15 Finds Out: A need for help on the riverfront

A man sits under the Wells Street bridge, commonly used as shelter for the homeless in Fort Wayne. Picture taken in August 2014.

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – Downtown and potential riverfront development have been the focal point of Fort Wayne’s recent positive momentum. While the majority of the city’s homeless population lives near prime downtown property, several experts don’t think their presence will deter visitors. But 15 Finds Out has discovered leaders trying to balance economic development with human development for the down and out in downtown.

Downtown development has been welcomed with open arms in the Fort Wayne community. But with the progress comes tough decisions on how to deal with a growing homeless population.

Rebecca Karcher with Fort Wayne Community Development is one of the many working toward solutions for the homeless downtown. She said there are some who continue to slip through the cracks of the city’s social services.

“If you are a single woman without children and you are not suffering from an addiction, there’s no emergency shelter for you. There’s nowhere for you to go. If you are a couple without children, there’s no place for you to go and stay together. If you are an adult with any kind of alcoholism or addiction, if you’re currently high or drunk, there’s no place for you to go,” Karcher explained. “We certainly have some unmet needs in the community. And shelter for instance is one of them.”

Karcher said many communities have day shelters where the homeless can come get job resources and even do laundry. There’s a need for something similar in Fort Wayne.

“It’s a very big group of people looking at how to address it. Some of it just takes time and all of it takes resources,” Karcher said. “There is definitely a commitment to looking at how we can compassionately address the concerns that have been voiced while still respecting the individuality of the human beings involved.”

On Monday, 15 Finds Out exclusively reported that the Rescue Mission is beginning work to spearhead a solution. Rich Cummins, chief development officer, said the non-profit organization hopes to team up with social service agencies to build a new day center downtown.

“It’s a big need in our community that nobody is really fulfilling and nobody’s addressing that,” Cummins said. “We believe that we’re positioned to do that right here and right now at the Rescue Mission.”

The city is currently using about half a million dollars in Legacy Money toward a major riverfront development study. So far, the SWA group out of Houston has highlighted the Superior Street corridor as one of three focal points. It’s a location that currently houses the Rescue Mission’s shelter for homeless men.

Story: Riverfront development to focus on three areas

Bill Brown, president of the Downtown Improvement District, would rather the Rescue Mission expand away from downtown, saying the property on the Superior Street corridor could have a higher and better use.

Dan Wire with the Tri-State Watershed Alliance agrees. He said the homeless population leaves a significant amount of sleeping bags, blankets, and debris underneath the Wells Street Bridge. Much of that ends up in the river. His crew is said to have pulled out truck-loads of blankets, coats, hats, and other debris from that section of the river.

“As we grow as a community, as we have more resources, I think we’ve got the opportunity to address the human needs that are very real and very present,” Wire said. “To put those human needs in front of economic opportunities that can eventually address those needs, I think that’s the wrong way to look at it.”

Wire added that homelessness is a tough issue to approach, but as the city moves forward with downtown development, challenging decisions will have to be made.

“One of them is our justice center. Is that really in the right location? Another one could very well be the Rescue Mission, and Charis House. Are they in the right location?” asked Wire. “It’s not a discussion about the need. But it is a discussion about location. Is that the best use for those properties?”

15 Finds Out caught up with Todd Meyer, director of planning for the SWA group, during the short time he was in town. He said other cities undergoing riverfront development have dealt with homelessness in revitalizing areas by adding shelter.

“There are solutions where folks have built facilities to house people. That is better than leaving them to fend for themselves on the street. It’s usually some sort of partnership between the government and private entities,” Meyer said. “The biggest thing that we can do in terms of the homeless population is to just provide more places for them to stay at night so that they don’t have to sleep outdoors or find a place in the park or in our new riverfront promenade.”

In the end, these are future conversations on the way for a revitalizing downtown. And the Rescue Mission hopes when talking about economic development, officials won’t ignore the need for human development.

“$8,000 could literally transform an individual who goes through our program. But yet it could cost upwards of $20,000 to $30,000 to try to rehabilitate the person in our criminal justice system,” said Donovan Coley, CEO of the Rescue Mission. “I think to invest money in social service agencies who are literally empowering people so that they will not become a burden to the taxpayers, I believe that is a wonderful return on investment.”

The Fort Wayne Area Planning Council on Homelessness discusses this issue frequently. Their meetings are the third Monday of every month and are open to public input. Karcher welcomed anyone interested in learning more/helping to attend.

Their next meeting is September 15 at the Citizens Square Omni Room beginning at 11:30 a.m.

Click here to learn more about the Fort Wayne Area Planning Council on Homelessness.

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