A Problem Under the Foundation: The Evansville Housing System is Decaying

Nora Ruotolo

“There’s no place like home.” This phrase is recognizable and central to the lives of many Americans. Yet more than 450 people in Evansville have no place to call home.
Many people in Evansville struggle to find housing. While the answer to this problem is simple, the solution is quite complex.
Houses, apartments, and condos cost a pretty penny nowadays. Market rate rents have skyrocketed, and many families continue to make less than a living wage. Finding homes that are affordable and in good condition can be a challenge.
The Evansville Housing Authority (EHA) is a local organization which provides affordable housing for people who only have enough money for subsidized rent. Rick Moore, the executive director of EHA, is responsible for ensuring that the organization fulfills its mission.
“We needed housing, and we needed housing that was affordable,” said Moore.
The EHA partners with Aurora, an organization that was founded back in 1988. According to Zac Heronemus, Aurora’s executive director, it started because of, “a tremendous uptick in individuals and families experiencing homelessness throughout the nation. And part of that was largely in part due to the cutting of mental health services. And a lot of folks that experienced homelessness have mental health conditions that they’re dealing with; that often leads them to experiencing homelessness.”
America needs public housing. Evansville needs public housing, including those who are elderly and living off social security, those who are experiencing homelessness, and those who are who work low-income jobs. Right now, the city is between 1500-4500 units shy of meeting its affordable housing demands.
Some families are on a waiting list for three to four years before any kind of progress is made. Moore said that the EHA opens the waiting list periodically so people can apply for affordable housing. Names are drawn at random through a lottery system.
The EHA relies on government funding to build affordable housing units around Evansville. But since all its money comes from the government, there is always a looming threat that budget cuts could affect the organization.
Even if organizations like the EHA and Aurora had all the money in the world to help low-income families and people experiencing homelessness, they would not be able to do that.
Heronemus said, “I tell folks that if Aurora had every dollar to house all 400 people that are in shelter and on street, at this moment we wouldn’t have a place to put them. That’s just the reality of it.” There are not enough units to house everyone, and it will take years and lots of money to get to that point.
Aging homes, generational poverty, substance abuse, mental illnesses, criminal behavior, and homelessness are all factors that contribute to the need for affordable housing in the Evansville community.
Some houses are left in unlivable conditions. Moore said, “Typically, what contributes to the need is aging housing stock. That houses in neighborhoods have been around for quite a few years. Some have been deserted, some have been left to decay.”
People end up living in houses, but they are unable to afford the electricity bill. As old, inner-city homes continue to deteriorate over time, low-income families struggle to keep up with all of the growing problems inside of a house.
Paying off a house and establishing a budget for rent, food, and other expenses is comparable to playing a high-risk, low-reward game. Playing smart and taking advantage of opportunities often pays dividends in the long run. However, some people have the odds stacked against them since birth. There are people born into generational poverty, who have not received a quality education or been taught ways to be successful.
Moore says, “It’s not just bricks and mortar. When we house families, many of them have circumstances that affects their housing and causes them to be homeless. If they have issues with that family – it could be drugs, it could be alcohol, it could be illnesses. It could be a lot of things that cause them to lose their house. Then they enter into the homeless situation.”
Drugs, alcohol, and illnesses are just a few of the many traps that can cause homelessness. Aurora, “plays a role both on the prevention side, keeping people housed that are facing eviction, and then those that are in shelter and on street, helping to get them housed, and moved in a better direction.”
Back in 2015, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development conducted a survey and found that 45 percent of people experiencing homelessness have a mental illness. Some of these common mental illnesses include depression, schizophrenia, anxiety disorders, substance abuse disorders, and bipolar disorder. It is harder for people with mental illnesses to hold a steady job, which widens the path towards experiencing homelessness.
Seven years ago, Aurora started a pilot re-entry program to help formerly incarcerated felons find jobs and support within 12 months of their release from prison. Aurora’s case managers help to house people, find employment, and provide support for people dealing with mental illnesses or substance abuse. These services are crucial, because, as Heronemus said, “getting out of prison without support networks is basically a recipe for disaster.”
Not many companies hire individuals with felonies on their records, which makes finding a job exceeding difficult. Without a steady stream of income, it is easy for people to turn to drugs, alcohol, and other distractions as the only way to escape the grasp of homelessness. Fortunately, efforts are being made to help people steer clear of this pitfall.
Heronemus said, “I’m happy to say that our recidivism rate – ongoing recidivism rate – for this particular program is about 16 to 17 percent. That means that in the history of us carrying out this program, we’ve only had that amount go back to prison.” This number is much better than the state of Indiana, whose recidivism rate is at 38 percent.
Aurora’s re-entry program in Evansville has had so much success. There are now five other programs like it in the state of Indiana.
Progress is being made within the Evansville area, including its surrounding counties. Aurora has a partnership with Echo, another local affordable housing provider.
Heronemus said, “Our partnership with Echo over the past five years has taken the chronically homeless population from approximately 140 down to 35. And we anticipate next year effectively being at, they call it ‘effective zero,’ meaning we know that somebody’s going to pop up and be chronically homeless because there is not a spot, or funding, or housing available for them.”
“If you don’t live or work in downtown or Jacobsville,” Heronemus said, “our homeless population is effectively invisible.”
Homelessness is more than the people you see on the side of the road. It affects the lives of men and women from all walks of life. It does not discriminate based on gender, race, age, or level of education. In fact, Evansville has the highest per capita rate of homelessness in the state of Indiana.
Providing affordable housing for people in the Evansville area is essential. Poverty is a cycle that is passed along generationally. By providing families with affordable housing, they have time to pay their other expenses and save up money.
People within a community understand the needs and issues that their community has, more so than government officials or outsiders trying to help. Ending homelessness all starts with community. It is neighbors checking in on each other, people forming relationships, and kids being shown love and raised to dream big.
Homelessness is not something that can be stopped overnight. It takes a lot of money and a lot of time. Poverty effects families generationally. “I think trying to stop that revolving door is something that is a community issue and a community effort,” Moore said.