Monday, October 19, 2009

Empty homes/homeless people.

I love that the next Indianapolis Pecha Kucha will be about a great idea to improve the city. A $10k prize won't go far in implementing a significant change but it could get the ball rolling on a fantastic idea. (If you don't know about Pecha Kucha, google it and then be sure you go to the one coming up in November).

I wish I had pulled together a presentation for P.K. but although I have an idea of what SHOULD happen, I don't have much to offer in the way of making it happen. What I do know is that a lot of smart, aware folks read this blog so I'm pitching my idea into the blogiverse to see if someone else can make headway with it or knows of a place where a municipality or private org is doing something like this.

I'm a neighborhood activist and I think one of the major issues affecting my neighborhood, our city, and the nation is abandoned homes. In my little working class neighborhood in Fountain Square there are about 20 abandoned homes that have been empty and boarded or empty and not boarded for at least as long as the three years I've lived here. Most have broken-out upper-story windows. At least one's been set on fire. There are 5 or 6 empty boarded houses on my two-block street.

My neighborhood is on the direct path to the Liquor Cabinet--the kind of charming, urban liquor store, usually found in poorer neighborhoods, that specializes in 32oz single beers and pints of the hard stuff. I notice on a daily basis a large number of homeless folks who traipse through the neighborhood on their way to or from the Liquor Cabinet and a cheap buzz. I also notice them sleeping under the trees and pissing against the buildings (which is annoying, but since there aren't public restrooms anymore and businesses understandably don't want a lot of homeless folks using their restrooms there aren't many alternatives). And now that Mayor Ballard is aggressively chasing the homeless out of downtown, their numbers on the near Southside have increased exponentially.

So here's my question to the city and to all of us. Why can't we pair up at least a small number of the homeless with some of our abandoned homes? Is it compeletly naive to imagine that we could create a great program that could put individuals or groups of 2 or 3 into abandoned houses that they "rent" or eventually buy with sweat equity? Set parameters that require them to be self-managing within the home with the clear requirement that they must secure, repair, and maintain the home in a reasonable manner in order to remain there. The city could pay for their utilities with the money they collect in those dumb boxes downtown so long as the tenants are living up to their commitments to maintain the home.

I know many of the homeless wouldn't be able to manage this sort of situation. But I bet you that some of them could and that there is, somewhere, a model for this type of program. A careful screening by program management could ensure that the people with the best chance of making it work enter the program, and ideally the households would be self-governing. The men or women within the home would decide the house rules and the penalties for violating them. That might mean that what goes on within the house might not necessarily be what you or I would want to see in our homes, but as long as the group decided that it was ok, and as long as the house is being maintained at least on the exterior, least at a minimal level, then the outside world doesn't get to make the judgement on it.

So, the neighborhood gets one or two abandoned homes filled and cleaned up, which results in lower crime and better home values. And a few people get off the streets, which also results in lower crime and a better life for them.

These people are already living in our neighborhoods and often times living on the down-low in these abandoned houses that they've broken into for a little shelter. So, we wouldn't be creating a problem. We would be addressing some tiny portion of the problem that already exists by providing decent, secure living space to a few of the homeless people already living in our neighborhood.

I know that there are mentally ill homeless and others who may not want or be able to maintain any sort of loose contract such as this would be, and this wouldn't work for them. Maybe it would work for only .05% of the homeless population. And it would take a very well-thought-out plan and follow-up process on the part of case managers, etc. And I'm aware of the concern that neighbors would have and that it would take an education process for those neighbors to give it a try, but I still believe that it could make a big difference in a few people's lives. And it could also make a big difference in a neighborhood full of abandoned, decaying homes.

A few homeless people get off the streets. A few abandoned homes get cleaned up and maybe even purchased through a sweat equity contract.

It could be a win/win situation. I'm sure I'm not the first person to have thought of this. I bet it's happening somewhere. Wouldn't it be cool if Indianapolis gained a reputation as the city that makes homeowners of their homeless? I think so, but I don't know how to make it a reality. So, I'm just putting it out there. That's my Pecha Kucha idea, sans the cool slides and the open bar. I'd love to read some or your ideas about how it might happen.


  1. I'm with an organization that works in this field. Partners In Housing Development Corporation ( has redeveloped a number of abandoned or under-utilized multi-family properties on behalf of special needs populations--including the homeless.

    Support services are the key component in permanently housing the homeless. With multi-family structures, support services can be delivered more efficiently. That's the major reason we've avoided single-family development.

    This isn't to say it couldn't be done, but there are also sufficient abandoned or under-utilized multi-family structures such that we haven't had to focus on single family development.

  2. Ashley, you guys at Partners are doing great work. I'd love to see that type of concept at the intimate neighborhood level.

  3. Great observation and potential solution to a problem deserving of our attention. Having volunteered at Wheeler Mission for several months, I can state with a certain level of confidence that you are right in speculating that it would only work for .05% of the homeless population. Mental illness, whether schizophrenia or (the vast majority) chemical dependency, is so endemic to the homeless population that it would be impossible to place most of them in those homes and expect to collect any form of "sweat equity". The fact that you've seen so many heading to the liquor stores shows you've answered your own question--it really is that intractable. The chronically homeless in particular generally aren't seeking a hand up; many at Wheeler have been invited to their extensive of often successful drug treatment program and steadfastly refuse. Some have actually been outspoken about their desire to stay homeless.

    Your plan might at least work for the recently homeless--particularly those driven out by the foreclosure crisis. My guess and my hope is that Ashley James' organization is targeting these individuals. But, as she identified, the cost of delivering those services is formidable, and no doubt they operate under better economies of scale when they serve as property managers for homeless tenants in a multifamily building than they would in a single-family.

    The most realistic option for your homes in Fountain Square, as you know, is for yuppies or artists or yuppie artists to spot those cute single shotguns, pay $10,000 for the land and all, and fix them up (as has already happened). This of course will elicit the gentrification we are already starting to see in the neighborhood, as well as a whole new host of problems. Our work never ends, does it?