Before the pandemic, the streets of downtown Indianapolis bustled with hundreds of thousands of people on any given day. The city drew commuters, convention-goers and other visitors to its walkable downtown. But with the pandemic sending the number of office workers and tourists plummeting, Indianapolis’s sidewalks don’t hum with the same energy as before Covid-19 hit.
That doesn’t mean the streets are empty. Indianapolis has been confronted with the same stark reminder facing many other cities: Too many of residents are forced to endure the pandemic without permanent shelter or access to basic services. Covid-19 has made the presence of people experiencing unsheltered homelessness even more visible, and has made the need for cities to address these challenges — in both the short and long term — even more urgent.
When the safest place to be is at home, people experiencing homelessness face an even greater risk of exposure to the virus. And the number of people living outside could surge as pandemic-related job losses lead to a wave of evictions. Before the recent federal eviction moratorium (which, without federal rental assistance, is only a temporary stopgap), a study indicated more than 30,000 households in Marion County, Indiana, faced heightened risk of eviction, largely because of the pandemic. Black, Indigenous, and Latinx people have been disproportionately affected by both Covid-19 and homelessness, and the pandemic could widen racial disparities in health and housing stability even further — making an equitable response critical.
The pandemic has reinforced public attention on the homelessness crisis that policymakers at all levels of government have seen for decades and, unfortunately, been unable to properly address. But it hasn’t changed the solution: Housing is how we end homelessness. Overwhelming evidence shows the positive impacts of providing housing with services through a Housing First approach — in which people are offered homes with supportive housing services without having to meet program requirements, such as sobriety, so they can build stability in their lives.
Despite that evidence, many cities still use punitive measures to respond to homelessness. Using police to sweep homeless encampments or issue citations and arrests doesn’t reduce homelessness or help people find stability. Instead, it traps people in a homelessness-jail cycle that is inefficient for public budgets and harmful to people living on the streets. During a pandemic, it’s even more dangerous.
As city leaders implement measures to respond to the immediate needs of people living outside, they should follow the evidence on what works to keep people healthy during the pandemic. But it’s also critical they look beyond the current crisis toward long-term solutions that can end homelessness.
Indianapolis is taking that evidence-based approach in its immediate Covid-19 response and in its steps toward a longer-term plan to give all residents access to safe, stable, permanent housing.
- The city has followed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and its own Homeless Bill of Rights with regard to public health and safety. Law enforcement encampment sweeps can put people experiencing homelessness at even greater risk of spreading Covid-19, and they can break the connection between people experiencing homelessness and service providers. Instead, Indianapolis is using crisis response to provide access to food and hygiene while limiting the spread of disease, setting up portable restrooms and hand-washing stations across downtown to help residents experiencing homelessness stay healthy while waiting for a connection to housing.
- The city is funding a 150% increase in the number of professional outreach teams, which directly connect people experiencing homelessness to social services, mental and physical health care, and housing.
- The city established a hotel program to temporarily house people experiencing homelessness, especially those at higher risk of complications with Covid-19 infection. Unlike hotel programs in many other cities, Indianapolis’s program goes beyond providing hotel rooms for people who are already in congregate shelters and is referring people who live unsheltered to the program. At the end of September, 171 people had used this option for an average stay of 55 nights.
- The city is using CARES Act funding to create long-term solutions for people experiencing homelessness, through investment in rapid rehousing and permanent supportive housing. Those investments not only provide an exit strategy for the short-term hotel program, but they also align with a broader five-year plan to end chronic homelessness by 2023. That plan aims to reduce the number of days someone spends in a shelter before they can move into permanent housing to 30 days.
This pandemic has exposed failures and inequities across our society, including in how we respond to homelessness. But we know what works. Now is the time for policymakers at all levels of government to invest in housing with services that address the underlying problem, rather than using punitive responses that fail to help anyone. Providing housing — with services — can reduce homelessness and ensure everyone has access to a home that can keep them healthy during the pandemic and beyond.
Joe Hogsett is the 49th mayor of the City of Indianapolis.
Barbara Poppe is the founder of Barbara Poppe and Associates and the former executive director of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness.
Mary Cunningham is a vice president at the Urban Institute and director of its Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center.
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