Editor’s note: This is the first in a multi-part series looking at the growing problem of homelessness in Knox County. This installment looks at the local people who often lend a hand to those without a permanent home. Look for part three in next Saturday’s edition of the Sun-Commercial.
Emily Bunyan clearly recalls the day, in 1995, when she first encountered a homeless man coming inside the Knox County Public Library, looking for a comfortable place to rest the weight of his troubles.
“Scott was with us every day for fifteen years,” she said.
At that time, the library was open nearly 70 hours per week.
“He was with us for nearly every one of those hours,” Bunyan, now the library’s director, said of the lanky man who first appeared in the library as a well groomed 39-year-old.
Scott’s appearance deteriorated over time, beyond just typical aging, and over the years his clean-shaven face gave way to a long, white beard.
Eventually, in 2010, he stopped coming to the library altogether, and it’s clear from Bunyan’s voice that she still worries about what may have happened to the man she’d come to know so well.
“It’s like he drifted away,” she said.
In cities across America, public libraries are often a hub for those living on the streets. The public institutions — open and welcoming to all — are safe havens from the blistering sun, pouring rain, insect bites and, sometimes, the stinging bite of insults hurled by other people.
In a library, one finds access to all kinds of resources: the knowledge housed in books, links to social services through the internet, clean drinking water from a fountain and tidy restroom facilities.
Bunyan describes it as “a unique institution, in that it serves people of all ages and walks of life without regard to socioeconomic status or condition.”
She adds, “I don’t know of another public facility that has such an open door policy.”
Though Vincennes doesn’t have hundreds of individuals living on its streets, or seeking shelter in the public library, Bunyan says for the past 25 years, she and her staff have seen an average of two homeless individuals seeking refuge per day.
The trick is finding the balance between enforcing the library’s rules — like no sleeping — while also being compassionate to the plight of someone struggling.
“We have to enforce rules and behavioral guidelines for all patrons in order to make everyone feel comfortable and safe,” Bunyan said.
And while rules are enforced, library staff take an empathetic rather than punitive approach.
“The compassionate approach is always best,” she said. “We like to address people as ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’ and treat them as we would want to be treated.
“Homelessness is really a unique kind of poverty. It’s hard to imagine being penniless and having no social network or family and friends to rely on for help.”
Since March, COVID-19 concerns have greatly limited the public’s access to library facilities, meaning those without homes have lost access to one of their greatest resources.
And Bunyan again worries.
“I like to think they’re finding help elsewhere, but it concerns me,” she said. “I wonder where they are?”
At Gregg Park, Vincennes parks superintendent Steve Beaman is out in the hot August sun doing routine maintenance.
Beaman notices an older couple with a little dog, enjoying their lunch at a picnic table beneath the shelter house. Another gentleman spreads a blanket beneath a tree and enjoys a nap in the shade.
Though seemingly picturesque, the three individuals are homeless, Beaman says.
“Right now we probably have three homeless people who come to the park and stay until dusk, but it’s ok — a lot of people come out and eat their lunch or take a nap,” he said.
Beaman encounters homeless and transient individuals on a regular basis.
And he, like Bunyan, prefers the compassionate approach, noting that he’s never seen reason not to.
“You may not agree with how somebody got there, but it’s still hard to be homeless,” he said.
With no home, and often without money to spend, there are few places a homeless person can go to relax, so public parks draw those seeking respite.
Though outdoor spaces, parks still come with access to restrooms and water fountains, shelter from the sun and rain, and they provide enough room to stretch out and rest.
Beaman points to another feature: free parking for vehicles.
A man sleeping on a bench next to all his worldly possessions is a clear mark of homelessness, but an even greater percentage of those without permanent homes survive by living out of their cars or finding temporary shelter elsewhere.
At Gregg Park, it’s now common to spot a pickup truck with a camper shell or a large sedan packed full of someone’s worldly goods.
“We’ve recently had a couple staying overnight in the park, and two or three guys in the pocket park,” Beaman said of the downtown space.
“There’s another guy with a bike at the (Riverfront) Pavilion, and three or four more walking Main Street at any given time,” he said.
Beaman rarely experiences problems with those taking advantage of the city’s parks — and only occasionally does he find it necessary to tell someone that it’s time to move on.
“The park is open to anybody, and we don’t really get a lot of complaints,” he said.
Instead of problems, Beaman often sees the best in people.
One man, struggling with addiction, recently took up residence in the bandshell at the park.
Despite the man’s difficulties, Beaman described him as polite and well liked. So much so that the park’s regular walkers and joggers often enjoyed talking to the man and would share plates of leftovers from family reunions and picnics.
Just four days ago, after encouragement from many in the community, the man agreed to seek help and check into a treatment program.
“I was really happy to hear that,” Beaman said.
While there is a limit to what he can do, Beaman said he and other officials, like Mayor Joe Yochum, never turn a blind eye
“When it’s really cold, we go out and open up the public restrooms, and check on people, make sure they’re okay,” he said.
Many people, Beaman adds, can’t fully understand what it’s like to lack access to something as basic as a shower, a place to live or a social and familial support system.
With clear conviction, Beaman said, “I just can’t imagine not having somebody care about me, to not have anyone to rely on. These people, they’re still somebody.”
On a humid Thursday morning, Buffi Haddix walks over to a corner diner booth to offer a friendly hello and a coffee refill to Eugene, a homeless man who has been a regular customer for years.
The two comfortably chat, like they’ve been longtime friends.
Chris and Buffi Haddix have owned Olde Thyme Diner on Main Street for ten years, having taken over the business from his parents in 2010.
The couple say they’ve served hearty meals to a number of people who face food insecurity, countless times.
“We are always happy to give a hot meal to someone in need,” said Chris Haddix, but he adds that the generosity of other customers often means they don’t have to.
Many of the diner’s regular customers pay for meals, buy gift certificates or invite those in need to sit and share meals with them.
Occasionally, Haddix said, they see someone near the entryway, feeling uncomfortable about stepping inside, perhaps self-conscious about their hygiene or not certain they can afford to pay for a meal.
“When we see someone who is uncomfortable, we bring them a takeout meal and a drink,” he said.
Though Haddix says they’ve recently noticed an uptick in the number of homeless individuals downtown, he remembers seeing homeless customers while working for his folks in the mid-1990s, too.
“Charlie was the first person I recall coming into the diner. Anyone who worked on Main from the 1990s to the early 2000s would know of him,” he said.
Charlie — described as a really friendly guy — lived with some intellectual disabilities.
Though he had family members he could bunk with much of the time, Charlie never knew where his next meal would come from, so Olde Thyme Diner became one of his saving graces.
The same has been true the past few years for Eugene.
“Our customers regularly buy Eugene’s meals, but when he has money, he pays himself and always leaves a tip,” Haddix said.
“Even in his situation, he still thinks of other people. That’s inspiring to me.”
For as long as they are able to provide, the diner owners say the less fortunate will be welcomed there.
“They are customers who sit and eat just like anyone else,” Haddix said.
They are somebody.
The Knox County Commissioners are moving forward with the development of a comprehensive improvement plan.
And a few residents may hear a knock at the door in the process.
County commissioner Trent Hinkle, who has been leading the charge on this project, told his fellow commissioners this week that he continues to work with the Loogootee-based Southern Indiana Development Commission — an organization that serves as a grant administrator often for both the county and the City of Vincennes — to compile a complete list of county residents, everything from single-family homes to rental units.
“Then they will all be put into a random generator, and that’s how they will come up with the number of residences we have to knock on their doors for this survey,” he said.
The county is applying for a grant that, if successful, would secure the necessary funds to move forward with a 10-year development plan.
The grant opportunity, Hinkle explained last month, is through the state’s Office of Community and Rural Affairs. Applications are limited to $50,000 — a 10% local match would be necessary.
But if they get the funds, the county would be able to hire a firm to put together a 10-year development plan, one that would prioritize various capital improvements.
Such an improvement plan would be a first for Knox County.
“This is exciting to be moving forward with this,” said commission president Kellie Streeter during Tuesday’s regular meeting, “since we’ve never had one before.”
And the county has often lost out as a result.
The City of Vincennes has pursued several over the years as having an updated comprehensive plan is often necessary to be eligible for grant opportunities.
Officials in Vincennes, Knox County and Bicknell, for instance, had to pull out of the race to be named the state’s first region-focused Stellar Community in the fall of 2018 largely because the county didn’t have a comprehensive plan.
Officials cited it as the primary reason local elected officials had to drop out of the race for Stellar, which opens up a multitude of other grant opportunities for everything from quality of place initiatives to infrastructure repair.
One of the projects the county hoped to do if successful in that program is to extend the city’s Riverwalk all the way out to Ouabache Trails Park.
Another possibility would be to transform the current work release and probation department building downtown into a kind of county all-purpose building.
A development plan like this one, too, will make the county more competitive in the race for state and federal grant funds for a variety of improvement projects.
But to be eligible for the grant that would pay for the comprehensive plan, the county must meet certain low-to-moderate income guidelines, hence the need for a random sampling of houses, Hinkle said.
The county, too, will soon need to work with SIDC on a Request for Proposals, which would be used to hire the engineering firm that would do construct the plan, should the county be successful in securing the money to pay for it.
The application, Hinkle said, is due Oct. 15.
Knox County on Friday recorded three more deaths due to COVID-19.
According to the state Department of Health, Knox County now has six coronavirus-related deaths, and with eight new cases also reported Friday, the total COVID-19 positive caseload climbed to 370.
And just as residents enter another holiday weekend.
“Wear your masks, avoid large groups,” urged county health officer Dr. Alan Stewart. “My hope is that everyone out there is careful.
“I’m disappointed that we’re still getting 8-10 new cases per day. We’re seeing more community spread than I would like. And hopefully Labor Day weekend won’t open this all up for us again.”
The state Department of Health’s COVID tracker actually had Knox County at two new deaths Friday morning; another local man died Friday, making the total now three, Stewart confirmed.
One of the three new deaths, however, was actually a Dubois County woman who was being treated at Good Samaritan Hospital.
The other was a North Knox man who arrived to the ER and was pronounced dead shortly thereafter; a rapid COVID-19 test was administered, Stewart said, and it came back positive.
The new cases are largely due to community spread; outbreaks at both a local nursing home and at a large business do seem to be under control, Stewart has said.
The schools, too, are faring well.
South Knox is reporting four cases at the middle high school, while the Vincennes Community School Corp. is reporting two cases — one a student, the other a teacher, both at Lincoln High School.
The North Knox School Corp. is reporting four cases at the junior senior high school and another two cases at the intermediate school.
The state, too, has changed the way it presents information on COVID-19, giving each of Indiana’s 92 counties a rating.
The state health department now assigns scores based on the number of new cases per 100,000 residents and the percentage of tests confirming COVID-19 infections. Those scores then coordinate with a color-coded rating system for the county’s level of community spread and risk.
Knox County has a rating of 1.5 and is marked yellow, the second-highest (or second most dangerous) among the color-coded categories.
Dr. Kristina Box, state health commissioner, said the new metrics are meant to be“less volatile” to rapid COVID-19 changes at the community level and more representative of “true community spread” within a county, according to a report by the Associated Press.
But locals aren’t so sure.
Stewart takes issue with so much of a county’s score hinging on its positivity rate; Knox County’s is currently at 9.2%.
A lack of adequate testing, he said, causes the picture to be skewed.
“Testing is limited, and that makes a difference,” he said. “We’re still not at a point where we can test everybody we want to test.”
So Knox County has a tendency, he explained, to reserve tests for only those they believe have a good chance of testing positive.
If local healthcare providers tested everyone they wanted, the positivity rate would likely be lower.
So until there is adequate, fast testing for all Indiana counties, he argues the new dashboard ratings don’t paint a clear picture.
“So my fundamental opinion of the new dashboard is somewhat negative,” he said. “It’s trying to force a one size fits all, and that’s just not the way it is.”
School district leaders, too, have been reluctant to embrace the new system, saying countywide statistics might not indicate the coronavirus risk in their own communities
The county ratings provide only recommendations for schools and does not trigger any mandates from the state, however.
“One concern I have with this new dashboard is that the data is lagging,” said VCSC superintendent Greg Parsley. “So by the time those ratings come out, they could be based on week-old data.
“And as we know, things on the ground can change in very short order.”
Many school officials, as well as Stewart, also believe that the formula was created to favor the counties near Indianapolis, ones with better access to COVID-19 testing.
“It’s a guideline,” Parsley said, “and that’s how we’ll treat it. But the thing I appreciate is that they’re still letting individual schools work with their providers, health departments to make decisions. I’m elated to have a regional hospital in our backyard and a county health officer that is a former school board member and understands how schools work. It’s a good partnership.”
North Knox superintendent Darrel Bobe likened the new dashboard to social media — it’s not necessarily a source of accurate information, he argued.
“But people are still going to look at it,” he said. “And I suppose if people have concerns, they can call their schools, talk to the health department.
“But we’re already transparent,” he said, mentioning specifically a real-time COVID-19 tracker on the corporation’s website. “It’s all right there, warts and all.”
But Bobe, too, praised the state’s willingness to let decisions on whether to move to e-learning remain at the local level. And he’s thankful as well for the good partnerships formed between the schools, GSH and Stewart.
“We’re going to do what we need to do. We know our county better than everybody else,” Bobe said.
“I’m not going to look at that dashboard daily,” he said. “But I will be talking to our local people daily. That’s what’s important.”
The new state dashboard can be found by visiting the state Department of Health’s COVID-19 website at www.coronavirus.in.gov.