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How Indianapolis will combat homelessness, panhandling

Posted: 9:01 PM, Jan 28, 2019
Updated: 2019-01-28 21:01:46-05
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INDIANAPOLIS — Some of the extra $800,000 Indianapolis will get from extending the parking meter times could go toward paying the city’s homeless population to help clean up the area.

A proposal with the City-County Council would allocate $300,000 to curb the city’s homelessness and panhandling problem.

The $300,000 would go toward three programs:

  • Giving homeless people in the city jobs to clean up graffiti, litter and similar jobs
  • Housing and rental assistance vouchers
  • Street Reach Indy

The idea for the homeless job program came from other cities across the United States, namely Albuquerque, New Mexico.

“We’ve looked at that model and would like to adapt it here,” Indianapolis Deputy Mayor of Community Development Jeff Bennett said.

Albuquerque’s “There’s A Better Way” program started in 2015 with a budget of $50,000. The city drives to areas frequented by panhandlers and offers them day labor for $9 per hour.

After the work is complete, the passengers are taken to a homeless services center for services and overnight shelter if needed. Two years after it began, the city considered the program a success and budgeted about $181,000 for it, according to the City of Albuquerque.

Cities across the country have their own versions of the “There’s A Better Way” program, including Lexington, Ky., Chicago, and Dallas.

A lot of the specifics of the Indianapolis program are still to be determined, such as how many workers, how much it would pay and for how many hours would people work.

But, Bennett said, the program will need to be lucrative enough to deter people from panhandling instead.

“We have to find that balance that allows us to offer as many job opportunities to as many people as we can, while still paying enough to disincentivize panhandling,” Bennett said. “That activity itself is lucrative. In some cases, folks are making $75, $100 or more a day. We have to be able to compete economically with that model.”

Answer Indiana, a local chapter of the Act Now to Stop War and End Racism Coalition, has been a frequent critic of the city’s plans with the homeless population.

The group organized a large protest at a City-County Council meeting in September 2018, showing disapproval for a proposal that could have ticketed people for sitting or lying downtown.

But Noah Leininger, a local co-coordinator for Answer Indiana, said the program would be a “step in the right direction,” albeit a small step.

“We think that giving people work is good, as long as they’re treated with respect and there’s dignified pay,” Leininger said. “Our issue is with the method that the City-County Council used to fund this program, which was to raise the hours for which people will be paying to park across the city. Funding for these programs, in our view should come from wealthy businesses, not as a hidden tax on the working class.”

Leininger also said the jobs program will not end the problem of homelessness by itself.

“Only housing people will end homelessness,” he said.

Which is where the other two planned parts to the city’s new homeless initiative come in. The city received 50 housing and rental assistance vouchers from federal government late last year but has needed money to connect the people who need the vouchers to their destinations.

The last part of the initiative is through the city’s friendly partnership with CHIP, the Coalition For Homelessness Intervention & Prevention. CHIP and Downtown Indy run Street Reach, a campaign to provide homeless and needy people with what they need to get on their feet.

The funding that many homeless people can get is very restrictive on what it can be spent on, Chelsea Haring-Cozzi, the executive director of CHIP, said.

“Street Reach allows for funding to fill those gaps,” she said. “It really is kind of an open source of funding to the community.

Street Reach can help with security deposits, substance abuse treatment, to things as seemingly simple as work boots for a new job.

It’s unclear how exactly the $300,000 will be divided among the three new homeless initiatives, but Haring-Cozzi is ready for the new money either way.

"What we're really excited about is -- we have relied very heavily on federal funding to address homelessness in our city,” she said. “Historically, we have not had a very dedicated, sustainable source of local funding to really address homelessness. The parking meter revenue - we're very excited that it will create a new source of dedicated, local funding."

If all goes as planned, a pilot program for the panhandling workforce initiative will begin this spring.

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