of Indiana,” she said. “We have an obligation to assist those in need who served our nation in uniform, and unfortunately veterans comprise 13% of the homeless population in Indianapolis.”
While construction is underway on Proctor Place, Woda’s property management team will begin processing applications in August, with occupation expected to begin this fall.
Veteran units will be filed with residents referred to HVAF through the “Continuum of Care” system, which identifies eligible veterans with the highest need for permanent supportive housing, Bernick said, and the 15 units set aside for homeless veterans will have project-based rental assistance for those earning 30% of the area median income or less.
This rental assistance ensures they will pay no more than 30% of their income toward housing.
The Indianapolis Continuum of Care will identify unhoused veterans who qualify for the supportive housing units, Bernick said, and HVAF will in turn refer those households to Woda’s property management team for processing. HVAF will offer comprehensive supportive services on site, but these are not a condition of residency.
Another property that’s currently serving the unhoused population is a 68-unit affordable apartment community with 21 permanent supportive housing (PSH) units called Grand View Place in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Woda is also in early planning stages with a nonprofit in Kentucky to create a 54-unit community with 50% of the apartments set aside as PSH units, the majority targeting chronically unhoused individuals, Bernick said.
Indianapolis City Council also increased funding to the Indianapolis Housing Agency to $3 million, allowing more housing vouchers available.
Though Woda and HVAF are offering opportunities for unhoused people to find shelter, limited affordable housing and employment opportunities — especially for those with criminal records — proves challenging, according to HVAF Indiana CEO Emmy Hildebrand.
Knox County’s next steps
This brings the issue back to the forefront for Miller: How can Knox County assess affordable housing?
“If there’s no affordable housing, where are people going to go?” she asked.
Miller’s vision for the shelter is “a hub of resources for sheltering, housing and daily essentials that individuals may need.”
If housing were to be addressed, Miller believes plenty of resources will need to be added in order for it to be a success. Manpower, quality training, and education of how to interact with unhoused people are a few ideas Miller brought forward.
Once Miller combs through the data, she hopes to have a clear path forward to combat housing, such as building a housing coalition for Knox County. She’s also reaching out to potential partners such as touch point, area development foundation and habitat for humanity.
“I’ve seen villages in tiny homes/apartments across the street. What would work best for Knox County?” Miller asked.
“We have some money that we have set aside on how we might help,” Knox County Commissioner Thom Collier said. Collier is waiting to see what plans The Winter Sanctuary put forward before the county, such as the costs.
“We know there’s something coming, possible locations … we have been waiting for an actual request to know what they’re going to build, what they’re going to provide,” he said.
Other actionable steps include making sure The Winter Sanctuary clients keep on track with their appointments and keep a steady job, though pay is often not enough to live on.
“We got a couple of older gentlemen, neither one are addicts but just bad luck in their lives,” Miller said. “There’s just no housing available for someone making $12 or less. It just doesn’t happen. It’s a very complex problem.”