Homeless aid programs transform lives

Tent City may not be permanent, but it's home to many.
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During this time of giving, there are nearly 2,000 homeless in Indianapolis who need help. 

In the shadow of downtown, along the White River is a small enclave of tents and make-shift cabins - even a church.  It's called "Tent City" and is home to dozens of Indianapolis' homeless. 

We are "homeless but not houseless, as one homeless lady put it," said Dennis Fowler, who lives in the village.  "Got a place to stay."

Here and along the streets of downtown live what are known as the "chronically homeless" - those choosing to live outside of shelters.

They're aided by church groups who provide meals, clothing, sleeping bags, even weekly laundry service and much more.  Holding hands, church members pray with homeless men living along the White River.

"We try not to leave any camp without praying with them," said Pastor Robert Johnson of the Faith Walkers Ministry.  Their goal is to help get homeless into permanent homes "but also to serve them if they don't want to go," explained Pastor Johnson. 

Most in the camps and on the streets battle mental illness, substance abuse and many end up in and out of jail.   

"This was my bed. This is where I laid my cardboard down, my blanket," explained George Neal, pointing to a space on the pavement.  For ten years, Neal called an alley near 16th and Meridian home.  He'd beg for money behind McDonalds.  Then he'd buy alcohol and pass out. It was a non-stop cycle. 

"I'd get upset seeing cars in the morning.  I knew they were going to work and I was going nowhere," he said.

He was going to jail over and over again. Taking a look at a stack of mug shots he said, "On none of those photos, you see no smile.  Just miserable.  You see the misery in the eyes."

The mug shots are from more than 85 arrests, usually for public intoxication.  He was taken to jail 29 times in 2010 alone. 

Denise Knott was arrested and taken to jail numerous times in her two decades on the streets.

"I can't even count. I was in more than I was out," she said.  She did jail and prison time repeatedly for drugs and prostitution. 

But for both Denise and George, at one point in their lives, something happened. 

"It's literally saved my life and kept me from being homeless", said Denise.

She's talking about Community Outreach  or COT Task Force, a coalition of three dozen local agencies, including hospitals, courts and Metro Police's Homeless Unit. 

"We can't arrest our way out of this problem, but we're part of the solution," explained Sgt. Robert Hipple of the Homeless Unit. 

Once a month the groups meet.  They pinpoint homeless individuals with the most arrests and trips to the ER and develop a strategy to get each one of them off the streets.

"It allows us to focus on the individual and their needs in a very compassionate way", said Kay Wiles of the Homeless Initiative Program,  "but it also is allowing us to look at them as what they're costing the taxpayer."

The amounts are staggering. An arrest in Marion County costs taxpayers $798.12, with each additional day in jail another $61.39.  In its first year of getting homeless individuals into housing and counseling, COT force estimates a taxpayer savings of $264,941.  

That's not to mention the savings in human life. 

For more than a year George has held down a full-time job sorting merchandise at Goodwill. He's been sober for two years.

"This was my favorite dumpster. I'd always find food in it!" said George, standing in the alley he once called home.

During his decade on the streets, church groups provided him with food an inflatable bed and blankets. 

"I think it's enabling. It enabled me.  Kept me out here," he said.

"We all make change in our lives when we are uncomfortable, that's what motivates us," said Wiles. "And so while we want to make sure people are safe and they know that they're cared about, that they're a little uncomfortable so that they'll do something different."

There's room for church groups to be a part of COT Force and help in an organized fashion. 

It's help that after years, has allowed Denise to finally have a relationship with her son.

And George now has a new reality.  His slew of mug shots are a thing of the past.

"I've got hope now", he said. 

His hope now includes an apartment - a real home, to call his own. 

If you'd like to help COT Force transport clients to and from job interviews or help in any other way, contact Kay Wiles with the Homeless Initiative Program at (317) 931-3055 ext. 1761.