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1.6 million . . . and counting.*

The new face of homelessness.

“Do you have somewhere to stay tonight?”

course_sidebarOn a cold night this past January, questions like this one were commonplace in a downtown library, a fast-food restaurant, in shelters, and on the street. Those inquiring were a group of committed outreach workers, including some 30 SPEA students from IUPUI, charged with counting the number of people with no place to go. Those answering were Indianapolis’ homeless.

For the third straight year, SPEA’s Center for Health Policy has spearheaded efforts to conduct Marion County, Indiana’s annual homeless count, which is required for municipalities to receive funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). It’s a vital tool for the 3,800 cities and towns applying for federal aid to determine the scope of homelessness in their communities, and perhaps more importantly, to help identify gaps in tackling this complex issue.

It’s an issue that SPEA students, faculty, and alumni are addressing, on every level, from the local to the national. Results from Marion County’s count, for example, are sent to HUD’s Office of Community Planning and Development – currently headed up by SPEA alumnus Mark Johnston (MPA ’83).

The new face of homelessness
For Johnston and others concerned with the issue of homelessness, this year’s count carries added significance and urgency. The 2009 count is the first undertaken since the economy began its downward spiral last summer. It’s also one of the first to be conducted during the current national housing crisis. Although experts agree it’s likely too early to clearly substantiate the effects of the sagging economy on homelessness, those close to the issue fear a discernable rise in the number of homeless families.

“Homeless families are the new ‘face of homelessness.’ It’s not just the people you might normally think of – the stereotypical single person on the street,” says Eric Wright, recently named associate dean of SPEA at IUPUI, who also directs the Center for Health Policy. “There are a lot more families that are homeless today than there were just a few years ago.”

foreclosure_sidebarAcross the U.S., families – typically, single mothers with one or more children – represent 40 percent of the homeless population. In Marion County, an estimated 5,000 to 7,500 children are homeless. According to Laura Littlepage, clinical lecturer at SPEA, early reports from Indianapolis-area schools indicate the number of homeless children is higher than last year. (The McKinney-Vento Education for Homeless Children and Youth Act, a federal law aimed at removing barriers to education for homeless children, requires schools across the U.S. to count the number of homeless children and youth in their districts.)

“It’s particularly difficult to see the toll it takes on families, especially children,” says Littlepage, a long-time volunteer with the homeless and chief coordinator of this year’s homeless count in Marion County. “Kids who are homeless have much higher rates of all kinds of illnesses, mental as well as physical, just from going through this type of situation,” Littlepage says. “It’s very hard on them.”

Help for those on the edge
The national picture, according to Johnston, HUD’s deputy assistant secretary for special needs, does reflect homelessness in Marion County, with some cities across the U.S. reporting increases in the number of families in homeless shelters. For single mothers and others living on the financial brink, often just one precipitating event – a sick child, loss of transportation or childcare, or a personal illness – can mean the difference between living at home or on the street.

“[In this economy] it’s people who are really low income, barely making it in a rental property who are most at risk of becoming homeless,” says Johnston.

Johnston, who oversees $2 billion in federal aid for the homeless and low-income people with HIV/AIDS, says families and individuals battling such “last straw” scenarios may benefit from HUD’s new “Rapid Re-housing” program. A $25-million initiative launched this spring, the program is designed to provide short-term assistance to those facing homelessness, with the goal of keeping them out of shelters long-term.

Rapid_re-housingRapid Re-housing dollars are earmarked for interim assistance, such as funding a search for safe, affordable housing, providing monies for a security deposit or a few months’ rent. In this first installment, Rapid Re-housing funds were awarded to 23 localities based on their applications and past performance addressing homelessness.

“Rapid Re-housing aims to provide stability for someone while they are transitioning, for instance, to a new job,” Johnston says. “There’s not only the human benefit associated with helping someone get back on his or her feet, but also an economic one in terms of lowering the cost to the system if we can get individuals and families back in their own apartment with modest assistance.”

As with all of its programs, HUD plans to closely track and evaluate results from the Rapid Re-housing initiative in order to establish best practices for the future.

“One of the things we’re hoping to learn more about with Rapid Re-housing is what are the triggers or combination of factors that cause people to become homeless,” Johnston explains. “If we can scientifically, or at least intelligently, determine who is most likely to become homeless and target those people, we’ll save money and likely achieve better results.”

“Owning” the issue of homelessness
If Johnston’s 25-plus years of experience studying homelessness from a national vantage point have taught him anything, it’s that there’s no one right way to confront the issue. Homelessness is different everywhere. Large urban areas tend to have significant street populations, while smaller cities like Indianapolis and Bloomington may harbor more homeless families. From HUD’s perspective, properly responding to such geographic and cultural diversity means allowing individual communities to “own” the issue of homelessness.

“Each community needs to be nimble; communities need to be able to redirect resources as they see fit,” he says, noting that some communities have been hit harder than others by the weakened economy. “Every city’s needs are different, and we try to support this fact by allowing communities to move funds around to address emerging needs.”

– Jill Meadows Jansen

*1.6 million refers to the number of people in the U.S. who are homeless over the course of a year.

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