How Can We Impact the Homelessness Issue in Our Community?

Last Updated by Laura Alvarado on
Cardboard cutouts represent homeless youth in Indianapolis.
Photo by: School on Wheels

November is National Homeless Youth Awareness Month. Youth who are experiencing homelessness face unique challenges and opportunities along their education path. During this month, we will feature local community partners who are working to support youth experiencing homelessness, offering information to deepen understanding about youth homelessness and identifying ways we can all support these students.

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To truly understand how to make an impact on the issue of homelessness in our community I believe more people need to understand some of the causes behind homelessness. Deepening one’s understanding of these causes can help decrease negative stereotypes that create walls and overwhelming barriers for those experiencing this complex situation. As the Vice President of Programs and Community Outreach for School on Wheels, a non-profit organization that supports children experiencing homelessness with one-to-one tutoring and educational advocacy, it is my job to connect individuals to our students and ultimately their stories. These stories help increase one’s understanding of homelessness, help to break down those walls and hopefully inspire one to action.

Each School on Wheels student comes to the table each week with their own unique story of what he or she has experienced, however all their stories shed light on the myriad of causes associated with family homelessness.  

According to the National Center on Family Homelessness, family homelessness is caused by the combined effects of lack of affordable housing, unemployment, limited access to resources and supports, health and mental health challenges, the challenges of raising children as a single parent, and experiences of violence. As the gap between housing costs and income continues to widen, more and more families are at risk of homelessness. Even a seemingly minor event can trigger a catastrophic outcome and catapult a family onto the streets.

Homelessness is not caused by one issue but rather the complexities surrounding multiple issues. The phrase “combined effects” rings true for the story of every student I know and discuss in the community. Additionally, a lack of network or support systems can be the difference between remaining stably housed and becoming homeless. Many of the families that we serve have run out of family members and friends able to assist them any longer.

In recent years there has been much written about successful community wide approaches that have impacted the issue of homelessness in a variety of ways in numerous communities. Many of these strategies or best practices are currently being implemented today in Indianapolis and need your support.

First and foremost, people need to understand why people are homeless in our local community. Indianapolis conducts a homeless Point-in-Time count at the end of January each year. This count is required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and provides a snapshot of who is homeless and why on one given night in Indianapolis. The Coalition for Homelessness Intervention and Prevention administers the count each year with the help of volunteers who assist in the delivery of survey questions to those experiencing homelessness. The data collected and summarized from the count aides in allocating resources and services for those experiencing homelessness.

It takes a total civic response that includes the private and public sectors to impact the issue of homelessness. In 2012 and 2013, the Indianapolis community convened through four daylong sessions to explore critical issues facing homeless individuals in our community as well as create goals and strategies to address those issues. The information gathered during those community sessions helped create a plan known as the Blueprint 2.0. The Blueprint 2.0 is working towards making homelessness rare, short- lived and recoverable in Indianapolis. The plan incorporates the ideas of many and stresses the necessity of working across sectors to find and implement solutions. The Indianapolis Continuum of Care needs additional individuals dedicated to preventing and ending homelessness in Indianapolis through the numerous strategies outlined in the Blueprint 2.0. 

Innovative support services that reach across sectors and build creative cross collaborative strategies can deeply impact the lives of those experiencing homelessness. There are many local agencies providing housing, food, education, job training and so on in our city that are embracing this idea to ensure that these services are sustainable. At School on Wheels we refer to this idea as creating a web of support around our students and families. This web connects students to people and services in the overall community to assist a student towards his or her academic and social success. We support the needs of over 350 school-aged youth each year by working with 400 volunteers from a variety of backgrounds and skills, 13 homeless partner agencies and staff, school administrators and teachers, social workers, parents as well as individual and corporate donors. Become involved in an organization that utilizes your expertize or skills to make a difference. At School on Wheels, you can make a difference in the life of a child through one hour a week. The hour will change two lives- yours and theirs.

Want to learn more about specific obstacles faceing homeless youth and families? Join School on Wheels for a heartfelt discussion on November 11th at Clowes Memorial Hall of Butler University.

Did you learn something new about what it means to be homeless and what supports are needed for this population? How do you plan to supoprt youth who are experiencing homelessness? Share your thoughts in the comments below, and on social media using #AmGradIndy.

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Laura Alvarado is the  Vice President of Programs and Community Outreach for School on Wheels. She has 15 years’ experience working for non-profit organizations impacting underserved audiences. She oversees all programming areas and is responsible for engaging the community in creative ways to support the mission. 

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