15 Finds Out: Down and out in downtown

Click here to watch part two of “Down and Out In Downtown” as 15 Finds Out takes the issue to the experts on riverfront development.

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – Downtown development is the hot topic around Fort Wayne and a focal point for recent momentum. But there’s an underlying question seldom discussed in the downtown conversation: What’s the future for the hundreds of homeless living in the middle of prime downtown property?

15 Finds Out has discovered one nonprofit beginning major plans to expand outreach downtown, while others would rather see those services expand elsewhere.

No one really knows how many homeless people live in Allen County. Estimates range anywhere from 300 to almost 3,000, depending on how homelessness is defined. Many of them hang out around Friemann Square, Headwaters Park, or the Allen County Public Library downtown during the day. At night, they sleep underneath the Wells Street Bridge or shelters.

Experts agree most of Allen County’s homeless population lives downtown, and their numbers are growing.

See the United Way’s data on the rising number of calls for homelessness

Matt, who didn’t want to give his last name, is one of the faces behind the statistics. He said his home was condemned because of a lack of utilities and has been living on the streets for three years. He’s one of the many who depend on social services which exist near downtown Fort Wayne.

“It can be rough at times, but I make the most out of it,” Matt said. “They get on people about coming out here and feeding us and handing us cheeseburgers and stuff like that. The cops run us out and everything like that. It just seems like they don’t really care. They care more about developing downtown and not helping the homeless.”

Expanding help downtown

Like most, Donovan Coley has been watching downtown redevelopment with excitement. But for Coley, it also generates concern. He’s the CEO of the Rescue Mission, a nonprofit organization that serves as, among other things, a men’s homeless shelter on Superior Street downtown.

“I believe the elephant in the room is the number of homeless persons who will walk the corridors of beautiful, revitalized downtown Fort Wayne, Indiana,” Coley said. “We do believe that the infrastructure and all the beauty that we see downtown will demand a new approach to taking care of the needs.”

As part of its “Real Change, Not Spare Change” initiative, the Rescue Mission has launched a capital campaign to raise over $85,000 for emergency shelter renovations. But Coley broke the news on the organization’s future downtown plans exclusively to 15 Finds Out. Leaders with the Rescue Mission hope to eventually team up with social service agencies and build a new day center downtown.

“A day center would literally provide a facility where individuals who are in need could come and receive resources. They could receive referrals. They would…become part of a pool where we could bring social service agencies to try to connect the needs to the social service agents in our community,” Coley said. “We would literally try to reverse some of the issues that have caused them to be homeless or chronically poor.”

The plans are still very preliminary. Coley said it’s currently unclear if that expansion would be solely a day center or an all-in-one building with the Rescue Mission’s shelter included.

Homeless services should be “spread out”

But not everyone’s cheering on the plans. Bill Brown, president of the Downtown Improvement District, thinks the Rescue Mission should avoid creating a high concentration of homeless downtown and instead expand in other areas of the community.

“The whole concept of more and more density of homeless people really isn’t that good of an idea,” Brown said. He thinks it’s alright to have some element of the Rescue Mission downtown. But when it comes to any expansion, Brown said, “I don’t think it’s a good idea for the Rescue Mission to expand downtown. I think it’s a good idea to have something on the edge of downtown.”

Coley is worried leaders will become so focused on economic development that they will begin to consider homeless people as blight to the community and find ways to move the people and shelter away from downtown.

Neither the city nor Brown said they consider the homeless to be a “blight.” Brown said all people are welcome downtown, but thinks those who are down and out and causing trouble downtown should be delivered to a center outside of the revitalized area.

“It would have to be basically on their own free will seeking help or if they bring back some of the vagrancy laws to where you just can’t be out there causing trouble and infringing on other peoples’ lives,” Brown said. “We don’t want people that are going to soil and spoil the environment for others.”

Leaders with the Rescue Mission said they’re willing to be good neighbors and move their facility to make way for economic development. In the end though, they plan on staying downtown because that’s where the majority of Fort Wayne’s homeless are found.

“That’s where most of the homeless come because they want access to social services in the community,” Coley said. “What I would encourage business men and women to do is not only to build their businesses but do something to develop some sort of social responsibility.”

The Rescue Mission’s plans for a new downtown day center are still very preliminary. Leaders don’t know how much it will cost and will be looking for community partners, since the organization doesn’t accept any government funding.

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