The diversity of homelessness in Valparaiso and Porter County was an intriguing topic of conversation Thursday morning at a ‘Community Coffee Talk’ hosted by Blackbird Cafe.
“People see the homeless every day, although some might not realize it,” said Caren Furdeck of Housing Opportunities. “Part of our mission at Housing Opportunities is to educate and change the mindset of homelessness."
Discussion ensued that the homeless can include a variety of individuals, with examples such as a middle-manager of a company that was laid off, a woman whose husband left her without any possessions or people who are employed but don’t make enough money to have a place to live with rising rents in the region.
“Some homeless may have a car or a job,” said Sandi Howard of Dayspring Women’s Center. “It isn’t always the person you see sleeping on the street.”
Kathleen Dewitt, also of Dayspring Women’s Center, echoed Howard’s comments.
“Sometimes we see people come in and can’t tell if they are there to volunteer or if they are in fact homeless themselves,” she said. “It’s not always that obvious.”
The forum, which included 15 participants representing several area non-profits, was the first “Community Coffee Talk” moderated by Ideas in Motion Media CEO and Publisher Chris Mahlmann.
“At first glance, when people drive by the streets of Valpo, the perception may be that there isn’t a problem with homelessness because you don't see it everywhere,” Mahlmann said. “But we have to tell people that there is an issue that needs to be dealt with and tell the story that there isn’t a place for some people to stay at night.”
“We want people to have the resources and the time to address the problem, and get people involved who may not be right now but could be.”
Dewitt pointed out that the problem has exceeded from about 150 homeless individuals in 2012 through a study done at Valparaiso University to more than 400 present in Porter County today.
“You’ll see people sleeping in cars,” she said. “Sometimes people do not have the family support they need.”
Chris Oxendale, one of two representatives of Porter-Starke Services, said a lot of their clients are forced to go “couchsurfing,” having a different home quite often by bouncing from house to house.
“A lot are in homes, but if they run into problems with the people hosting them, they are back on the streets,” he said, stressing that offering clients a second chance is imperative.
“It’s important to allow our clients to come back,” he said. “Sometimes there are external factors, like the rising cost of rent in Valparaiso that have an effect. Some have a requirement that you need to make four times the rent in income to be there, which hurts people going there on their own."
While the problem of homelessness is more prevalent than one may think, there are several organizations (many of which were on hand Thursday) working tirelessly to address the problem through providing resources.
Furdeck said that while the shelter at Housing Opportunities may be closed at the moment, they still have a “great responsibility in the community” to connect people with other organizations and ways to get help - noting their motto of offering “a hand up, not a hand out.”
Help with finding a job is another way Housing Opportunities has taken a proactive step in addressing the situation. “We try to have some of our volunteers volunteer first and see how they do first before we help set them up with a job,” Furdeck said.
Howard pointed out that someone does not necessarily have to be homeless to benefit from the services offered by Dayspring.
“We want to meet people where they are at, what their goals are and how we can help them achieve their goals,” added Aly Kasper, another representative from Dayspring Women’s Center.
“It’s about empowering them and making them know they can be successful,” said Elizabeth Allen of the Coalition for Affordable Housing. “We are trying to connect with WorkOne resources and make it possible to counsel people on building resumes and do some more things this summer with Housing Opportunities.”
Area churches also have programs designed to help those in need.
“Most churches are poised to offer assistance,” said Kevin Cram, one of two representatives from Liberty Bible Church present. “Churches in the area will pool benevolence funds for emergency assistance.”
An event planned for June 29 at Central Park Plaza will help raise awareness. “Pack the House” will be a concert held in downtown Valparaiso where attendees will need to bring five items like razors, laundry detergent or soap/shampoo to benefit the new men’s shelter created by New Creation. The New Creation shelter offers homeless men a place to stay from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. every night.
But with the limited resources most churches have, only 14 churches have men’s programs and seven in the area with programs for struggling women - which makes the opportunity for shelter for women available during only parts of the year.
“In the winter, our men’s shelter is full,” noted Ben Polhemus of Liberty Bible Church.
Several of the talk’s attendees said awareness of the problem is step one, and that will be actively addressed through media outlets such as ValpoLife.com and WVLP Valpo Radio.
“We want to be a vessel to help get the word out,” said Gregg Kovach of WVLP. “Anyone who needs a PSA (public service announcement) to get the info out there, we can do it. Although we cannot eliminate homelessness completely, we want to be part of the solution.
Kovach added that the coffee talk had been “a great learning experience” for him.
“And we’ll do everything we can to spread the message.”
Organizations participating in Ideas in Motion Media's first “Community Coffee Talk” included Liberty Bible Church, Housing Opportunities, Dayspring Women’s Center, Porter-Starke Services, the Coalition for Affordable Housing, WVLP, ValpoLife.com, Porter County Museum and WorkOne.