Homeless in Johnson County

To buy enough groceries to survive, a Johnson County family would have to budget at least $515 per month.

The average rent would cost them $747. Child care, health care, taxes and other daily expenses could cost more than $3,000. A family would have to make almost $54,000 just to eke out an existence.

According to the United Way, 28 percent of local residents can’t do that.

Homelessness and the threat of becoming homeless affect thousands of Johnson County residents.

To combat the issue and start the process of eliminating homelessness, the United Way of Johnson County has compiled a comprehensive study of the local homeless problem.

Their efforts are not simply to provide additional shelter for people or find new sources of money to help with rent, mortgages or utilities. Rather, the agency wants to figure out how to create more affordable housing, ensure people can find jobs that pay a living wage and are armed with the life skills needed to succeed in those jobs.

“Homelessness is not the problem. It’s all of the factors that lead to it that need to be addressed,” said David Sever, board president of Kids In Crisis Intervention Team.

“Go get a job — that’s the stock answer. But it’s not that simple.”

Tracking the extent of the homeless problem in Johnson County remains a difficult endeavor. Without a homeless shelter in the county, the only measure available is the number of people who look for assistance from churches and social service agencies.

The few statistics that are available are incomplete.

For example, federal law requires schools to track the number of homeless students, defined as those who lack a fixed, regular nighttime residence. During the 2013-14 school year, local schools counted 656 children who met that need.

But only the Franklin district has a dedicated employee who seeks out and works with homeless students. In the other districts, parents have to report their housing status, meaning many students are going uncounted, said Nancy Plake, executive director of the United Way of Johnson County.

The county also participates in a point-in-time count each year, which asks social service agencies to count the number of people living on the streets, in their cars, in abandoned buildings and other places not meant for human habitation.

In January 2014, 38 homeless people were counted. That did not include people who are couch-surfing, staying with friends or relatives or living out of a hotel.

To greater understand Johnson County’s homeless issue, the United Way has teamed with churches, schools, trustee’s offices and social-service organizations to address this problem. The report is an attempt to unite the various entities working to reduce homelessness and have everyone working together on a solution.

“We don’t lack for people who want to help. The issue is how can we get them engaged with what we’re doing,” Sever said.

Researchers looked at housing availability, counts of the homeless, living costs and local wages to present a wide-ranging picture of the causes of the issue.

The report they’ve compiled paints a bleak picture of those scrambling to avoid homelessness.

The Indiana Association of United Ways has compiled data on struggling residents called the ALICE Report. The report looks at people who are asset-limited, income-constrained but employed. These are the people who work but don’t earn enough to survive in the county they live in.

That report found that to survive in Johnson County, a family of four would need to make at least $4,485 per month. The household collectively would have to earn $27 per hour.

In places such as Blue River Township, 49 percent of households are considered struggling. Even in White River Township, demographically the wealthiest area of the county, 16 percent of households can’t meet the survival level.

“We’ve got to decide what we are going to try to do to impact the problem. There are so many people on the edge of living on the street,” said Paul Gabriel, chief financial officer for Center Grove schools.

More than 4,000 people sought assistance for housing costs from their township trustees in 2012.

Housing costs are a major problem in the county, Plake said.

The report found that the average fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Johnson County is $765 per month. A person earning the minimum wage of $7.25 per hour would need to work 80 hours each week just to afford that.

Even to move into that apartment, someone would have to have $2,150 for their first and last month’s rent, security deposit and utilities, Plake said.

In 2013, social service agencies, government and faith-based organizations spent more than $728,000 to assist residents struggling with homelessness. The groups provided emergency housing assistance, such as short stays in a hotel. When people needed help paying their rent or their mortgage, these organizations provided more than $161,000.

Most of the assistance — more than $560,000 — was to help with electricity, gas and other utility bills.

“I’ve found that if there is an issue, Johnson County people rally around it. I don’t think that people have ignored this issue, I don’t think we know what to do about it,” Plake said.

Compiling the report was the first phase of addressing the homeless problem. The next step is to gather people from across the county who deal with homelessness every day — educators, law enforcement, churches and service agencies — to describe how the problem affects their work.

Taking what they learn during those May meetings, organizers will work with SDG Planning and Research Solutions, an economic and community development consultant firm, to determine the first factor to approach.

They hope to have a plan for the first project by the fall, Plake said.

“There are so many different factors that can cause homelessness. You have the chronic homeless, families who are homeless, people with mental illness who are homeless, people with drug or alcohol problems who are homeless,” she said.

“We have to pick one group to start with. We don’t have the unlimited resources to do them all.”

Ryan Trares is a reporter for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at rtrares@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2727.