2/19/20 LTHC day center buffet

Guests at the LTHC Engagement Center receive three meals a day. Verjulia, a resident who requested only her first name be used, compared the buffet to one you might find in Pizza Hut.

A 20-year marriage coming to an abrupt end, losing a stable job at the Subaru auto plant and the piling up of monthly payments — and Nick was left homeless.

Nick, who requested only his first name be used, spent Feb. 13 — when temperatures plummeted below zero degrees — in Lafayette Urban Ministry’s emergency shelter, a 44-bed interim housing provider. It was only his third consecutive night at the shelter, he said, and he already had several job applications finished and was eager to move on.

“I was staying with some family members for a little while but things didn’t work out,” Nick said. “I was way out in the country with no ability to get into town. It was a four-and-a-half-hour walk to get to the edge of town.

“There were blisters in places I don’t want to mention.”

Nick said being homeless has shown him the lack of cohesion between the different services offered in the Lafayette area. He said the bureaucracy set up to manage homelessness should implement policies to educate and train people, not simply to help them survive.

“Nobody’s ever gotten anywhere that they’ve been all by themselves,” he said. “It has always taken a village, from your parents, teachers, strangers, friends of the family — it takes everybody, even after you grow up.”

On Tuesday, Nick said he had been hired by a manufacturing company and expects to start next week. With the help of LUM’s transitional housing, he plans to save enough money to secure his own place.

But the outlook is less promising for many others who have spent months plagued by restless nights, trouble with law enforcement and logistical confusion trying to sort through the resources available to Lafayette’s homeless population.

‘I know she’s warm, I know she’s safe’

Lafayette Police Department Sgt. Grant Snyder said he had been dispatched to the Lafayette Transitional Housing Center’s new day center four to six times a day since its Jan. 20 opening, citing circumstances like drug usage, theft or fights. But Saturday was the first occasion on which he had to forcefully remove a guest from the building.

According to a police report Snyder wrote, a woman had allegedly been inappropriately touching male residents at the LTHC day center and asking them to have sex for nearly a week before management issued a trespass warning.

The report states she was a victim of domestic battery earlier in the month, which left her homeless and in need of the center. Snyder wrote that her bi-polar disorder, coupled with the fact that she refused medical care earlier in the week, factored into her problematic behavior.

Dawn Barngrover, LTHC’s programs director, had repeatedly asked her to stop touching others. On Saturday, Barngrover stood near two Exponent reporters demanding the woman stop, only to be shooed away. When the woman raised an arm, Barngrover warned her: “If you hit me, I’m going to call the police.”

The woman hit Barngrover in the stomach. Three police officers arrived within minutes.

Snyder said the woman refused to leave the building and then resisted arrest, bending over and screaming when he attempted to escort her out with two other officers. At that point, Snyder said, he had no choice but to handcuff her and lead her out.

“The last thing I want to do is latch on to a 74-year-old woman and make her leave,” Snyder said. “But if it’s your house or your business and you say, ‘I want that person out,’ it’s the policeman’s job to get them out.”

Trespassing is one of the more common offenses for which homeless people are arrested, Snyder said. He said many homeless people harbor a general distrust for the police, which leads to escalated situations and arrests that could have been avoided.

“I’m getting sick of seeing cops — I have bad experiences with cops,” said Chris Sullivan, a guest who’s been homeless for a few days, when the squad cars arrived. Sullivan and other guests wondered why so many officers were necessary for a “little old woman.”

But other residents protested the negative perceptions surrounding police officers. Verjulia, a 57-year-old woman who said she has been homeless for seven months and requested only her first name be used, admonished her peers for being unappreciative and potentially giving LTHC a bad reputation.

As the woman was taken away by police, Verjulia jumped up and addressed guests recording videos of the encounter. She warned them that posting videos to social media without context could tarnish the reputations of the day center and the police department.

When she finished, most of the room applauded.

“I’m quite sure that certain people wouldn’t realize that the intention was to help that woman,” Verjulia said in an interview later. “Some people look at that situation like, ‘Oh, they’re arresting the old lady, they’re evil.’ People look at them as a negative force, they don’t want to see anything positive.”

Verjulia said police involvement could allow the woman to get the help she needed. Snyder said following the woman’s arrest, he submitted a report to Adult Protective Services, a program meant to help adults suffering from abuse, neglect or exploitation.

The police report states that Barngrover asked for the woman to be placed in a hospital or mental institution, but she was denied because Snyder determined the woman did not meet the criteria and had already refused care. Verjulia said in her seven months visiting LTHC’s facilities, Saturday was the first time she saw Barngrover cry.

The woman was taken to Tippecanoe County Jail, where she remains as of Wednesday.

LUM shelter director David Heckert said part of the problem may trace back to the 1970s, when the federal government systematically disbanded many mental-health facilities.

“So we’ve got waves and droves of homeless people that are wandering the streets that have serious psychological conditions and are untreated,” he said. “And generally speaking, the only way they get treatment is when they get arrested and go to jail.”

Snyder called the prospect of banning an old woman from the community’s preeminent resource for homeless people a dilemma. But after dealing with the woman on several occasions, having her both receive and refuse assistance for her mental illness, Snyder said jailing her was the only plausible solution.

“I was here four hours ago dealing with the same person, at the same place, for the same issue,” Snyder said. “It’s cold out there, where’s she gonna go? I know she’s warm (in jail), I know she’s safe and I know that she has to see a judge.”

Under one roof, tensions rise

With a majority of resources under one roof, individuals who are arrested for trespassing or given trespass warnings can be left with hardly any aid. But LTHC Executive Director Jennifer Layton said the new Engagement Center deliberately offers all services in one building.

“It was intentional that we designed this building to help bridge some gaps that we knew were happening in our community for families and individuals and veterans,” she said. “In order to really think about how we can better serve them, and not only end their homelessness but connect them to the care that they need.”

The Day Resource Center, open from 7 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. at LTHC’s 815 N. 12th St. location, gives individuals a place to stay during the day and provides three meals and a haircutting station as well as access to showers, washers, dryers, case managers and job specialists.

Each guest staying at the day center undergoes an assessment with a case manager, who Layton said discusses their story, situation and goals.

2/19/20 LTHC Engagement Center

The Lafayette Transitional Housing Engagement Center opened on Jan. 20 after receiving $14 million in funding. Guests have access to food, housing, professional help and counseling all under one roof.

The new center aims to make it so that a person can spend 24 hours inside without having to leave the shelter or go anywhere else. LTHC offers 40 units in the day center and 99 units total for individuals who are chronically homeless, a classification that uses a vulnerability index to measure factors such as time spent homeless, disabilities or criminal convictions that would prevent acceptance by most landlords.

Not all people who qualify for these units are able to stay in them.

“There’s 209 single adults on the waiting list,” Layton said. “And these are not families. I have another list for homeless families and how many we have right now.”

Seventeen beds are designated as 45-day interim housing for people who are working and have housing plans in place for when their stay period expires. Ten other beds hold spillover from the LUM emergency shelter, accepting only individuals who have exhausted the allotted three months and have no other option.

Mental health professionals from Valley Oaks Health clinic as well as representatives from the Veterans Administration and the Tippecanoe County Health Department’s needle-exchange program are on site to enhance access to health care. Four beds serve guests who have been medically discharged from hospitals or care centers but need shelter to fully recover.

Arion Walton, 23, said he’s been diagnosed with issues such as PTSD and severe depression. He said he’s seen several therapists to help him deal with his mental illnesses. Though services are abundant, Walton does not think they’re as useful as they could be.

2/19/20 Arion Walton

“Every day we’re all being challenged — most of the time by each other,” said Arion Walton, 23, who often steps outside to avoid the fray and enjoy moments of quiet.

Walton remembered only one helpful therapist during his time spent homeless, provided by Indiana Mentor, a nonprofit health and human services provider. Active listening was the most helpful element of the therapy for Walton, he said, but he thinks Valley Oaks has neglected it and instead offers an impersonal, domineering approach.

“What I would like to see is at least someone to talk to — someone that will actually listen,” he said. “I feel like as long as we have someone to listen, we can make it through our situations.”

In the few weeks it’s been open, the day center’s main lobby has been filled with about 50 guests, many sitting around cafeteria-style tables eating or using their phones and others milling around. Barngrover was one of three weekend staff members who monitors the room and handles disturbances, like the one involving the woman arrested for trespassing.

Stepping outside into the frigid afternoon air for a moment to reflect after the police left on Saturday, Walton said the environment puts a lot of stress on everyone who has to live in it.

“Every day we’re all being challenged — most of the time by each other,” he said.

Moments before the police were called on the woman Snyder arrested, she had been at Walton’s side interjecting any time he would begin to speak. Even so, he said the room was as calm as he’d ever seen it.

Despite the difficulty of living with a crowd, Walton said he cherishes the sense of community that Lafayette’s homeless population has built. He sympathizes with people who are kicked out of the LTHC day center because other options for places to sleep or eat are so limited.

“Even though we are in bad situations, the homeless help the homeless — more than even the housed help the homeless,” Walton said. “We meet a lot of good people when we’re homeless, we meet our best friends when we’re homeless.”

‘There’s no HR for being homeless’

Matthew, who has been homeless for nearly two years and requested his last name not be used, conceded the new LTHC building is the primary resource for many of the services the homeless need. But slouching in a plastic chair at LUM’s warming station Thursday night, with tissue in hand, he said his experience with other guests there made him reluctant to go back.

“I had been injured and they started threatening to fight me and break my arm, and then attempting to do so,” he said, tears in his eyes. “I’m not sure I’d want to go back there even if I could. But if you don’t have access to there, you’re f-----.”

He did not clarify why he fought with others but said he now chooses to spend the night at the winter warming station.

“There’s no HR for being homeless,” he added.

He stayed at the LUM emergency shelter until his three-month period expired in early 2019. He’s now been staying at the warming station for about three and a half months. Trouble with law enforcement, he said, has been plaguing his attempts to find employment and housing.

A police report shows that he purchased a lease with Klondike Storage to park his car on the company’s property and was arrested in October for sleeping in the vehicle. The business owner had made several requests for Matthew to leave because the lease agreement did not permit him to sleep on the property, according to the report.

Police began attempts to negotiate with him to leave, at one point calling his mother in Texas for assistance, to no avail. The report states he was arrested for resisting officers and trespassing after he went on “profanity-laced rants” and refused to comply with officer’s commands.

“The car was surrounded by like four different police agencies, shouting at me, banging on my windows, threatening to break them and drag me out of my car,” Matthew said.

Another police encounter in May 2018 led to Matthew being charged with an OWI and having his license suspended, and has left him struggling to make progress. He has no family in the area to assist with housing or transportation.

Other guests also said they have run into issues when it comes to finding somewhere to sleep. Some said they travel from LTHC to LUM’s emergency shelter. Others, like Matthew, spend the night on a chair at LUM’s winter warming station or LTHC’s night shelter, which opened on Feb. 10.

The past week’s sub-zero temperatures caused LUM to open its warming station several hours early on Thursday and bus guests from LTHC’s day center to the emergency shelter. In other conditions, guests must use any transportation available to them to spend the night inside.

Angela Pearson, another woman experiencing homelessness in the area, said in a letter to The Exponent she wishes the warming station opened earlier than midnight.

“My opinion is that it should be open earlier in the evening because the streets are not safe,” she wrote. “You also learn not to trust anyone.”

2/19/20 LUM warming shelter

The Lafayette Urban Ministry warming shelter is a resource for homeless people who have exhausted other temporary housing options. Guests sleep sitting up.

On days when temperatures drop particularly low, LUM shelter director David Heckert said they open their doors several hours earlier. But he added that the late hours are generally meant to encourage people to sign up for the emergency shelter instead of waiting until midnight to go to the warming station.

Getting a bed at the emergency shelter means fulfilling certain requirements, which Matthew said can be more difficult for those searching for jobs or those without reliable access to transportation.

Securing a room requires showing up to register between 1:30 and 3:30 p.m., Heckert said, then returning to the emergency shelter between 8:30 and 9 p.m. to check in. He meets individually with each guest to get to know them.

Guests are provided with a free meal, toiletries, sheets, towels and assigned a bunk bed in dorm-style rooms. They’re also charged with completing a chore, which Heckert said is meant to help guests feel a sense of accountability and ownership over the space.

LUM accepts 44 guests a night. Guests aren’t allowed to have drugs, alcohol or weapons. They leave all their belongings, including everything in their pockets, in a room LUM provides. If they are disruptive, belligerent or get into fights, they could be kicked out, given a six-month suspension or issued a trespass warning and banned for good.

Heckert said on Thursday the emergency shelter usually fills up in the winter months, but visits to the warming station are a lot less predictable. He said they usually see about three or four guests a night, 15 at most.

At both the shelter and the warming station, Heckert said LUM only accepts people over 18 and prohibits sex offenders from using its services. People with children are redirected to Family Promise, YWCA or LTHC. In emergencies, LTHC can put families in hotel rooms at no cost for one night.

On the last Wednesday in January every year, LTHC gathers what it calls point-in-time data. It counts every full bed in area shelters and sends outreach teams to distribute paper surveys to those on the streets. Staff members also encourage people to come to the day center to be counted.

Between 2013 and 2019, the number of people LTHC recorded as experiencing homelessness went down from 220 to 144. The number of unsheltered individuals who sleep outside went up from 24 to 49 between 2013 and 2016, and has since lowered to 40.

Layton said the data is meant to be a snapshot of a typical night that year. In the future, it could shape government funding.

“Homelessness is kind of a hidden problem,” she said. “There’s not a lot of people who think, ‘Oh my gosh, there are a bunch of people here that need our help.’ So this kind of gives us that nice measure, year after year, to say what are we really looking at?”

‘They’re afraid it’s gonna rub off on them’

Devin Michaels said he’s run into his share of people with bad intentions during the two months he’s been homeless in Lafayette. But most, he said, are individuals who have lost confidence and remain in a poor state because of it.

For the past four years, Michaels had his own home in Chattanooga, Tennessee, working for a catering company. He’s from the Lafayette area but said he left because of job instability and mistakes he’d made that negatively affected his family life. When he lost his job in Chattanooga, he figured the right way to reconcile with his past was to return to Lafayette and attempt to find success.

2/19/20 Devin Michaels

Devin Michaels, a homeless guest staying at the LTHC Engagement Center, makes claymations in his downtime. “This is what I do to keep from going nuts,” he said.

2/19/20 Devin Michaels claymations

Devin Michaels, a homeless guest staying at the LTHC Engagement Center, makes claymations in his down time. "This is what I do to keep from going nuts," he said.

Now that he’s back, he said he hopes his daughters will visit him.

“Sometimes people get really creeped out by people that are homeless — they’re afraid it’s gonna rub off on them,” Michaels said. “And my daughters — they’re smart, they’re not dumb — it’s hard to see their own family members being homeless and they don’t want that to rub off on them.”

His daughters work hard and earn steady incomes, Michaels said, but he doesn’t want them to feel obligated to lend him money. After being separated for five years, though, he thinks he deserves a chance to speak to them.

Heckert said in his one and a half years working at LUM’s emergency shelter, he’s seen his fair share of individuals judging the motivations of homeless people harshly.

“I think sometimes the misguided thought is that everybody who’s homeless is only homeless because they want to be,” he said. “Because they’re choosing to be, because they’re using drugs or drinking instead of being a productive member of society, and that’s really not the case with a lot of them, and honestly probably the majority of them.”

Heckert rejected the idea that homelessness is a choice, pointing to poverty as the root cause. People who live paycheck to paycheck have no recourse when an emergency happens, he said.

“They broke their leg, they broke their arm, they can’t work, car broke down, they couldn’t make it to work, and now they got fired. And now they don’t have a job and down the road they’re evicted from their place, and I’ve seen that a lot in the shelter,” Heckert said.

“So many people are just barely making it on the income that they’re making, and if something devastating happens, a medical emergency or any other kind of thing that could happen, it could put them here with us.”

At the same time, Heckert said those derailed by financial emergencies have the highest success rate at getting out of the shelter quickly.

In other cases, he said individuals might be sent to jail for something like drug possession and come back to find that they’ve lost their job, been evicted from their apartment and had their belongings — including all their documents — thrown away. Both LUM and LTHC offer services to help people recover documents, but it adds time to the process.

Layton said those experiencing homelessness also face many small barriers when it comes to finding a job.

“For a lot of our folks that we see that are actually experiencing homelessness, that’s a real struggle,” she said. “They don’t have IDs, they don’t have transportation, they don’t have work clothes, they don’t have a place to sleep, they don’t have an alarm clock. There’s all these things that kind of come into play, so people don’t think about all that. They just think, ‘These people are choosing this lifestyle,’ or, ‘They’ve made poor choices.’”

Though LTHC does receive some federal resources, Layton said federal policy needs to change to dispel the mentality that blames homeless people for their problems.

“Especially nationally — when you think about the hundreds of thousands of people who are experiencing homelessness in the United States — what are we doing? Something’s wrong,” she said. “So how do we change the narrative of ‘Shame on you, pull yourselves up by the bootstraps,’ to a ‘Shame on us?’ This is really wrong, that we’re treating human beings not as human beings. So what do we do about that? That’s really a federal policy change.”

Heckert said felon-friendly employers do exist in the area, but making a living wage can be difficult regardless.

As someone who is newly homeless, Nick worries that many long-term homeless people have become institutionalized — comfortable living in the confines of the programs designed to help them. He said he wishes to see more people being set on direct paths to education or skills training. People at the day center can work with case managers to find and apply for job opportunities, but end results vary depending on the individual. He said homeless felons, in particular, have little incentive to take steps to find gainful employment.

“They’ve had some drug charges or felonies that won’t allow them to get a decent job, so why try at that point?” Nick said. “The system is stacked against them until they get rid of that check on an application: ‘Have you ever been convicted of a felony?’”

‘It’s misplaced anger’

Verjulia said she has tried to convince other homeless guests they should not be angry at case managers or volunteers for offering assistance. She said some of the staff members she’d talked to had previously been homeless and thus understood the frustration the guests were feeling.

She also said she’s heard some members of the homeless community criticize others for receiving higher priority for housing because of substance abuse or criminal issues. This sort of thinking, Verjulia said, contributes to a self-defeating anger.

“They’re thinking backwards,” Verjulia said. “Totally backwards, because those are the people who need the help the most. And when they don’t do what they’re supposed to do to help themselves, their problems get greater and more unbearable to deal with. They get aggravated, they get frustrated, they get angry — it’s misplaced anger.”

She’s been homeless for seven months and has recently benefited from the additional washers and dryers, showers, clerical services and food offered at the new day resource center. She compared the buffet bar to one you’d see at a Pizza Hut.

Verjulia’s daughter and granddaughter live in Lafayette, she said, and she came from Connecticut to be with them when she learned her daughter’s partner was abusive.

“My daughter’s and granddaughter’s lives were in danger,” Verjulia said.

Though she still visits her daughter, she noticed herself repeatedly putting her family’s interests before her own and sacrificing opportunities to advance her situation. She skipped a paid training program through Ivy Tech Community College and Purdue that would have earned her a certificate and an easier path to landing a job.

“I could have had my own apartment with (LTHC’s) help,” Verjulia said. “But I kept putting my daughter and my granddaughter first all the time.”

For these reasons, Verjulia said she sympathizes with peers who view their situations negatively. She said she spends her nights sleeping at the LUM warming station, sitting up in a chair, and she hates it. Her perspective on the LTHC center is similar: The “wonderful” services don’t make the reality of homelessness any easier to stomach.

“I hate coming to this place just as much as I appreciate it,” Verjulia said. “You take what you can get.”

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