State, local policies needed to remedy homelessness
A homeless man sits along Wall Street during the beginning of the Christmas holiday week on December 23, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
As housing prices increase for both buyers and renters, more Hoosiers are getting squeezed out of the market and families are pushed toward homelessness. But researchers argue the state could take steps to help its most vulnerable Hoosiers.
This year’s point-in-time count in Indianapolis reported an overall decrease in the number of people experiencing homelessness. But for those under the age of 24, whether in a family or not, homelessness continued to increase over pre-pandemic figures.
“I was super surprised to see the increase in individuals under the age of 24 and (in) families,” said Brendan Bow, the lead researcher for the count and an accompanying policy brief. “A lot of the populations went up a lot for 2021 during COVID but most of the age groups went back down.”
In particular, precarious housing situations for children contribute to a cycle of poverty, making it difficult for those children to escape and lead better lives.
“If you’ve got an unstable childhood and you have unstable housing as a child, when you graduate high school or hit 18 years you don’t magically get a new slate,” Bow said. “You’re kind of stuck with what you had in the past. If you’ve been unstable in the past, you’re likely to go on to be unstable in the future.”
A statewide count was not immediately available, but a 2020 survey identified over 5,600 Hoosiers experiencing homelessness.
Bow, a program analyst with the Indiana University Center for Research on Inclusion and Social Policy, emphasized that both state and local leaders contributed to Indianapolis’ — and the rest of the state’s — homelessness.
“Homelessness is a policy choice. We’ve made decisions in the past that have gotten us to where we are today and we can make decisions in the future to get us back to a place where there is less homelessness or, hopefully, no homelessness,” he said.
What researchers discovered
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Indiana’s homelessness population peaked, with 1,928 people experiencing homelessness in Indianapolis in January of 2021.
According to a 2022’s point-in-time count, homelessness fell in the state’s largest city by 9%, to 1,761 people. People living in unsheltered situations, outside of congregate facilities or transitional housing, fell by 23%.
But Black Hoosiers continued to make up a disproportionately high number of people experiencing homelessness, especially families. Of the families with children surveyed, 82% were Black, though Marion County’s residents are just 29% Black.
Separate from the point-in-time count, public schools use a different, more expansive criteria to identify homeless students, called the McKinney-Vento program. In Marion County, two-thirds of the 2,772 students identified as homeless were Black.
In contrast with the point-in-time count, the McKinney-Vento program counts students who are “doubling up,” the equivalent of couch surfing temporarily with a friend or family member, which accounts for 77% of all homeless students.
Bow warned those types of situations, while providing a roof over a child’s head, often signal a family on the precipice of homelessness.
“It’s nice that it’s there… but it’s no remedy for having a home of your own. Especially because those are oftentimes the most unstable,” Bow said. “You’re staying on your buddy’s couch but then your buddy gets a new girlfriend or gets a new dog and he can’t host your family anymore. Now you’re just become literally homeless.”
Bow’s team compiled a paper comparing Indianapolis’ homelessness with five other similar–sized cities: Charlotte, North Carolina; Columbus, Ohio; Fort Worth, Texas; Nashville Tennessee and Jacksonville, Florida. Generally, Indianapolis fell in the middle for the number of people experiencing homelessness and its homelessness per capita rate in comparison to its peers.
But contrary to Indianapolis’ peak during COVID-19, other cities saw a sustained decrease in homelessness throughout. Bow credited this difference to “smart spending of federal dollars” distributed during the pandemic.
Though Indianapolis is just 1.6 times larger than Milwaukee, its homeless population is 2.4 times larger, and 15.5 times more people live unsheltered.
“The decisions that you make at the state level or at the city level can make a huge difference,” Bow said.
Milwaukee deploys a “housing-first” model, which prioritizes getting someone housed rather than requiring someone be sober or have a job first. Once housed, social workers can more easily connect them to resources such as job fairs, drug counseling and social services.
Policy solutions at the state level
Local homeowners thwarted Marion County’s attempt to build housing for those experiencing homelessness, pressuring developers to abandon a 40-unit project north of downtown.
To protect future projects, and incentivize more affordable developments, Bow urged the General Assembly to increase the affordable housing tax credit, capped at $30 million per year and set to expire in 2028.
“Expanding the affordable housing tax credit would allow developers to have greater resources to push back on the push back, so to speak,” he said.
Bow said government officials should meet with neighbors and attempt to change their preconceived notions of homelessness, emphasizing that without the developments there will be people left without a place to stay.
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“I think that the median voter has this idea in their mind that the average homeless person might be that guy that’s sitting out on the street by the bus stop, laying there, who looks like he hasn’t showered in forever,” Bow said. “When in reality, that’s just one symptom. It could be school children, people with cancer or permanent disabilities… the people that you don’t necessarily see out on the streets.”
Easing restrictions on multi-family units, such as duplexes or triplexes, and manufactured housing could alleviate some of the housing shortage and curtail the impact of rising housing costs, Bow said.
Also expanding the state’s social safety net, programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, would give families financial flexibility to dedicate more funds to housing.
“That’s money that’s not going to your housing budget and I think that can really make the difference when housing (costs) keep increasing,” Bow said. “If you have to make a choice between having a home and eating dinner, most people are probably going to pick eating dinner.”
For lawmakers who might not buy into the moral argument for providing housing, Bow noted the economical benefits: better educated Hoosiers, more Hoosiers who can work and people able to contribute to their communities.
“(Putting) people in homes is already a good goal,” Bow said. “It just makes good financial sense as well.”
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