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Notes from the Field: Southern Rural Indiana

Written by Brian Davis on . Posted in Blog

Some think that it is hard to reach people experiencing homelessness, especially with the smaller population of people with a mental illness who often refuse shelter or services.  Barb Anderson, working in Jeffersonville, Indiana, has found a way to reach people where they are, not where she wants them to be or where society things they should be. 

Barb talks about her clients as her friends – truly some of the most amazing people she has ever worked with in her career.  Some of her friends’ minds don’t process information in a linear or sequential manner but have a creativity, spontaneity, and unique perspective that is enlightening. The downside is they will often make horrible decisions that are harmful to themselves, and it is so painful to see them suffer unnecessarily.  There is also the issue of looking on in horror when seeing how others react out of fear or hostility when they are face to face with a mentally ill person who lives outside.  Barb takes it all in stride and is able to calm the situation with her quick wit and loud Hazard, Kentucky laugh!

Barb shared a story about a man who traditionally lives outside with mental illness, who she was trying to coax inside this winter.  Anderson was trying to convince him to stay in the hotel designated by the County as the emergency spot for the hardest cases; he refused to follow the rules designed to serve the mainstream paying customers.  This conflict led to being asked to leave the end of the line, hotel of last resort. Barb tried her best with the staff person at 1:00 a.m. to get them to reverse course because she could not let him sleep outside in the middle of a cold winter night as the wind blew through the rural Indiana landscape. She called a neighboring hotel and paid for a room, they fed him, treated him very well and the issue was resolved.  It was a long night with little sleep, and she knew her long time friend appreciated her efforts. He was safe, fed, and sleeping in a warm bed. Her friends deserve nothing less.   

Barb Anderson

Barb began her career in 1979 as a public service employee (sort of like a national service member) and in the local city planning department.  She told me that she had grown up in poverty and had never really planned to work on social justice issues.  In 1985, she worked with many to open the only shelter in a 14 county region in Southern Indiana. In 1996, the shelter became an independent non-profit. In the same year, she joined the Board to the National Coalition for the Homeless. Anderson has been fighting for her friends for decades in rural Indiana with policy work at the national level, twisting the ears of state officials in Indianapolis and confronting the mayors at their favorite hangouts in the region. 

Small town America does not typically have the number of visibly homeless as the big cities like the one just across the Ohio River in Louisville, but that may be changing.  The poverty rate in this area is 9.6% but that hides many who are out of sight and thus out of mind.  Barb reports a sharp increase in street homelessness in the region over the last few years with no new resources to address the issue.  The opening of a walking bridge between Louisville and Jeffersonville has resulted in an increase in street homelessness but is only one  contributing factor in the increase. Louisville also tends to do more sweeps, has a more violent reputation, and homeless people have said that they feel safer on the streets in rural Indiana.  The problem is that the resources in a small community are fewer and friendliness does not keep people safe on a cold night.  

Barb reported that in the initial stages of the pandemic serving homeless people was very productive because of the “crap load of money” that the region received, but NIMBY issues resulted in tearing tents down.  The region has used CARES Act assistance funds to assist with COVID relief,  and used some of those funds to put people up in hotels and motels. The unemployment rate in Southern Indiana is really good at only 3.9%, but they do boast a higher than the national average of medically uninsured.  Haven House, in partnership with other agencies, has worked hard to provide outreach services to those living outside and those who were evicted despite the federal guidelines pushing an eviction moratorium.  But just like everything associated with the pandemic, things have gotten progressively worse as time wore on.  The money was not flowing like it did in the beginning, and people’s patience was wearing as thin as the same face mask being worn for 8 months straight. Anderson traveled to Bloomington recently and worked with activists in South Bend to find solutions to the sweeps being done in their communities.  

The increase in homelessness over the past year is not confined to one population with families, women and young people all on the rise in the region.  Barb and the Haven House volunteers did a get out the vote campaign, but Indiana is one of the state’s with many barriers to voting like mandatory identification.  The reality is that it is extremely difficult to motivate people to vote during a pandemic.  Haven House has a Facebook page and would love your input on ways to better serve people experiencing homelessness living in a rural community. 

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