Editor’s note: This is the third installment in a multi-part series looking at the growing problem of homelessness in Knox County. This installment takes a close look at the issues that often lead to homelessness — and what locals are doing to address them. Look for part four in next Saturday’s edition of the Sun-Commercial.
On Main Street, a bearded man, wearing tattered jeans and a Johnny Cash t-shirt, stops at one of the city’s public garbage cans just before sunset.
Quickly throwing the lid back, he peers inside to see what edible food it might hold for his Monday night meal.
He stops there nearly every night now, knowing it will likely contain castoff leftovers from the diners at nearby restaurants.
Though his words are often garbled and difficult to follow, his human need is all too clear — there on public display as onlookers respond in ways ranging from disgust and laughter to genuine sadness and compassion.
While the man’s face and his own personal story of homelessness is unique, he seems to share a trait common amongst many experiencing chronic homelessness — mental illness.
According to a 2017 study by the Indiana University Public Policy Institute, approximately 33% of homeless Hoosiers are mentally ill — nationally that number is closer to 45%, with more than half of those individuals’ conditions labeled as very serious or severe.
Though people often have the knee-jerk reaction to tell someone on the street to simply “get a job,” what often goes unseen and unheard are the root causes that set the individual on a path to life without a stable home.
Sometimes it may in fact be a series of bad choices, but more often, something like mental illness is one of the common denominators when uncovering how a person ended up without shelter.
Depending on the severity of the illness — anything from severe depression to schizophrenia — a person may be unable to find or maintain employment or be stable enough to manage household responsibilities, general self care or apply for the government assistance for which they often qualify.
“Homelessness is a symptom and not the problem,” said Mark Hill, director of United Way of Knox County and organizer of the local Homeless Task Force.
Hill says we need to be cognizant of the whole picture.
“They might be a veteran or recently divorced and down on their luck, have a mental illness or substance abuse issues, but until you take care of that basic need of a home, it’s hard to deal with those other needs,” he said.
Hill argues that in “99% of cases there is a significant reason why someone is homeless.
“It’s not a path they seek,” he said.
Rather, the licensed clinical social worker says, the person finds themselves without shelter as a result of serial trauma or a series of events and lack of support system.
While mental illness seems to be a primary factor in homelessness, there are often others. For instance, nearly 50% of homeless women were victims of physical or sexual assault.
High percentages of those without homes also have physical or intellectual disabilities, substance abuse disorders, or a history of military service.
Beneath a shelter house at Kimmel Park, a scruffy faced man appears to be napping, a black baseball cap stitched with gold letters reading ‘Vietnam Veteran’ pulled down just over his eyes.
There’s been a break in the heat and humidity of late summer and the typically quiet park buzzes with activity: kids play a land-based version of Marco Polo, swings squeak from the playground and cars cruise by to take in views of the Wabash River.
But the flurry of activity doesn’t rouse the homeless veteran. He stays planted on the blue picnic table, his duffle bag and a couple of plastic grocery sacks full of personal items close by.
Military veterans — who face homelessness at a higher rate than the general population — often struggle with their own specific brand of mental suffering: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
In 2010 — near the height of the economic recession — there were more than 250,000 American veterans without homes.
Most were Vietnam Veterans, but those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan War were quickly turning up on the streets — often within a year of their return from service.
At that time, the unemployment rates for the young veterans was double that of the national average (as high as 20% at one point), and many clinical psychologists theorized that PTSD was the main culprit — specifically for service members who saw multiple redeployments to combat zones and therefore experienced a layering of trauma in the brain.
PTSD, while not limited to combat veterans, leads to severe anxiety and hyper-vigilance, insomnia, social isolation, feelings of guilt and sometimes self-destructive behavior, like alcohol and drug abuse.
A recent count in Indianapolis revealed that 39% of homeless individuals there had a substance abuse problem — though most in that number had at least one other contributing factor, such as a mental or physical disability.
Inside of a conference room at Helping His Hands, located on Willow Street, about 20 people representing various Knox County service agencies and organizations gathered for the quarterly Homeless Task Force Meeting.
Dr. D.J. Rhodes from the Hamilton Center has Zoomed into the meeting, intently listening to updates from committees and promising to “do whatever (he) can to help” move the program forward.
Hamilton Center, based in Terre Haute, opened WIN Recovery Knox County in June of this year. The center offers a combination of methadone treatment paired with counseling in an effort to help those with substance abuse disorder break loose of their addictions.
For just over a year, the Homeless Task Force has brought together representatives from local churches, law enforcement, healthcare workers, and various other public service entities, looking for ways to address the needs of the rising number of homeless and transient individuals in Knox County.
“For awhile it seemed like the library was the lone ranger working on this issue,” said library director Emily Bunyan.
But the development of the task force and a new appetite among leaders to tackle the issue gives her some hope.
“More and more people are now working together to make services available. I’m encouraged by that,” she said.
Though homelessness is now plainly visible on the city’s streets, what prompted the development of the group, according to Hill, was an uptick in visits to local food banks.
“We started seeing more people who had not traditionally
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been approaching the food banks and other support agencies, and that caught our attention,” he said.
A 2019 study from the University of Chicago concluded that the majority of Americans are only one or two missed paychecks away from financial disaster, and the arrival of COVID-19 helped reveal just how many people were financially vulnerable.
At a time when wages for most workers have stagnated, and while the cost of living grows, a global health crisis has pushed many businesses and its employees beyond what is economically survivable.
“The need was already growing, and then COVID had a unique impact,” said Hill.
Within weeks of the pandemic shutdown, businesses started handing out pink slips and furlough notices to employees, and government officials scrambled to put together financial and policy safety nets for American families.
Despite those measures, some still slipped through the cracks, like a young man in Vincennes who slept inside his SUV in a driveway outside a family member’s home for weeks. The house, too crowded to accommodate him, provided the relative safety of living just outside their door.
To add insult to injury, the coronavirus also hindered the work of the newly-developed homeless task force, whose primary goal is to support a very vulnerable population.
Hill said that — because of COVID-19 limitations — he’s been frustrated that the group hasn’t made the progress he would have liked over the past six months.
“At the same time, the very nature of the situation has attracted more people to the cause,” Hill added.
He’s hoping for a ground swell in terms of interest and involvement in the cause.
“That’s what it’s going to take — some people with some passion who are committed to moving this forward,” he said.
At this point, however, the way forward isn’t entirely clear; Hill hopes soon the county can offer those on the street some form of rapid-rehousing or temporary shelter.
The group, which will hold its next quarterly meeting on Dec. 8, welcomes anyone from the community who would like to help them build the necessary infrastructure to aid those in need.
For more information about the Homeless Task Force, visit their Facebook page or call United Way of Knox County at (812) 882-3624.
County officials next week will begin the arduous task of crafting their 2021 spending plan.
County council members will meet with the commissioners as well as representatives from every county office and elected office holder over more than 30 hours spread across four days.
“I think this may actually be more hours than in previous years, certainly more days,” said county council president Bob Lechner with a chuckle. “But I’m sure this is more feasible.
“It will certainly work better in the afternoons than at 3 o’clock in the morning.”
Members of the county council in June decided to abandon their annual marathon budget sessions.
Council members have, for years, hashed out their spending plans by meeting for many hours over the course of about three days; on the last day, budget discussions have often lasted into the early-morning hours.
Last year, they met on the last night of budget hearings until 4 a.m.
County auditor Mike Morris, during a preliminary budget planning session this summer, presented a different plan for them to consider, one a little less heavy on the nighttime hours and easier for members of the general public to be involved in, should they wish to.
Morris suggested stretching annual budget hearings out over four days instead of three, and they agreed, scheduling the hearings for noon to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday of next week.
“We’re always crunched for time,” Lechner said, “trying to get through the voluminous budget package and spending time with department heads. We think this will give us more time to do all that.
“And it’s commendable that this was a recommendation brought to us by the county employees themselves, specifically the county auditor’s office.”
The primary goal for next year’s spending plan, Lechner said, will be in maintaining expenditures from this year and closely monitoring any increases.
It’s time to prepare, Lechner said, for what they fear could be a 10% cut — if not more —in revenue, at least, due to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, between now and 2022.
To prepare for a reduction in funds — both income and property tax funds — in coming years due to extensive job losses felt across the state, the council this summer sent out a memo to all department heads and office holders, one that asks them to hold off on any additional requests for money and to “flat-line” their budgets for 2021, meaning to ask for little-to-no increases over this year.
The council, too, has said they will look heavily at employment numbers, likely eliminating positions through attrition in the coming two years.
“Our No. 1 goal is always our employees, taking care of them,” Lechner said. “This year, we’ll be looking at that goal from the standpoint of just holding everything together, not going backwards.”
Employees, Lechner has said, should not expect pay raises in 2021 or 2022.
“We’re in a holding pattern,” he said. “We’re trying to avoid any kind of catastrophic result where we end up asking our department heads to cut 20% of their budgets or where we have to lay off employees.
“And we’re hopeful (our actions during budget hearings) will be the means to do that.”
The county will meet for budget hearings this year in a large conference room at Knox County Community Corrections, 147 N. Eighth St., one that will allow for greater social distancing.
Masks will be required.
Members of the Knox County Development Corp. continue in their effort to build a mini-park inside the U.S. 41 Industrial Park, one they hope will allow small businesses to grow and expand.
Kirk Bouchie, general manager of Vincennes Water Utilities and now chairman of the KCDC’s Site Development Committee, said they recently met and reviewed quotes on the installation of sanitary sewer infrastructure there.
The project entails installing an 8-inch sanitary sewer line for about 1,000 feet along Elkhorn Road near U.S. 41.
“It’s the infrastructure necessary to provide sewer to these lots, however they’re developed,” he said, pointing to a map that reflected the north side of the park where the mini-lots have been plotted.
The committee, Bouchie said, voted to recommend that the KCDC’s Executive Committee award a contract for $218,500 to Wabash Utilities for the work, and the executive committee approved that measure this week.
Wabash Utilities, Bouchie said, has done a lot of work in recent years both for Vincennes Water Utilities as well as companies located inside the industrial park itself, ones like Futaba Indiana of America and Farbest Foods Inc.
A timeline for completion of the project, however, is somewhat uncertain.
“All of these contractors are very busy right now,” Bouchie said, “but we are hoping to get this under way this fall, maybe a November or December timeframe.”
The Knox County Area Plan Commission three years ago gave preliminary approval to a new design that calls for just over 50 acres in the U.S. 41 Industrial Park to be set aside for the development of small businesses. The idea is to give existing small businesses the opportunity to grow but without committing to several acres and tons of square footage.
Two and three-acre tracts are available for purchase, but the KCDC has had little interest in recent years.
But new KCDC CEO Chris Pfaff said he continues doing everything he can to attract new businesses to Knox County.
He plans to attend an event in French Lick in October, he said, one sponsored by the Southwest Indiana Development Corp., where he will be able to pitch Knox County to several site selectors, or representatives who scout new locations for business and industry owners looking to move or expand.
Pfaff told the board of directors, gathered at Vincennes Water Utiities’ new drinking water facility on River Road, that he plans to highlight all that the U.S. 41 Industrial Park has to offer, both for large and small businesses. Those site selectors, too, will provide vital feedback on how Knox County is doing from a marketing and communications standpoint.
“Hopefully we’ll hear about things we could be doing better,” Pfaff said, “and I’ll work hard to expose them to sites and buildings that are available here in the county.”
Pfaff also on Friday told board members of two local companies he is working “very hard to retain.”
“We’re working very closely with the principals from those companies,” he said, “in making sure we have a package available that could help to retain them here in Knox County.
“They’re small companies, roughly less than 20 employees, but they’re important to the overall portfolio of companies in the county.”
And in other business, Pfaff said he wrote a letter of support for the Indiana Economic Development Association, which is writing a federal grant that would work to bolster the Hoosier ag community.
The idea, Pfaff said, is that the money would be spent in helping to make connections between existing ag industry leaders and other supply chains and manufacturers that would be good additions to the region.
Such efforts, too, complement ongoing efforts at the Pantheon: A Business and Innovation Theatre as a committee there, too, is looking to connect local farmers — particularly specialty farmers — with innovations in ag technology.