TERRE HAUTE —
Those who work with the homeless in Terre Haute hope that Thursday’s tragic death of a man who sought shelter in a trash bin will heighten awareness of homelessness in the community.
They also hope it will spur action to prevent such a tragedy from happening again.
“As a community, we should be outraged,” said Myra Wilkey, who co-chairs the Wabash Valley Local Planning Council on Homelessness.
The planning council hopes to develop a more streamlined approach to help those facing homelessness “so they don’t have to sleep in Dumpsters, abandoned homes and other dangerous places,” she said.
The problem of homelessness struck the community’s collective conscience Thursday after Franschon Barr of Connecticut and a girlfriend sought shelter in a trash bin outside a store at 11th and Locust streets.
The 46-year-old Barr later died after being trapped inside a garbage collection truck that emptied the bin he and his girlfriend were inside. He died of asphyxiation when the trash was compacted.
His girlfriend, Jeanmarie A. Jackson, 42, was in stable condition Friday afternoon at Methodist Hospital, where she was treated for a crushed pelvis and other injuries.
Muriel Ryan, of Families by Choice, believes there may be a perception in Terre Haute that sleeping in trash bins doesn’t happen often here. “It happens more often than people would like to think,” she said.
What happened to Barr and his girlfriend “is horrific,” Ryan said.
Why would anyone sleep in a trash bin?
“They don’t want to be found, they want privacy. They want to get out of the weather. They don’t want others to steal their possessions” or they want to protect what few possessions they have, Ryan said. “It’s an effort to protect themselves.”
Also, there may be policies or rules at each shelter “that can create a situation that makes it too challenging” for some homeless, Ryan said.
For example, Light House Mission does not allow unmarried couples to lodge together. The man could stay at the Mission, while the woman could stay at Conners Center.
The policy is the same for Bethany House, which is part of Catholic Charities.
“There are people who are homeless that won’t part from one another,” Ryan said, even if it means being homeless. Some have had a longtime relationship and “are absolutely determined they will stay together.”
Barr had followed his girlfriend to Terre Haute, according to Coroner Susan Amos, who had talked to Barr’s mother. Barr and his girlfriend were supposed to be staying with a relative.
Jim Edwards, who works with the planning council on homelessness, said some people may not want to go to shelters, while others may be too proud to go.
Some “don’t fit” because of mental health issues, addictions or attitudes. Some “may not want to follow the rules,” Edwards said.
The shelters have house rules so everyone can co-exist, he said. “A lot of people who have these problems have a real difficulty in following the rules.”
An alcoholic who is homeless may not want to stop drinking, but in Terre Haute, “most places want you to be clean and sober … and they want you to try to stay clean and sober,” Edwards said.
As far as the homeless who have mental health issues, it can be difficult to place them in a shelter where a lot of people are in crisis, he said. “We need more places for them,” he said.
Wilkey, who also is executive director of Mental Health America of Vigo County, said some reports indicate that 50 percent of homeless people have some diagnosable mental illness, which compounds the issue of finding housing.
“Homelessness is a complex problem,” Wilkey said. “It’s not just lost jobs. It’s a whole host of situations happening to lead to that problem.”
For homeless families with children, they may try to hide their situation because “they can have their children taken away if police are involved. So they become even more reclusive,” she said.
She described a case where a woman and her children lived in a trash bin behind a fast-food restaurant on Terre Haute’s northside. “When we found them, they were very afraid of what would happen because of the children,” Wilkey said.
Eventually, they did find housing through the Terre Haute Housing Authority.
Larger cities have homeless outreach workers who go where the homeless congregate and help them get into housing, Wilkey said. “As a community, we need to pull our resources together.”
Despite efforts to raise awareness in the community, “There is still passivity over the issue (of homelessness),” Ryan said.
Families by Choice is having a fundraiser/homeless simulation event Friday night into Saturday morning to raise awareness. The event was planned before Thursday’s tragedy. The program will include a reflection to honor the memory of Barr and other homeless people across the nation who have lost their lives due to exposure, unaddressed medical problems or some other associated reason.
Light House Mission CEO Tim Fagg told the Tribune-Star that Barr had stayed at the homeless mission on April 3, but then voluntarily left after 24 hours.
The man could have gone back to the Mission, Fagg said. “I’m not sure why he was sleeping in a Dumpster.”
The Light House Mission has the capacity for more people, Fagg said. The mission has a 250-bed capacity, while Conners Center has a 40- to 50-bed capacity. “We’re not full at either place,” he said Thursday in discussing the circumstances in which Barr died.
In the event of bad weather, he encourages the homeless to stay there rather than sleep in trash bins.
In some cases, lodging has been terminated for those who violate mission rules, which include no drinking or drugs. Also, the sheltered must be in by 9 p.m. and attend chapel. Those who stay more than 24 hours usually are assigned a chore.
Even when lodging has been terminated, Fagg said the mission will be lenient during bad weather. He told his staff, “We need to have compassion, and we do.”
At the same time, the mission can’t force people to stay, Fagg said.
With 130 people on the property, there does have to be rules, he said. If someone should become drunk and combative, “I can arrange for them to stay at the Vigo County Jail; I’d rather do that than see them on the streets or get killed.”
The mission serves single men or married men with families; Conners Center serves women with children and single women; and Gary’s Place serves teen girls.
Catholic Charities Bethany House, which also provides emergency housing, typically has a waiting list. It serves homeless women, women with children and married couples; it does not house single men.
Responding to Thursday’s tragic death, John Etling, director of Catholic Charities, said people are saddened, “and maybe a bit ashamed that something like this would happen in our community — or any community … I hope it does raise awareness.”
There are emergency shelters available, but some people choose not to use them. “Some people still want their freedom. That’s the foundation of our country. At the same time, there are some great programs in our shelters that can help people in a short period of time get back on their feet,” Etling said.
He’s not sure what the answer is for those who choose the streets over the shelters that are available.
But after Thursday’s tragedy, he says, “As a community, I know we can do better than that … I have to believe these things are preventable.”
Sue Loughlin can be reached at (812) 231-4235 or firstname.lastname@example.org.