Once on streets, advocate now pushes for changes to services for Lafayette's homeless


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LAFAYETTE, Indiana — The first time Criselda Marquez used food stamps at a local supermarket, she barely made it to her car before she started crying.

It was 2009, and Marquez, a former Purdue University academic adviser, was newly homeless and battling crippling depression.

"Here I was with a master's degree, I had worked at a Big Ten research institution and I was on food stamps, helpless," Marquez told the Journal & Courier (http://on.jconline.com/1nEnB1a ).

But this year, for the first time since then, she's off food stamps and housing assistance and is completely independent, thanks to the support of local homeless service agencies.

"I needed to be homeless to focus on my depression," Marquez said. "For me it was a blessing, and I used that time to work on me. And now I'm in the best place I've ever been mentally."

Marquez said she's hoping to share that feeling with others who are homeless by taking an active role in the ongoing discussion aimed at restructuring Lafayette homeless support services.

Jennifer Layton, executive director of Lafayette Transitional Housing Center, shared new details about that effort Thursday with members of the Homeless Prevention and Intervention Network — a coalition of social service and community agencies that meets monthly.

"But we're still in the infancy stage for all of this," Layton cautioned colleagues.

Since May, social service agencies have discussed reinvigorating the effort to end homelessness through the 2012 Solutions Beyond Shelter report. That 44-page plan, crafted by an outside consultant, spelled out how Greater Lafayette can eliminate homelessness.

But parties involved agree that plan lost steam, and they're hoping a $80,000 grant awarded to the United Way of Greater Lafayette this year will breathe new life into the effort.

Their goal now is to create a 24/7 engagement center that would house all homeless services — such as case management and housing assistance — under one roof.

On June 27, city and county leaders made a public endorsement of the plan and named Lafayette Transitional Housing Center as the coordinator of the effort.

Details of what the 24/7 engagement center will look like aren't clear. But this week, for the first time, Layton outlined a timeline. The group will spend the summer visiting communities with homeless systems in place, including Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids in Michigan and Columbus and Cincinnati in Ohio.

From September to December, the group will organize community forums for social service agencies, homeless clients, community leaders and others to solicit feedback on what Lafayette's center should be.

"We really want to think about what this should look like," Layton said. "We don't want to just house homeless people in shelters. We want to get them into permanent housing."

That the Solutions Beyond Shelters effort lost steam is frustrating to Marquez, who was among the dozens who took part in developing that plan.

But she said she's encouraged by the new efforts and hopes that her insights about homelessness can be useful.

"My main goal would be to be the voice of the clients," Marquez said. "Take what the clients are saying and put it in a way the agencies are going to listen to it — truly listen to it — and act on it."


Information from: Journal and Courier, http://www.jconline.com

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