NEW ALBANY — Dwight Schmitt, longtime New Albany resident, said he considers himself homeless right now for the first time ever.
Schmitt, a Vietnam veteran, said he was arrested in early July and spent 68 days in jail when someone was discovered in his home using drugs. Schmitt, who said he doesn’t use drugs and didn’t know the person had them in his home, was originally charged with possession of methamphetamine and paraphernalia and maintaining a common nuisance.
The first two charges were dismissed, he said, but the third remains because it was his home. While he was incarcerated, he lost that home, and his belongings are now being stored in a friend’s trailer.
He said he’s waiting for his $2,500 bail that he posted to be released, and his pension check to come in early October before he can think about trying to find a new place to live.
“But until then, I’m at-large,” he said of being without a place to live. “Different friends let me stay here and there for a night or two. I’ve been doing yard work. I do all I can to make a living. I’ll find some way to eat every day.”
Schmitt said he knows of 25-30 people at least who are traditionally “street” homeless in New Albany, and that’s just in one area of the city. Some people say the number of homeless are increasing in New Albany over the past few years.
Not everyone agrees on the scope of the problem.
New Albany Mayor Jeff Gahan’s office sent an email to the News and Tribune addressing queries about homelessnessin New Albany Gahan stated in the release that homelessness is not something to take lightly, but that is not a large issue in New Albany.
“Anytime someone is homeless without a safe place for the night, it’s a serious issue for those individuals,” the email states. “However, the data does not support an assertion that New Albany has a homeless problem.”
The Indiana Housing Community and Development Authority (IHCDA) reported that through point-in-time counts from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), when homeless individuals are literally counted on the streets, Floyd County had 74 homeless counted in early 2016, alongside an estimated total population of 76,668 for 2015. This translates to .09 percent homeless in Floyd County as compared to 5,863 or .08 percent homeless in the state, according to IHCDA, which reports a 2 percent drop in homelessness in Indiana from 2014 to 2015.
Dawn Klemm, executive director of the recently formed Homeless Coalition of Southern Indiana, said that since the point-in-time count is done nationally every late January, numbers may not reflect the actual situation.
“Basically what you’re saying is whoever you can count on the street is how we’re going to base what goes on in your community,” she said of the national statistics. “The majority of the [homeless] are not going to be on the street. They’re doubling up, they’re sleeping in cars. They’re not on the street in January because it’s cold.”
The City of New Albany has worked in recent years to provide safer and more affordable housing, the mayor’s email states, operating more than 1,100 homes through the New Albany Housing Authority — more than Charlestown, Clarksville and Jeffersonville combined.
The City has also initiated a rental registration program to ensure that the 40 percent rented homes in New Albany are regulated for safety, and endorsed Low Income Housing Tax Credit applications through the state for development and redevelopment of affordable housing.
HELPING THEM COPE
Still there are people without homes, and some Floyd County residents and organization directors say that number is rising.
Jesse Floyd, board president of the Tri-County Health Coalition of Southern Indiana, said that he’s never seen homeless numbers like he is now in New Albany, and he speaks from experience. He’s been with the organization 30 years.
Floyd said that he’s seen an uptick in the homeless population, especially over the past two years. Since January, he’s also noticed a growing segment of young men among the homeless population, something he said is new.
“The indigent population has grown as a whole,” he said. “When we started, there were very few people coming through. We would have one or two people coming through asking for help.”
The organization has a series of programs providing food and clothing, helping with taxes and other services for anyone who needs it, not just the homeless.
“Now the food pantry stays empty,” he said. “We used to not have too many homeless people that stand out like this, but they’re standing out. You can’t miss them. You’ll see them with their backpacks, just sitting everyplace they can. You’ll see them just roaming the street. Most of them, you can tell they’re just hot. Its awful warm outside.”
Although working with homeless people has always been part of Tri-County’s mission, the need appears greater now. Floyd said this summer, between five to six young homeless people, mainly men, have been coming into the office every day for free water, snacks and a place to cool off. They range in age from about 17 to 22 years old, he said.
“A lot of them that come in, they just want to talk,” he said. “They’ve been coming in and sitting and talking about why they’re on the streets, what they would like to change in their lives and how their home lives [were.]”
Melissa Merida, director of the New Albany-Floyd County Public Library, said the library regularly serves the homeless population.
“They utilize a lot of the services and it’s also a cool place in the summer and a warm place in the winter,” she said, adding that some people go in to read or use the computers and some just want to sit in a more comfortable place than outside. Over the past several weeks, she said they may have seen fewer people because the weather has been more mild.
She said the library helps where it can — it offers free computer use with an ID, free computer classes weekly to learn how to use basic Microsoft programs and a job and career center to help people get started on making and posting resumes and searching for jobs.
“Most of the homeless, they have some kind of income, but it’s not enough to afford housing in our area,” she said. “And since we don’t have a shelter or somewhere to help them kind of get back on their feet, that kinds of complicates things.”
Floyd County Sheriff Frank Loop said he’s seen an increase in homeless New Albany residents over the past five to 10 years.
“Where years ago we might see one or two, now it’s not uncommon that they’re all over the place,” Loop said.
Several factors are contributing to the growth, he said.
“I think the homeless population in Clark and Floyd counties has exploded because there is a homeless shelter in Louisville, there is a drug problem that’s bigger than it’s ever been and there’s is a walking bridge so they can easily walk from Louisville to Southern Indiana where before they could not.
“That’s why Clark County has a much bigger problem than Floyd does, because they’re walking across that bridge,” Loop said.
While New Albany doesn’t have a shelter, Jeffersonville does. Barb Anderson, director of Haven House, said around 26 percent of the shelter’s population is from Floyd County, with around 50 percent from Clark.
She said the county percentage fluctuates and has been as high as 35 to 40 percent from Floyd County before. Haven House has 80 beds on regular, non “white flag” nights. White flag status is called when the index is at or below 35 degrees or at or above 95 degrees and is considered an emergency situation. Then shelters and makeshift shelters allow for more people to come in.
“It depends on what night you’re here,” she said. “This is a pretty mobile region and [some] people are between Jeffersonville, Clarksville and New Albany and kind of burn their bridges in one city and go to another city.
“And finally when the bridges are burned in all the cities, they wind up here. So the picture is kind of jaded. They may be from New Albany but lived in Clarksville for the past two months or they’ve gone to Jeffersonville and lived with a cousin. So it takes a little while to even find out where they’re from.”
Anderson said she doesn’t think an added shelter in New Albany is the answer.
“No, I think they need affordable housing,” she said. “I’m not a fan of sheltering and I provide shelter, but I know what I am. I am a shelter for the homeless. And there shouldn’t be shelters. There are enough resources in our community and our country to have affordable housing for people. It’s a matter of desire and it’s a matter of building it. And that priority has not taken place.”