News From Terre Haute, Indiana

February 17, 2013

Families by Choice’s ‘Box In’ to simulate homelessness

Brian Boyce
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Homelessness is no day in the park, but local advocates hope to convey the experience through a simulation amid the great outdoors.

Muriel Ryan, co-founder of Families by Choice, said her group will host a “Box In” from the evening of April 19 through the morning of April 20. The overnight homelessness simulation will feature speakers and educational programming in Gilbert Park, she said.

“We’re encouraging families to come out. Students can bring their parents,” she said. “We’ll be spending the night with speakers and simulations.”

Ryan said her organization hopes the program becomes an annual event, and explained the title refers both to the cardboard boxes used as shelters by homeless people, as well as the metaphorical boxes in which they find themselves. Many of the homeless, she said, are “boxed into poverty,” mental illness, drug addiction, or other problems, she explained.

Dave Menkin, program director at Club Soda, said there’s a strong link between substance abuse and homelessness. Their facility on South Fourth Street serves as a drug- and alcohol-free hangout for people struggling with addictions, and offers both Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous programs. And though they’re not a homeless shelter, the club routinely gets upwards of 15 people a month looking for just that.

“You’d be surprised at how many people come to us with just no place to go,” he said of the facility which operates between 8 a.m. and 10 p.m., seven days a week.

About 75 percent of their members are directed there either by the court system, or by a shelter such as the Light House Mission, he said.

“If they’re fortunate enough to get into the mission,” he remarked, pointing out true numbers of the homeless are tough to determine. Much like the unemployed, only those who seek assistance are counted, and many simply go off society’s radar. “It’s a lot worse than what people think it is.”

John Etling, director of Terre Haute Catholic Charities, said results from the annual one-day count taken in January came in Friday. Those numbers should be tabulated some time in the coming weeks, he said, expressing confidence they’ll be fairly high again.

Counts taken in recent years have documented more than 200 homeless individuals in the community, and like Menkin, he said a true number is tough to establish given the demographic’s mobility.

“Our capacity still remains pretty high. We always seem to have a pretty full house at Bethany House,” he said, remarking that shelter maintains a 90-percent capacity throughout the year. Other area agencies ranging from the Terre Haute Housing Authority to the Council on Domestic Abuse likewise service this group, he said.

Ryan’s agencies provide living quarters for homeless people, who learn to work together as a family unit while transitioning to permanent housing. Their property known as Deborah’s House currently has four mothers and seven children, with one of the women expecting soon. Their home for men has six, and their youth program has five, she said.

“We’re sticking to the family model,” she said of her program, explaining the need to address behavior change and long-term solutions.

But homelessness is a complex dynamic, and there are considerable differences between families displaced by emergencies and individuals with mental illness, she observed.

“There’s a very clear connection to mental health and childhood trauma,” she said of the issue.

Cost to participate in the “BOX IN” will be $30, she said. Participants will be allowed one blanket and food will be minimal throughout, although breakfast will be served in the morning.

“And we are looking for sponsors,” she said.

Brian Boyce can be reached at 812-231-4253 or