Prudence or prejudice?

115 W Hendricks

Is it wrong to ask questions when a man steps up to help the homeless?

The Shelbyville News reports that a local man wants to convert an empty warehouse into a homeless shelter. The building (pictured at right) is a 10,000 square foot facility that’s been empty for two years. His plan is to buy the building on contract and convert the space into a soup kitchen and temporary housing for up to 100 people.

The Shelbyville Board of Zoning Appeals has questions, and some feel the board is looking a gift horse in the mouth. I disagree.

At its meeting this week, members of the BZA asked about parking; the hours of operation; professional services needed to bring the facility up to code; and other issues like outside congregation, supply trucks and vendor traffic, outside lighting and state-issued permits.

Neighbors also have understandable concerns about their property values, because the building the advocate wants to use is in the middle of an otherwise residential block — a holdover from an era before modern building and zoning standards.

The big question is how bad the homeless problem really is in Shelbyville, Indiana. Unlike some of the bigger towns I’ve called home in my lifetime — Chicago, Philadelphia, Saint Louis, Little Rock — I have yet to see anyone who’s actually trying to rough it on our mean streets.

The odds are that this isn’t a big enough problem in Shelbyville to warrant a 100-bed dormitory-style shelter. The vast majority of America’s homeless are in urban centers, not small, basically rural towns like Shelbyville. (Even though we’re only 25 miles from Indianapolis, this is most definitely NOT an extension of Indy. My co-workers from our big neighbor to the northwest refer to Our Town as “Shelbytucky”.)

The National Alliance to End Homelessness estimates fewer than 10,000 homeless people in the entire state of Indiana. The NAEH also estimates that over 90% of the homeless are concentrated in urban centers and suburbs, which would be Indianapolis, Gary, Fort Wayne, Evansville, South Bend, and so on.

If that’s true, some rough calculations indicate that maybe 900 homeless people are scattered among all of Indiana’s 1.4 million rural residents (out of a total state population of about 6.3 million).

Since Shelbyville’s 18,000 residents are about 1.25% of Indiana’s total rural population, we might have about a dozen homeless people here.

Now, there is no way to know whether my methodology is accurate, but as I mentioned earlier, we just don’t see any obvious evidence of homeless people on the streets of Shelbyville. My gut feeling is that — like the “field of dreams” — if we build it, they will come. From other parts of the state. And that’s not necessarily a good thing.

The desire to help those in need is commendable, but I confess that I wouldn’t want a 100-bed homeless shelter on my street. A dormitory-style shelter raises issues of public health and safety. While homeless people are themselves at greater risk of physical and sexual assault than the rest of the population, a study in Austin, Texas found that the arrest rate for homeless males was 25%-35% higher for violent and property crimes than it was for non-homeless men.

Besides, a dorm-style shelter may not be the best answer. In a town where the number of foreclosed and vacant properties is greater than the number of homes listed for sale, maybe the state or federal government could offer an incentive to mortgage lenders to fix up those vacant homes and offer them as shelters for the homeless. That, along with funding for employing people on public works projects, like the ones proposed by President-elect Obama, might be a more direct path back to self-sufficiency than simply offering a meal and a bed.

Teaching them to fish instead of feeding them fish, as it were.

If the gentleman proposing this homeless shelter were to scale back the concept to simply creating a food bank or soup kitchen, I’d be all for it. Lots of people who have shelter are finding it hard to put food on the table right now. People from the neighborhood would probably volunteer to help. But turning the empty warehouse into a dormitory for the homeless creates more problems for the city than it solves.

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