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June 26, 2014

ANDERSON: How can you fix homelessness?

— “Fixing” homelessness is not easy, especially when people are unwilling to do what it will take. Ordinances that are anti-friendly are not the answer, housing is the only answer.

Recently, I received a call from some advocacy groups planning a day of action because the proposed cuts to the housing voucher program (Section 8) are very serious, deeper than even the sequestration. The result will be catastrophic for shelters and transitional programs.

The reality is that Section 8 is barely available now, in many areas the lists are closed for the next 10 years. I am not sure what we are thinking. We cannot cut programming that serves the poorest of those among us and then “ordinance” them out with no housing alternatives.

Section 8 is a solution, but the hard-sought-after rental subsidy program sponsored by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development is backlogged, unbelievably so, and with no other programs to replace it on the horizon, ending homelessness is not on the national radar in any real way.

This issue will require money, to say it won’t is naïve and terribly uninformed. A recent ordinance prohibiting camping within the Jeffersonville city limits on public and private property may have been for the protection of the community, but it offered no solutions to the people living in those tents or in those boxcars (approximately 26 to 30 people at any given time).

The ordinance won’t rid the community of the tents, it will merely create a new kind of street homelessness because if the tents disappear, people will begin to sleep where they can find a place to put their heads.

Is building a new shelter the solution? No. We can’t afford the one we have now. Building housing for those living in those tents or giving vouchers to nonprofits to follow and case manage them would be the solution, but that requires money and no one appears to want to allocate that.

We are expecting people with little or no resources to get on a wheel like a hamster and just keep spinning.

Perhaps a new ordinance could be authored that would require all developers to pay a fee of $25 per home that is being built that could support a “housing voucher” program administered by the Jeffersonville Housing Authority. I spoke with Kirk Mann, the executive director of the Housing Authority in light of the proposed cuts and the following information was provided: “There are currently 220 people on the waiting list, we just issued 25 vouchers and the 220 go above those issued, so if you are No. 220 you could expect to be on the list for up to two years. Your life circumstances could move you up the list, but no matter where you are there is a wait. We were able to issue the new vouchers because there was some relief from the sequestration but the new budget does present more extensive cuts”.

Communities need to respond. We as citizens need to call our congressmen and women, our senators and even our president to say we don’t accept this. We can find money when we need too — we can buy weapons, purchase historic property, build walking bridges, but we can’t house our own people? Somewhere there is a disconnect.

On July 3, a group of us are visiting our local congressman’s office to discuss the Housing and Urban Development budget and how he can help, and we are going to ask him to help. We can’t end homelessness without the development of safe, decent, and affordable housing.

Who is building that for poor people? Really poor people? The people living in those tents and pods are people with mental health issues, felonies, drug/alcohol issues and chronic unemployment. Many have physical health conditions. All need permanent supportive housing to help them.

Haven House has 18 to 20 units of that housing through LifeSpring; we need another 120 to adequately address the needs of those living in the tents, at the shelters — tripled and doubled up — and living from here to there in the region. Preferably those would be in each county as needed.

That would mean a need of about $864,000 in housing dollars alone annually and that does not include the cost of care for those individuals; many are Medicaid-eligible but most are uninsured. This population alone only constitutes 25 percent of those living at Haven House (people living with a diagnosed physical or mental health condition). The figure above is based on an average rent of $600 per month. The families living in the shelter would cost twice that much, so to truly end homelessness in this community, we need to build or generate housing for about 1,500 people per year, or approximately $2 million per year.

It isn’t going to be cheap to deal with the issue, but it is necessary if we don’t want tents, pods and shelters in our community. I would prefer we not have them either, and I am a shelter director.

Build the right kind of housing or secure enough assistance through vouchers to truly house the homeless; target them, provide agencies that support the need to help those families and we will gladly go home with a smile on our faces because we as a community truly resolved the issue.

— Barbara Anderson, Jeffersonville, is executive director of Haven House Services Inc. Reach her by email at barbanderson_1@yahoo.com

 

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