How Indiana’s prison system contributes to homelessness in Indianapolis

Feb 24, 2023

The Gist

The Indiana Department of Correction, a state agency that runs the prison system, has been dropping off Hoosiers into homeless shelters in Marion County at the end of their prison sentences — even if the formerly incarcerated people are not from Marion County. 

The same thing has happened in at least two other communities, according to state lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

The consequence is a “prison to homelessness pipeline,” according to State Rep. Justin Moed, D-Indianapolis, who authored a bill seeking to end the practice.

What’s Happening

When Hoosiers finish serving time in state prison, they are typically released into their home communities. For the hundreds each year who do not have a place to live, though, they are released by the Department of Correction (DOC) directly into homeless shelters. 

That appears to be especially common in Marion County.

As a result, the Department of Correction’s releases are stressing the tenuous resources available in a city already experiencing near-record levels of homelessness.

“That creates a greater burden on our homeless system here in Indianapolis when we really are struggling to keep up,” said Rev. David W. Greene Sr., who serves as a leader in the Indianapolis Continuum of Care, a group of organizations and people working to reduce homelessness. “It’s been going on for years.” 

The annual count for Marion County’s homeless population reached 1,761 last year, according to the nonprofit Coalition for Homelessness Intervention and Prevention. 

The number is 12% higher than the pre-pandemic levels recorded in 2019. The addition of people who aren’t from the area — and who, therefore, lack the family, housing or financial support to reintegrate into the community — contributes to the problems created by growing homelessness, Greene noted. 

They need help obtaining driver’s licenses, Social Security cards and mental health treatment, let alone jobs and housing. Most in Marion County head to downtown Indianapolis, Greene said, because that’s where they can receive help and that’s where the homeless shelter Wheeler Mission is located. 

Meanwhile, Greene said business owners and community members grow frustrated because homelessness contributes to the perception that downtown is unsafe.

But they are not the only ones who are frustrated. 

“Service providers are frustrated because it far exceeds the capacity,” Greene told State Affairs. “I know finger-pointing is not a winning solution. I’m saying let’s all get in the same room and say this is a problem and try to address the problem.”

State Affairs requested an interview with Indiana Department of Correction Deputy Commissioner Christine Blessinger, but a department spokeswoman declined to make her available. 

Blessinger, though, spoke about her department’s challenges during a series of meetings last year for the Low Barrier Homeless Shelter Task Force, in large part, to help address homelessness in Indianapolis.  

It’s difficult for people who leave prison to find housing, Blessinger told the task force, even if they happen to have good-paying jobs. Landlords would rather not rent their homes to someone who has a felony record.

It grew even harder when COVID-19 hit, Blessinger said. Shelters were closing or restricting how many people could enter because of distancing requirements. The Department of Correction attempted to find more placements with friends and families, Blessinger said. 

“We’ve heard the rumor that we pull up on a bus and drop off a bunch of people in Marion County. That is a rumor. That is not true,” Blessinger said during an October 2022 task force meeting. “We’re still sending some to shelters and missions, clearly.”

Why It Matters

Nearly 3,400 people were released from Department of Correction custody into homeless shelters in the four-year period of 2018-21, according to data provided to the task force.

That represents 8.3% of everybody released by the department during that time period.

For Marion County, it amounts to an average of 248 people per year, or 993 people during the four-year period. (Statewide data for 2022 was not available, a Department of Correction spokeswoman said.)

It is unclear how many people were initially slated for shelter placement but then later found alternative housing arrangements. 

It is also unclear how many were released into homeless shelters located outside of a person’s home county. The Indiana Department of Correction does not routinely compile that information, the spokeswoman said.

Some released to Marion County shelters may originally have been from the area. But not all of them. 

State Rep. Moed, who represents Indianapolis, summarized his concerns during a House committee meeting in February. 

“We want to try to avoid this transportation of folks creating a pipeline from prison to homelessness,” Moed told the House committee. “We just want to work toward a goal of being thoughtful in how folks are coming out of the system, and where they’re going, to make sure they end up in the right place and head in the right direction.”

Otherwise, they face a greater risk of remaining homeless and, eventually, back in prison, experts say.

State Rep. Michael Aylesworth, R-Hebron, told the House committee he previously witnessed a similar issue while serving as a commissioner in Porter County. 

“It’s not fair to a community,” Aylesworth said, “to have people dumped on it without warning or without preparation.”

State Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington, echoed some of the concerns for his city. 

“I have all kinds of people tell me that they feel the DOC dumps people into our community because we have services,” Pierce told the committee. “And I think that’s what I’m hearing from Indianapolis.” 

He had hoped to question the Department of Correction about its policies, but no one from the agency appeared before the committee when lawmakers were discussing the practice. 

“It would be interesting to have DOC here to explain to us exactly how they decide to send people, and what they are actually doing,” Pierce told the other lawmakers. “I don’t know what it’s going to take for us to get them to come here and participate in the process but I think they should.”

Where the Department of Correction did participate was the series of task force meetings in 2022 that sought to address homelessness in Indianapolis.

The task force settled on several recommendations to deliver to Gov. Eric Holcomb and head lawmakers in both chambers. 

One recommendation became House Bill 1087, a bipartisan bill authored by Moed this legislative session.  

What’s Next?

Under the bill, the Department of Correction would first need to coordinate with a local reentry program prior to releasing formerly incarcerated Hoosiers into counties that were not their counties of residence. 

The bill aims to solve an issue Moed raised during the task force meetings: For the people who have particular housing challenges, how can the DOC notify Indianapolis officials earlier so the community can prepare to help? 

It’s endorsed by the Marion County Reentry Coalition, a group of dozens of organizations that try to reduce recidivism by helping formerly incarcerated people rejoin the community. Wheeler Mission Chief Development Officer Perry Hines, in a statement to State Affairs, also said the organization supports the bill, though he noted the number of people dropped off by the DOC “is not a number that gives us pause.”

The House approved the legislation this month with a 95-1 vote. Its sponsors in the Senate include a bipartisan contingent from Indianapolis: Democrats Greg Taylor and Fady Qaddoura, and Republican Aaron Freeman. 

How the Department of Correction would adjust to the law is unclear. In declining State Affairs’ interview request, the Department of Correction spokeswoman said the department does not discuss pending legislation.

But Blessinger, the deputy commissioner, raised a similar question during the 2022 task force meetings. 

“Where? Where do they go? Because if they’re not going home and they’re not going to a mission or shelter, where else?” she asked the group. “Because we have those ones — that we struggle — that can’t even go to a mission or shelter, so it’s finding the appropriate place for them to be.”

For Continuum of Care’s Greene, he would like to see greater participation in solving the problem from the Department of Correction.

“They’ve got to have an interest in solving the problem. I’m not trying to talk bad about anybody, but you’ve got to have a number of agencies,” Greene told State Affairs. “Leadership at the top, whether it’s the governor or whoever, has to say, ‘Let’s fix this right here.’ And I don’t think we’ve ever gotten there.” 

Contact Ryan Martin on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, or at [email protected].

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Header image: Illustration by Brittany Phan/State Affairs