- Associated Press - Saturday, December 20, 2014

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. (AP) - Growing up in Greater Lafayette, Hannah Harville didn’t often consider the local homeless population.

After all, the majority were hidden under bridges or tucked away in the woods or local shelters. Those on the street don’t look that much different than anyone else.

But now the Purdue University sophomore is on the front lines of the region’s newest effort to get the unsheltered homeless into services, and she’s getting an up-close look at the homeless and the barriers they face getting back on their feet.

“Just driving around town, you don’t notice those things until you go out and meet those people,” Harville told the Journal & Courier (https://on.jconline.com/11qH6ap ). “It’s been really eye-opening.”

Since last month, a group of Purdue volunteers has been combing downtown Lafayette and West Lafayette’s Tapawingo Park area several times a week in search of the unsheltered homeless.

It’s part of Wabash Valley Alliance’s street outreach team, a new program funded by more than $122,000 in state and federal grants awarded last summer.

That funding paved the way for the alliance to hire two full-time case managers to coordinate the volunteer team. Unlike other case managers, the task of these two positions is to deal specifically with the homeless as they work to break down the barriers keeping them from housing and employment.

The most accurate estimate, from a 2012 report, found that about 900 people in Tippecanoe County move in and out of homelessness in a given year.

In September, mental health advocate Kurt Harker was hired to fill one position. The search for a candidate to fill the second is ongoing.

It’s Harker’s job, with the help of the volunteers, to establish relationships with the homeless. Assuming they want help, that is, which isn’t always the case.

“Some people have reasons for being out there,” Harker said. “We don’t understand those reasons, but they do.”

On a cold November Saturday, the group met up at 7:30 a.m. outside Wabash Valley’s Main Street office. There Harker and Sheri Moore, the alliance’s director of bridge to community living, distributed backpacks and supplies to the volunteers.

Gloves, hats, water and bread were all on hand for the homeless. Each team member carried several “pocket pals” - a piece of paper with the names and contact information for homeless support services.

The team headed across Second Street toward the John T. Myers Pedestrian Bridge. At the foot of the bridge on the West Lafayette side, the group split up, with Harker and Purdue sophomore Carter Chain going north toward the Harrison Bridge while the rest headed south in the woods.

Harker and Chain soon encountered a homeless woman who gratefully accepted a bottle of water. She declined any further support, however, telling the pair that she was faring fine.

Encounters like that have Chain thinking more and more about how lucky he is.

“This morning I was outside and thought, ‘It’s pretty cold,’ ” Chain said. “But you start to think, the people I’m working with have no choice. They’re outside always. I think I’ve definitely learned … I shouldn’t take things for granted.”

That’s the whole point, said Mel Gruver, an assistant dean of civic engagement and leadership development at Purdue. Gruver’s office organizes the student volunteers.

“Some of the assumptions they’ve had about the issue of homelessness are being challenged,” Gruver said.

As Harker and Chain searched Tapawingo Park, Moore, Harville and Purdue junior Dana Smith wove their way through the trails to the south.

“Walking the trail, if you see something, a path, an entryway, you go and follow it,” Moore told the pair. “Or markers. We saw a little branch sticking out with a bottle on it so we knew it was a marker for something. We went back in there and it was a camp.”

On that Saturday, no camps were found, a sign Moore hoped meant that the unsheltered had moved indoors or onto the couches of friends and family as winter weather kicked in.

But signs of the hidden homeless are everywhere if one knows where to look.

The team passed a plastic bag tied to a low sprouting tree, which Moore quickly pointed out as a potential marker for a hiding spot.

At another spot, at the end of a path through tall grass, was a square imprint of a recent campsite that had been inhabited just one week before.

“It was these black plastic bags covering and providing some shelter,” Moore said. “It was here one week and the next it was gone. You wonder, where did this person go?”

Inside, she hoped.

In full view of that camping spot, Moore pointed out, was West Lafayette’s Hilton Garden Inn.

Meandering their way back to the rendezvous, Moore and the others took a detour to check the plastic construction sheeting under a bridge that’s been known to shelter the homeless.

Finding no one, they headed back to meet with Harker and Chain. The group then crossed the bridge once more and headed to the Mental Health America day shelter, where the homeless can gather for showers, food and to speak with case managers.

They reached the shelter but weren’t allowed inside. The best Harker could do was go into the entryway and ask the volunteer at the front desk to make an announcement to those inside that there was free winter gear waiting for them outside.

Upon receiving the hats and gloves, the grateful recipients shook the team members’ hands, hugging them. The students heard the story of a man who broke his arm, preventing him from finding work, and another whose mental health issues have crippled his job prospects.

“Do you have some prayers for me?” one woman asked.

Corey Williams, who’s been homeless a little more than a month, praised the team for its work.

“It’s a blessing from God there are people like you out here,” Williams said. “It’s good to have people to help people and not look down on them.”

The team made another lap around downtown, but by 10 a.m., the group’s shift was winding down. At Fuel, the group gathered to debrief, nursing cold hands around cups of hot coffee.

By the final tally, the group had handed out 25 pairs of gloves, 20 hats, seven pairs of socks, several water bottles and eight backpacks to the homeless.

They talked through everything that happened, exchanging the names of those they met and documenting the day’s events on paperwork required by the grants.

Harker will attempt to track down those they encountered to follow up. He’ll get them a free cellphone, if they qualify, and urge them into support services, such as shelters or rehousing programs.

Harker slipped the paperwork into his backpack and addressed the students.

“It was a good day,” Harker said. “Now let’s head back and do it again next week.”

___

Information from: Journal and Courier, https://www.jconline.com

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