Shelters for the unhoused in Bloomington are filling up quickly as the cold weather ensues, limiting the number of beds available in some facilities. Shelter employees are expressing concern about the risks unhoused people face when forced to sleep outside.
Friend’s Place is an overnight shelter managed by Beacon Inc., a nonprofit organization based out of Bloomington offering housing, meal and outreach services for people in poverty. Thomas Kennedy, a shelter monitor at Friend’s Place, said the shelter is limited to 40 beds — 24 for men and 16 for women — most of which are filled each night.
According to Beacon's website, Friend’s Place is the only year-round, non-religious emergency shelter in the region. Kennedy said the shelter is forced to deny access to some unhoused people when the beds fill up during the winter. While he isn’t sure exactly how many people Friend’s Place has turned away, he said it happens every night.
“We don’t have enough beds for the population that’s outside right now,” he said. “We need more capacity.”
Kennedy said he suspects that a lack of funding is partially to blame for why the shelter lacks capacity. One way to alleviate the problem, he said, could be to open another larger shelter, which would then have to be staffed and funded.
More options for permanent housing would also help on a more expansive scale, Kennedy said. There is plenty of available housing in the community, but not everyone can access it, he said. According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development's Final Fair Market Rents Documentation System, the average fair market rent price for a one-bedroom unit in Monroe County in fiscal year 2022 is $803. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition's 2021 "Out of Reach" report, average fair market rent for a one bedroom unit in Indiana is $698.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development offers a Housing Choice Voucher Program, a form of rent cost assistance often referred to as “Section 8,” to eligible individuals struggling to pay for housing. But Indiana property owners are not required to accept these vouchers so many deny renting to those who use it, Kennedy said. This creates financial barriers to securing a place to live.
Beacon Executive Director Rev. Forrest Gilmore said bed availability is always uncertain. The winter season exacerbates the issue, he said, because more people seek shelter from the weather. This means shelters with space available throughout the rest of the year may still struggle to hold as many people in the winter months.
Beacon annually counts the number of people living unhoused in Monroe County, a process Gilmore called the "PIT (Point in Time) Count." The last PIT Count in 2021 found there were 335 people experiencing homelessness. He said this is a typical number for any given year.
While less significant than last year, Gilmore said he has seen people sleeping on the streets in the cold this winter. Aside from the difficulty to shelter every person experiencing homelessness, some people choose not to seek shelter for various reasons. Gilmore said he isn't sure there would be enough space if everyone did choose to shelter.
"When you don't expand in beds during the winter, you have the same beds year-round, and so those fill and then you don't have extra," he said. "If people are seeking beds we want to make sure they can access them and get them through Wheeler."
From January 2021 to May 2021, Beacon operated a temporary winter shelter to provide refuge from the cold in response to the high number of people forced to sleep outside. However, the organization did not open that shelter again this winter. Gilmore said finding an available space proved difficult because of residential, occupancy and fire codes, some of which were waived temporarily in 2021. The site of the 2021 shelter was not available again this winter.
While Gilmore said money is a factor in creating more shelters, it also involves building, passing codes and staffing. Many shelters are struggling to hire, he said. Friend's Place has been searching to fill an open position for over a month.
When thinking about homelessness, Gilmore said, people often exclusively view shelters as the immediate response. However, he said expanding shelters does not ultimately solve the core problem of housing affordability.
"The reason we have so many people in shelter and the reason we struggle with beds and having enough is because of housing," he said. "Something we've got to emphasize year-round is that the solution to homelessness is not shelter — it's housing."