Point in Time Count sheds light on homelessness in Cass County

Jan. 27—Emmaus Mission Center Executive Director Jason Mitchell is dedicated to helping Logansport and Cass County community members experiencing homelessness. That was his agenda on Thursday when Emmaus and Church of Christ teamed up to distribute free care packages and conduct the 2023 Point in Time Count, a measure of the homeless population that occurs in January each year.

"It's basically a process where we take a count once a year of anybody who's unsheltered homeless," Mitchell said. "...It informs the state as to homelessness across the entirety of the state. A lot of their funding programs that they have for homeless issues are based upon this particular count."

He added that there are different types of homelessness, but The PIT Count specifically measures unsheltered, or "street homeless" individuals. That includes people who visit the 24-hour laundromats around town to stay warm at night.

"They're living in a place that's not meant for human habitation, like in someone's shed, out in a tent, in the woods, or something like that," he said. "They're not necessarily people who are also facing homelessness but may be couch surfing or living with somebody else for a short period of time. That's kind of a different homelessness issue."

Nichole Bentley knows firsthand how isolating homelessness can be. Bentley, who became homeless after her brother was murdered, struggled with addiction and homelessness in Indianapolis. She went to Hickory Treatment Center in Terre Haute before moving to Turning Point in Kokomo. At Turning Point, Bentley received the support she needed to get back on track.

"I felt like I was just a failure and no one would understand why I was so deep in my addiction and why I lost everything," she said. "I have two beautiful girls. It takes a lot to get back up and realize there are people out there who care about you. It can be a cruel word. I've been around the city, so it's a little different. People were not very supportive. When you're in that type of environment, you don't think there is anybody out there that will help you."

Bentley said she does not want anyone else to feel like that. That's why she encourages people experiencing addiction and homelessness to reach out to a support network.

"Don't feel alone," she said. "There are people out here who care."

Both Bentley and Mitchell said there are a wide variety of reasons why people become homeless and that not all involve drug use or mental illness. Bentley mentioned that some homeless people flee domestic violence. Mitchell said the loss of a job can be enough to push people past their financial breaking point, especially at a time when rent has steadily increased and low-income housing is scarce.

Mitchell pointed to a tool on the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development's website that can calculate fair market rent for every county in the country. In 2022, the fair market rent for a one-bedroom unit in Cass County was $599 a month. This year, that number jumped to $677 per month.

"(Rent) has gradually crept up over the years," he said. "As it does, folks who stay in a job that's the at the same income level or don't have the ability to switch jobs can't meet those requirements for rent payments."

Meanwhile, Logansport's general lack of housing causes an additional squeeze on people who need low-income housing. Mitchell said people call Emmaus to ask for affordable places to live, but there is nowhere to send them.

"The state of housing and the lack of affordable housing is a huge barrier right now to a lot of folks," he said. "We have some money from the state that allows us to help folks in the shelter here to get back on their feet, and we've had to place people out of county simply because we couldn't find any places here. It's caused a situation sometimes at the shelter where we can't move people on because we just don't have places for them to move into."

Emmaus generally houses between 15 to 20 people at a time and averages about 100 people a year. Some people stay for a matter of weeks, while others can take up to six months to work on the issues that caused them to become homeless.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness reported a steady decline in the number of homeless people in the state of Indiana (excluding Marion County) from 2007 to 2018. In 2019, homelessness increased by 0.3 per 10,000 people. In 2020, that number increased again by 0.2.

Cass County's PIT Count in 2021 shows that 14 people from 11 households reported experiencing homelessness. Three of those people were minors under the age of 18, one person was between 18 and 24 years old, and 10 people were over 24 years old.

Emmaus and Church of Christ have to ask people to go to them in order to add them to the count because Emmaus currently does not have an outreach team that can travel to people. Mitchell said there is a possibility that some homeless people were discouraged from visiting the mission and participating in the count because of the bad weather or lack of transportation.

In the future, he hopes to create a street outreach team. He is hopeful to have a pilot program in place by the end of the year.

"Some people just don't have the information they need to be able to find a path," he said. "It helps to go out and meet them where they are and talk to them. That's a little more what this street outreach team will be for."

Mitchell stressed that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to help people experiencing homelessness because each person's situation is so different. However, he said city initiatives to increase housing across all income levels is a good start.

"I see that there is stuff being done, and that's encouraging," he said.

When housing is available, resources like the state's rapid rehousing initiative can help people get moved in by covering deposits and the first month's rent. Rapid rehousing money goes quickly in Cass County, but Mitchell said Emmaus works closely with other local organizations like churches, Area Five Agency on Aging and Community Services, the Eel Township Trustee's Office, and Indiana 211 to help people find housing and receive assistance with things like electric bills.

Mitchell encouraged people who need help to reach out right away because it can take time to apply for programs like energy assistance. He said more help can be given when a disconnect notice is first received than a day before the electricity gets shut off.

"If you are looking for assistance, apply with plenty of time," he said. "If you don't need it, when you figure it out you can always call and say you don't need it rather than calling the minute it's going to get shut off and saying, 'I need help right now.' It's not often available that quickly."

He also encouraged people not to be scared or embarrassed about asking for resources.

"Don't feel like you're the only person reaching out for help or you're the only one who's in this kind of situation," Mitchell said. "We see it day in and day out, unfortunately, and it's not something to be ashamed of or to get upset about. We're always willing to field calls, and if we can help, we will. ...Don't feel ashamed about calling for help because you're not the only one who's doing it."