By BRADEN LAMMERS
Sheriese Malott has a college degree but nowhere to call home.
Unable to find steady employment because of health problems, Malott and her husband are staying at Haven House while relying on area programs for the homeless.
She doesn’t want it to be this way. While stereotypes exist, the picture of homelessness is not always in focus.
“I have a degree in English, I’m not an idiot,” Malott said. “I don’t fiend or anything like that. Things just happen and now I’m stuck there. People don’t want to be stuck there.”
Homelessness has risen to the forefront in Jeffersonville, leaving city officials and those on the frontlines wrestling with the best way to tackle the issue. While a homelessness task force was formed in January, and officials this week pledged $30,000 to hire a consultant to form a strategy, the next steps in implementing a plan — and whether it will ever be put into action — have raised concerns.
The division underscores the complexity of the homeless issue, which only promises to be magnified with the many infrastructure projects underway in Jeffersonville that could lead to an influx of those down on their luck.
It’s something that hits close to home, as many people with steady jobs are one lost paycheck away from being in the same situation as Malott.
“We all know somebody that might be a paycheck away from being homeless,” said Jill Saegesser, executive director of River Hills, which assists local governments with development needs, and who is a member of the homeless task force. “You may not know that they are, but there is so much [more] that goes into this issue than just people living in the street.”
The tug-of-war over the issue was highlighted at Monday’s city council meeting, where officials debated hiring a consultant to develop a strategic plan. Barbara Anderson, executive director of Haven House, requested that two homeless individuals be a part of the task force working to draft the plan.
However, the council did not appoint any members to the task force formed by Mayor Mike Moore. Part of the reason Moore said he formed the task force was to remove the issue from local politics.
“What I said at that initial forum was I wanted to take politics out of it,” he said at the Jeffersonville Redevelopment Commission meeting Wednesday. “I’m intentionally separating myself from the task force because I don’t want this to be based on politics. I don’t want people to support this task force because the mayor is on it, or oppose the task force because the mayor is on it.”
Handing the formation of a plan over to a group that regularly works on homeless issues was intended to get a more thorough response and to help shatter some of the misconceptions about homeless people.
Malott, who has asked to be a member of the task force, is hoping for the best.
“We’d like to know that our government and you guys are looking out for us because sometimes we can’t look out for ourselves,” she said.
THE NEED IS KNOWN AND IS EXPECTED TO INCREASE
Dedicating funding to hire a consultant to develop the 10-year strategic plan was brought to the city council Monday, after $15,000 was approved at a redevelopment commission meeting the week prior.
Councilman Bryan Glover asked how the plan would make people aware of the need for assistance.
“Most people you talk to, unless they go down there and see it, they don’t realize it’s a problem,” he said. “My fear is we get a great plan, but we don’t have anymore participation than we do now. I would like for that consultant to find a way for us to be able to communicate to the whole community. This is not a downtown problem, this is a Jeff problem [and] a regional problem.”
The regional problem is expected to get worse before it gets better, partially as a result of ongoing infrastructure projects.
“We also know from our emergency homeless providers, the folks actually on the street, that right on the other side of the Big Four Bridge there are several homeless camps, and it is absolutely their belief that when the Big Four Bridge project is completed that we will have an influx of additional homeless people,” said Beth Keeney, vice president of development with LifeSpring and a member of the task force.
With greater mobility the expectation is the flow of traffic across the walking bridge will increase due to the 20 to 30 homeless camps located in Louisville.
The Big Four bicycle and pedestrian bridge that will connect Louisville’s Waterfront Park to downtown Jeffersonville will not be the only bridge project affecting the area’s homeless.
“It might not be the city’s responsibility to take care of, but it is a problem, and whether you realize it or not it will be more of a problem with the new bridge,” Saegesser said.
The bridge Saegesser was referring to was the new downtown Interstate 65 bridge that is part of the Ohio River Bridges Project. Homeless camps located under the viaducts along I-65 are being displaced, creating new issues for the city.
“That’s causing an issue that we’ve been dealing with as a task force, trying to alleviate some of the stress there,” Saegesser said.
FUNDING A PLAN
The city has thrown its financial support behind developing the plan, as the city council agreed to pay $15,000 to hire the independent consultant. With the redevelopment commission’s dedication, the total amount is $30,000.
“We think that having an outside consultant do the plan will hopefully help to calm some of the tensions around service issues and it’s not going to be driven by one specific person or agency,” Keeney said.
The idea is to allow the consultant to gather input from various groups and agencies around the city and offer a plan that would allow all of the agencies to coordinate the various efforts toward a common goal.
“I absolutely believe the pieces are in our community,” Keeney said. “What I’m really hopeful [for] is the plan ties those pieces together so we’re not just talking about what to do with the people that are homeless today, but how to prevent the people from being homeless when they lose their paycheck next week.”
Several council members asked if there would be other funding available for developing or initiating the plan.
Keeney said that funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, which funds the majority of homeless initiatives has been cut recently.
Saegesser, who specializes in grant writing at River Hills, agreed that support money from state and federal agencies has largely dried up.
“We’re looking at this to try and tap into some resources that we have here locally,” she said. “I don’t anticipate there being a lot of, unless the climate changes, state and federal grants that we could access.”
Despite the drop in funding from HUD, LifeSpring was able to secure a matching grant that could take nearly 30 homeless individuals off the street.
Keeney said LifeSpring was able to secure a $225,000 one-year grant that required a 25 percent match.
The grant helps fund a permanent supportive housing program at apartments scattered throughout Southern Indiana, some owned by LifeSpring and others that are sublet by the mental health services provider.
“Folks can come and stay with us as long as they need to achieve stability,” Keeney said.
But there are requirements for the program. The individuals looking for a residence have to be homeless, they have to have a documented disability — physical, mental or a chronic condition — and the individuals cannot be convicted sex offenders.
The intent of the program is to get those living on the street, and that meet the requirements, into housing and available for regular health treatment.
“We’re hoping by taking a holistic approach, we’ll be able to break that cycle [of homelessness],” Keeney said.
She said LifeSpring is working with Haven House and Jesus Cares at Exit 0 to identify those who qualify and to get them to fill out applications for the program. The program is expected to begin phasing people into apartments starting Sept. 1.
STUDY IT AGAIN
As the funding request was presented to city officials, questions were raised about the comprehensiveness of the plan and whether or not it will ever be put into action.
City Councilwoman Lisa Gill asked for an assurance from task force members on-hand at Monday’s meeting that the plan would not be just another study, but a plan of action.
Keeney said a study is a necessary component of developing how to move forward, but it is not the sole goal of what the consultant will do.
“It’s not to restudy homelessness,” she said. “I think you could speak to Haven House or Exit 0 and they can tell you all about the nature of homelessness. But what we don’t have is a plan for our community to rally around and to address it.”
It is expected that it will take about a year to put the study together and begin to put the plan into action.
Anderson pointed to a similar effort that took place in 2002 to assess the homeless situation and needs in the region. However, nothing beyond a study was initiated.
“I want your word as a council that this is not going to be an empty study,” she said. “I don’t want a $30,000 study that’s going to sit on a shelf and in 10 years we come back to talk about it. I want a study that’s going to be implemented.”
That hits home for Malott, the Haven House resident, and others looking to get off the streets. Time, according to Malott, is a precious commodity.
“I know it takes money, I know it takes planning and I know it takes time,” she said. “But people like me don’t have a lot of time.”