By BRADEN LAMMERS
JEFFERSONVILLE — The Jeffersonville-Clarksville Homelessness Task Force held its first public forum Tuesday, which served essentially as a brainstorming session about how to address the needs of homeless individuals living in Southern Indiana.
The task force was formed following a late-November sweep of a homeless camp under Interstate 65 near exit 0 when some personal property was taken by the city. The city said it returned the taken property.
Jeffersonville has since suspended sweeps of camps as a call was also made by city officials to develop a long-term solution to address the problems of the homeless with other area municipalities.
“Since the city has suspended sweeps, it does seem like there has been more and more of an obvious showing of homeless and their needs,” said Jeffersonville Mayor Mike Moore.
Along with Moore, Clarksville Street Commissioner Brad Cummings and Terry Stawar, CEO of LifeSpring Inc., headed up the meeting to gather suggestions on how to move forward. New Albany Director of Community Housing Initiatives Carl Malysz, speaking on behalf of Mayor Jeff Gahan, was on hand and also offered New Albany’s involvement in the effort.
“I think this morning is the appropriate day for the meeting because it is the coldest day of the year, so far,” Stawar said.
The three-person panel asked the audience of about 100 people to provide suggestions on how to best help those in need. And a number of suggestions were offered.
“The only thing that’s going to fix this issue is permanent housing,” said Paul Stensrud, founder of Jesus Cares at Exit 0, a homeless outreach group. “Even a shelter is temporary.”
He said a problem is that shelters are overcrowded, especially when the weather turns cold. Places that do help the homeless, like Wayside Christian Mission in Louisville, cleared food-service areas to lay down mattresses to house homeless individuals Tuesday night.
Jim Moon, pastor at Park Memorial United Methodist Church in Jeffersonville, offered that homeless individuals can stay at his church when conditions are as cold as they were this week.
But he said there is more than one issue. Moon said there are not enough day shelters for people and even if there are places they can stay overnight, there is little or no transportation available to get those individuals indoors.
Moon said there is no one single answer to the problems the task force faces.
“There’s no immediate action that’s actually going to solve this issue,” he said.
Moon suggested that the task force conduct research to determine exactly how prevalent homelessness is in the area, what needs are most pressing and find models of what has and has not worked in other cities.
“Homelessness, and poverty and people that need to eat are going to always exist,” he said. “I hope we treat them as people of sacred work regardless of what decisions or choices that they have made.”
Barbara Anderson, executive director at Haven House Services Inc., which runs the Williams Emergency Shelter in Jeffersonville, echoed some of the statements made by others and said that funding will be necessary to provide support.
“Homelessness is not going to go away, unless we as a city start to plan effectively for poverty,” she said. “We can’t do anything without permanent housing. That’s just a reality. We have more [homeless] people in this community than we’re willing to admit.
“It is not going to be cheap to deal with the issue.”
Other concerns include: drug and alcohol abuse, health issues, self-medication, mental health issues, employment needs, educational needs and veterans-affairs issues.
Jeffersonville City Councilman Nathan Samuel, who also serves as the executive director for Childplace Inc., downplayed the involvement that the area municipalities should ultimately have in setting policy to address homelessness in the region.
“I don’t think a new government program is our answer,” he said. “Something needs to be done timely on this subject, in my opinion. Countless agencies that have already spoken ... they have the issue that we’re talking about in some way, shape or form as some part of their mission.”
He said many of the groups already involved have access to volunteers, donors and supporters that they can tie into. The common theme among the organizations is they all have people who are willing to help.
“I believe government needs to use our influence to pull this group of people together, then we need to get out of the way,” Samuel said.
Moore agreed with Samuel and said it’s the city’s goal to help with the organizational aspects of the task force, but allow others to carry out the implementation of the assistance.
A growing concern is the amount of people who are in need of assistance.
“Unfortunately, last year, we gave away 374,000 pounds of food,” said Matthew Hudson, executive director of the Center for Lay Ministries. “And what’s alarming for us is that last year we had a 17 percent increase of the demographic over the age of 60. And that’s what we’re continuing to see this year.”
Stensrud said one of the major keys to improving the lives of the homeless in Southern Indiana is communication.
“If we don’t have communication, how can we get something narrowed down to help somebody ... how can we help them if there is not communication between all the different entities?” he asked.
Stensrud said there is not one single agency that is going to be able to tackle the problem.
Upcoming steps for the task force are to formalize the group and develop steering committees to help refine the most pressing needs. Along with the joint task force, a major consideration is creating a unified church effort.
Wilma Sadler-Morton, food ministry director Gilt Edge Baptist Church, requested a call to action among the area’s churches and increased day shelter opportunities for the homeless.
“I believe the churches are not being used as much as they could be used,” she said.
Moore agreed that the infrastructure with faith-based groups is already in place.
“The churches, the volunteers, that is a faith based group ... they have people that want to help,” he said. “They just don’t know how to help. Let’s get them organized.”