Editor’s note: This is the first in a multi-part series looking at the growing problem of homelessness in Knox County. This is Eugene’s story; we’ve left out his last name to protect his identity. Look for part two in next Saturday’s edition of the Sun-Commercial.
As the sun sets, Eugene fixes up his makeshift bed on a public bench on Main Street. After placing two flattened pieces of cardboard over the bench’s metal slats, and adjusting an old hand-me-down throw pillow, the man in the straw hat puts his weary feet up at the end of another muggy, August day.
“You see this bench here? Even when it pours down rain it stays dry as a bone,” Eugene says, as he describes one of the reasons for his nightly stay on that hard metal frame.
“Only if the wind really gets to blowing does it get wet,” he adds.
Homelessness, once seemingly uncommon in Vincennes, is now clearly visible in the small community.
A stroll through Gregg Park reveals two men and a little dog resting on picnic tables, beneath the overhang of a shelter house.
Similar scenes now seem to abound around town: a young man sleeping at Kimmel Park, while another escapes the sun beneath the shade of The Riverfront Pavilion at Second and Busseron streets.
Back on Main Street, Eugene sits in the air conditioned comfort of Old Thyme Diner, his coffee cup in hand and the remaining contents of his whole life zipped up in the rolling duffle bag on the floor next to his booth.
“Some people give me the middle finger, cuss me like a soldier — once somebody threw a bottle of water at me and hit me with it,” he said, speaking to the challenges, both emotional and physical, of living on the street.
Earlier in the week, Eugene said he was resting in the pocket park downtown when a passerby yelled, “You can eat out of the Dumpsters, because I’m not feeding you. Just put your head in and start eating.”
Other people, he said, make fun of him, tell him to “get a job,” “get a life” or hurl other insults and slurs.
Though visibly wounded by the comments, the 62-year-old said he just has to let go of things like that. Lashing out or holding on to anger will do him no good.
And he has learned to live with the stigmas and stereotypes surrounding homelessness.
Though the exact path that led Eugene to homelessness is unclear, he describes a tumultuous and volatile childhood and family life, and at one point calls his former home, “a torture chamber.”
“I’d rather live on the streets than live like that again,” he added.
And while there are a whole host of reasons someone might end up on the street, from lost jobs and lack of a supportive network to mental illness and drug addiction, one thing is clear: once a person is unsheltered, it is incredibility difficult to reach the necessary escape velocity to find a home again.
Without an address, problems can quickly compound. Simply filling out a job application but having no home address (and often no phone number) is often a red flag for potential employers.
Underlying mental health issues, without proper treatment, can make retaining a job or a stable household nearly impossible.
And, after a relatively short time on the street, many of the homeless face a host of medical issues that accompany living under such harsh conditions: food poisoning, infections, and dehydration among many other, at times, life-threatening ailments.
A struggle with diabetes recently landed Eugene in the emergency room of Good Samaritan Hospital.
He describes what it’s like to have only a few dollars in his pocket and then have to decide what to eat on any given day.
“Prices aren’t like what they used to be — these new restaurants are high, so I don’t go around there anymore to get meals,” he said.
“I can go to McDonald’s and get full, or I can buy a box of some little cakes or something cheap for breakfast sometimes.
And while the fast food or prepackaged snack cakes fill the hunger, subsisting on the sugary, starchy foods exacerbates health problems like diabetes.
Things often taken for granted, like access to indoor bathroom facilities, are a daily challenge for those without permanent shelter.
One set of public restrooms, next to the pocket park on Fourth Street, Eugene says are now sometimes kept locked, particularly at night.
“People — homeless people — have been going in there and sleeping on the floor, turning that bathroom into a motel when the weather’s bad,” he said.
And, as with all facets of life currently, COVID-19 has created additional challenges and barriers to an already vulnerable population of people.
As Americans were laid off from their jobs in the earliest days of the pandemic, a number of local residents were reported to be living out of their cars while waiting for unemployment checks or new job prospects.
Additionally, a lot of in-person services such as mental health and behavioral therapy, were postponed or moved online.
And when area businesses and restaurants closed their doors for multiple weeks, many of the places someone like Eugene would go for respite, were no longer available. And many still have limited hours.
“Because of this virus you can’t go into as many places and sit and eat, like at McDonald’s,” he said. “And Denny’s used to be open 24/7, but because the virus they close down early now.”
Despite his many daily challenges, Eugene is quick to offer a joyful smile as two large dogs pull their owner toward his bench on Main Street, wagging their tails and waiting to be acknowledged.
And he’s quick to point out the many kindnesses bestowed on him by strangers.
“I was asleep last night on the bench, and I woke up and there was a bottle of water with a big bag of Lay’s chips. Somebody just left it for me,” he said.
“Once I woke up and found a Hostess cake.”
Others, he said, don’t have the means to offer him food or financial assistance, but he’s touched when people simply stop and offer a kind word.
“A lady came up to me the other day and said ‘I wish I could do something for you. But I can pray for you,’ ” he said.
“That really means something to me.”
Road closed signs will soon pop up all over town as the city looks to embark on yet another paving project courtesy of the state’s Community Crossings Matching Grant program.
But this is likely it for awhile as the state Department of Transportation has put a hold on the program that has, to date, pumped millions of dollars into Vincennes and Knox County for infrastructure repair.
“INDOT canceled the July call for projects,” said city engineer John Sprague. “The word they used is ‘postponed.’
“I don’t think anybody is anticipating another call before January of 2021, but we don’t know for sure. We’ll just have to see.”
INDOT announced in June that it was suspending the road repair-funding program amid the COVID-19 pandemic. State and local officials are bracing for funding cuts as the full impact of the 3-month shutdown — and the job losses that have resulted from it — is felt next year in terms of lost tax revenue.
According to an email sent out to cities and towns, INDOT plans to “monitor the financial outlook” and re-evaluate the program this fall.
So Sprague said the city is on hold after years of prioritizing road repair.
“We have no plans for (awarding) paving contracts without CCMG at the moment,” he explained.
County highway department superintendent Benji Boyd said the county, too, has become dependent upon those dollars, which were first introduced in 2016.
“We don’t have any money to spend unless we have CCMG,” Boyd said matter-of-factly.
The City of Vincennes during the last round received $233,000 in CCMG funds, and combined with a full match, will invest more than $460,000 in the resurfacing of a handful of streets.
Set to be paved are Reel Avenue from Second to Chestnut streets as well as Upper 11th Street from Wabash Avenue to St. Clair Street, First Street from Reel to Swartzel avenues, and Parke Street from Eberwine to Swartzel avenues.
Concrete Roads Arbor Drive, Clodfelter Drive and Perdue Road from River Road to Sixth Street were also included in the package and, aside from a portion of Sixth Street years ago, this marks the first time the city has applied for CCMG funds to make repairs to concrete streets, which tend to be more expensive to build and repair but do have a longer life-span.
Sprague said he will meet with the contractors next week, and he expects work to begin by Sept. 8.
He also expects motorists to experience road closures on those streets, on and off, for the three weeks following.
The city also last year received about $430,000 in CCMG funds to do a reconstruction of Forbes Road; the city’s Utilities Service Board, too, chipped in another $660,000 to redo the storm water drainage there as that area, one nearest to Benjamin Franklin Elementary School, is prone to flooding.
That project was delayed due to COVID-19 but is now under way.
It could either be finished this year or, if the weather doesn’t cooperate, could wrap up in the spring, Sprague said.
As for what roads Sprague would look to repave as part of a CCMG application either later this year or early in 2021 — should state officials give CCMG a green light — he isn’t quite sure.
The city uses a software program to prioritize streets for repair, but a harsh winter could change everything, he said.
“So we’ll need to reevaluate things before we would select any more areas for repaving,” he said.
County officials, however, are all wrapped up with the expenditure of their CCMG funds for the year.
The county most recently received another $603,000. The county matched that with another $200,000, enough to repave Hickory Corner Road from Indiana 61 to U.S. 50 as well as the final portion of old U.S. 41, the area south of the CSX rail line. Both of those projects, Boyd said, are complete.
As for what the county does next, should it eventually receive more CCMG money, Boyd already has an application ready to go.
“Bruceville Road between Vincennes and Bruceville,” he said excitedly. “That’s the one I have eyes on.”
The wheels of government do, indeed, turn slow, as was pointed out Friday afternoon by Knox County Commission President Kellie Streeter after they opted to hit pause, yet again, on the passing of a new solar ordinance.
But for some, like local resident Mike Anson, it’s hard to see any movement at all.
“It just seems to me that you’re holding up a project when you should be cheering it on,” he said. “I think we should be cheering any company that wants to come and invest $110 million in Knox County.
“I’d think it would be, ‘What can we do to get you here?’ rather than all these rules.”
But rules, there must be, Streeter pointed out.
“We want business. We want investment,” she said. “That’s why we’re taking this on.”
The commissioners met in special session Friday afternoon to take back up discussions of a proposed solar ordinance, one that would regulate solar development in Knox County.
Two companies — Nebraska-based Tenaska and Origis Energy in Miami, Florida — are in talks with local land owners currently and have been actively participating in the drafting of the ordinance.
Tenaska is further along in the process, having already selected a location in southern Knox County and poised to invest $110 million in a solar farm there.
The process of drafting an ordinance, too, is shared with members of the Area Plan Commission as they will be the enforcers of the new zoning law.
The APC earlier this month gave the current draft their favorable recommendation, but representatives with both Tenaska and Origis have asked for changes.
Dan Farrell, a project development manager with Origis, wants to lessen the financial burden on solar companies by delaying the establishment of a decommissioning security bond — or getting rid of it altogether.
And local resident Kent Utt, who is now serving as a consultant for Tenaska, asked the county to consider allowing for a preliminary permit, of sorts, so solar companies aren’t out hundreds of thousands of dollars in engineering costs only to see the county decline an application later.
An earlier change to the solar ordinance allowed for a greater 200 feet of buffer space between the solar panels and the next-nearest structure — the original legislation said 100 feet — but Utt said Tenaska wanted to see language added that would allow the homeowner to waive that mandate.
The commissioners, however, seemed inclined to let the legislation remain as it is.
“We’ve always done things like that through a variance process,” Streeter said. “And I see no reason to change that now.
“I don’t disagree that landowners can and should have the right (to dictate something different), but we have always had a variance process that allows for this.”
Colt Michaels, the APC’s executive director, said their concern was that allowing land owners to waive buffer requirements would allow for “inconsistency” in land improvements. He argued, too, that it would be “changing the development standard itself.”
Streeter, pointing out that the APC approves most every variance request that comes its way anyway, said she still saw no reason to change what seems to be working just fine.
“I hate to see contention here,” she said. “But we see our processes as described appropriately here.”
Other concerns that have been raised — such as a staged-in permitting process — could also have been the result of miscommunication.
The ordinance, the commissioners pointed out, can be interpreted multiple ways, and they saw nothing that suggested a solar company would have to present a “fully-engineered plan” to the APC for a permit to be issued.
“Nowhere does it say we need a fully-engineered plan,” Michaels said. “As long as we have a boundary survey, an approximate location of structures, we should be able to decide whether or not the setbacks and buffer zones are met without complete engineering.”
An attorney with Barnes and Thornburg — who attended the special meeting by phone — agreed, saying the ordinance focuses on “location,” not specific engineering details.
It’s a point of confusion that can likely be cleared up with a simple memo sent out to the solar companies looking to build here, suggested county attorney Andrew Porter.
“So that they understand,” he said, “so that their concerns are alleviated.”
And Utt agreed.
“I think as long as they understand exactly what they need to do, that will work,” he said.
As for the decommissioning standards, the commissioners seemed inclined to leave the language in.
There was argument made by Origis early on that, perhaps, a decommissioning bond — money that would be paid out in the event that the company abandoned a solar farm and the land needed to be cleaned up — wasn’t even necessary; the value of the land and the equipment, Farrell argued, would more than cover the cost of decommissioning.
The commissioners, however, weren’t buying it.
“The more I think about that, the more I don’t directly agree,” she said. “We put roads, all sorts of things under bond.
“So I just don’t think that’s an argument that warrants a change in our ordinance.”
Commissioner Trent Hinkle agreed.
“It’s part of our job, in my mind, as commissioners to protect the land owners, the residents as best we can for as far as we can into the future.”
But despite deciding not to make those proposed changes to the ordinance, one change is still possible as the commissioners realized there, perhaps, wasn’t language that would protect the county from environmental hazards. Other such solar ordinances, Hinkle suggested, require companies check the soil for traces of metal every five years.
Barnes and Thornburg agreed and said, in other cases, it’s every eight years.
“There could be things in the soil that we don’t want there, that need to be cleaned up,” Hinkle said. “So I think it might be necessary to include a section that says, after a certain number of years, we start requiring tests.”
But the commissioners made no official decision on the ordinance — whether to approve or amend it — but will meet again to continue discussions at 10 a.m. on Tuesday in the commissioners room of the Knox County Courthouse.