News From Terre Haute, Indiana

June 26, 2013

Agencies seek to track homeless

Lisa Trigg
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Few people expect to be homeless, let alone sleep in a garbage bin.

Yet, unplanned life changes can result in loss of housing, and a makeshift shelter sought during a storm may be a dangerous choice.

The April death of a homeless man who was dumped from a trash bin into a garbage compaction truck received repeated mentions Tuesday when the Wabash Valley Planning Council on Homelessness met with area agencies concerned with how to help people living on the streets.

That man, a native of Connecticut, had checked himself out of a local homeless shelter a few days before his life ended.

 His female companion was also seriously injured when she, too, was dumped into the garbage truck and compacted. She told investigators that she and her friend had taken shelter in the trash bin during an overnight rainstorm.

“The homeless population doesn’t know how to plug into the system to receive the services they need,” explained Jeff Lorick, co-chair of the homeless coalition and director of the Terre Haute Human Relations Commission.

And, sometimes, agencies are not plugged into each other to know what services are being offered by which organizations in other communities.

“We know how limited resources are,” Lorick said. “They are limited here, and we know they are much more limited in smaller communities.”

Lorick and co-chair Myra Wilkey of Mental Health America of Vigo County have been encouraging organizations to become part of the state’s network to track the homeless population and the services they need and receive. Legislation has made a lot of changes in how to access resources, Wilkey said. As a result, Indiana has developed the web-based tools IHOPE for local homeless agencies, and HMIS -- the Homeless Management Information System -- to track people, needs and services.

While many of the agencies in Terre Haute communicate with each other and refer clients to other agencies, some outlying counties are not always in the network.

Ann Newton, a social worker from Putnam County, noted that the homeless shelter in Greencastle has been closed for several months because of a funding issue, but the need to help homeless people remains in the county.

And while the mission of many organizations may not be specifically directed at the homeless, agencies such as Hamilton Center, the WILL Center and even the Vigo County School Corp. deal with the homeless population on a regular basis and try to connect those people with appropriate services.

Rick Stevens of VCSC said that a recent effort called “Box In” was an overnight outdoor experience intended to demonstrate how people in poverty get boxed into homelessness and overcome by accompanying depression and frustration. The weather worked against that effort, Stevens said, but the few participants did encounter a homeless couple that night who shared how they must travel on foot wherever they want to go.

“There are gaps in the system, and that’s why we have people ending up in Dumpsters,” Stevens said.

Getting a handle on how many homeless people actually reside in Terre Haute is tricky, Lorick said. The Point-In-Time count on homelessness is not as successful as local agencies would like in counting the number of people who sleep on the streets or couch-surf from one location to the next.

Capt. Dave Barnett of the Terre Haute Police Department said local law enforcement is often frustrated by the transient population, not because they are troublemakers, but because they often avoid or refuse assistance.

Barnett said that the city has numerous “homeless camps” where groups of up to seven or eight people will gather in an abandoned or vacant building, sleeping there until they are forced to move on by the police or the property owner.

Lorick encouraged agencies and organizations to plug into the planning council’s meetings, conducted on at 11 a.m. on the third Tuesday of each month at Ryves Hall. Anyone wanting more information on the council can contact Lorick at 812-232-0110.

Reporter Lisa Trigg can be reached at 812-231-4254 or Follow her on Twitter @TribStarLisa.