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August 10, 2013

An important task: Jeffersonville leaders target homelessness

Effort to help moves forward as bridge project magnifies homeless issue

JEFFERSONVILLE — 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.

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