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Homeless issues in spotlight for study

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By the end of the year, a study will show what local agencies and churches are doing to help homeless residents and what else can be done.

The United Way of Johnson County has contracted with a research firm in Bloomington, which will spend the rest of this year analyzing which local organizations have resources for homeless residents and how helpful that assistance truly is. The firm also will try to get an accurate count of the number of homeless people living in the area, United Way of Johnson County executive director Nancy Lohr Plake said.

Since 2008, the United Way has been providing economic assistance and guidance to people who lost their jobs in the recession or who aren’t making enough money to support themselves and their families. Working with residents who don’t have permanent homes is the next logical step in helping those in need, Plake said.

“We’re looking at not just those people who are living in their cars or living in a tent,” Plake said. “We are looking at those individuals who literally don’t have a home. They are living on someone’s couch. They are staying with families, individuals for a week, two weeks, three weeks at a time, and then have to go someplace else.”

The United Way often receives calls through its help line from people who need help finding housing or paying for utilities. Some of those who call are working part-time or full-time jobs but aren’t making enough to afford a home, Plake said.

Local churches and other agencies, including the Salvation Army, Human Services and Interchurch Food Pantry, help residents cover housing and other living expenses. Earlier this month, the county lost an agency that had been assisting residents. Christian Help Inc., which had been helping residents afford rent and utility payments, permanently closed its doors because of a lack of donations.

Once the study is done, the goal is to get options the United Way can consider pursuing to help people who are without a home, Plake said.

“You have to address where those individual needs are and try to address those needs and the root cause of some of those issues,” she said.

The research study, which will be conducted by Strategic Development Group, will analyze whether there’s anything the United Way or other agencies can do differently or more effectively. The group will provide examples of programs and projects other counties similar to Johnson County have tried and details of whether or not they worked, Plake said.

Strategic Development also will try to obtain an updated count of the number of homeless residents, though getting an accurate count can be difficult because those residents often are moving, Plake said.

“We can’t go out and count them,” she said. “They are hidden in our community.”

The United Way plans to pay for the study with $92,700 of a $137,700 Work2Gether grant that’s offered by the Indiana Association of United Ways. Part of the money could help fund programs to combat homelessness, but that will depend on much those programs cost, Plake said. To receive the full grant amount, the United Way must reach specific benchmarks through its fundraising drive, she said.

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