By Victoria Arthur
Statehouse Correspondent for Indiana’s Catholic Newspapers
During his nine years as a township trustee, Jack Sandlin was on the front lines of serving the most vulnerable in his community, including the homeless.
The more-than 1,000 township trustee offices across Indiana are often considered a last-resort source of help for those in the community who are in need of the most basic necessities, such as food and shelter. But like other trustees, Sandlin often found his hands tied from providing desperately needed help to those without a place to call home. That’s because, by the very nature of their situation, they were lacking one basic requirement: proof of residency in the township.
Now, as a state senator, he wants to change that. His proposed legislation, Senate Bill 67 – which unanimously passed the Indiana Senate – would allow a township trustee to assist homeless people who cannot establish their township of residency.
“It all goes back to the origin of the township trustee, providing emergency assistance to those in the community,” said Sen. Sandlin (R-Indianapolis), who served as trustee of Perry Township on the city’s south side for nearly a decade. “People living in the township can fill out an application and are entitled to receive help if they fall within certain income guidelines. But the key is that they have to be a resident of the township. Everything hinges on proving that residency.
“This is an attempt to modernize the law and give trustees the opportunity to provide temporary housing assistance and other help when the person cannot provide that proof of residency in the township.”
The Indiana Catholic Conference supports the bill, in keeping with its commitment to helping the most vulnerable in society.
“This bill is important because the nature of homelessness may very well make it difficult, if not impossible, for a person to establish residency,” said Angela Espada, executive director of the ICC, the public policy voice of the Catholic Church in Indiana. “Without this law, the very reason a person needs assistance would prevent a township trustee from providing that much-needed assistance.”
Senate Bill 67 provides for Indiana townships with more than 10,000 residents to give aid to the homeless who may not be from their township or who cannot prove their legal residence. It also requires trustees to compile and publish a list of all available resources for the homeless in their area by March 1 of each year.
That list would include services offered by not-for-profit organizations and religious entities such as the Catholic Church.
“I have a great appreciation for the many non-profits that address this issue, including churches,” Sandlin said. “My encouragement to them is to keep doing what they’re doing.”
Among the resources Sandlin knows well is the Holy Family Shelter, which opened in 1984 as the first emergency shelter specifically for homeless families in Indianapolis. The near-westside facility, a program of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, can house up to 22 homeless families a night, according to its director, Bill Bickel. In addition to providing the basics of food and temporary housing, the shelter offers residents comprehensive social services to assist them with life skills and job training, ultimately with the goal of securing employment and permanent housing.
“Serving the poor and the homeless is a very complex endeavor,” Bickel said. “At the core of who we are is establishing a plan to address what is ideally the one and only time a family will be homeless.”
In turn, Bickel and other staffers at the Holy Family Shelter often work closely with township trustees on individual cases and share the common goal of leading people toward self-sufficiency.
“That partnership between us and the trustee’s office is central to what we do,” said Bryan Chatfield, associate director at the shelter. He and Breanna Klink, manager of residential services, spoke of the current roadblocks that many of their residents face under current laws.
“We see so many people who are lacking the essential documents to prove not only their residency but even their identity,” Klink said. “We are constantly referring people to the trustee’s office (for various matters), but this lack of documentation is a real barrier.”
One person who can attest to that is Ben Jackson, the Columbus, Ind., township trustee, who recently spoke to state lawmakers in support of Senate Bill 67. His testimony included a vivid and literal example of the difficult road that the homeless often face.
Just last month, a man was found walking barefoot along US 31 near Columbus when he was brought to Jackson’s office by the local sheriff. The man said he was on his way from Chicago to his sister’s home in Atlanta. Although this case was well outside his jurisdiction, Jackson stepped up to help, providing the man with a Greyhound bus ticket to Atlanta when a phone call confirmed that there indeed was a place for him at his sister’s house.
“I became a trustee with an eye toward how I could best help the poor in my community,” Jackson told the Senate committee on local government. “It quickly became apparent to me that one of the areas most in need of my attention was the assistance we were giving the homeless.” He added that the trustee’s office is “uniquely suited to address homelessness in our community.”
Partnerships between local government and the non-profit sector can be even more effective, according to Jackson, and Columbus offers a shining example. Brighter Days, an emergency shelter in Columbus, is a joint effort between Jackson’s Columbus Township Trustee’s Office and Love Chapel Ministries, the ecumenical assembly of Bartholomew County churches. That assembly includes St. Bartholomew Parish in Columbus, where Jackson is a member.
This partnership had come to the attention of Sandlin as he was preparing Senate Bill 67, and he invited Jackson to share his experiences and results with Senate lawmakers. Now that this short session of the General Assembly has reached the crossover point, the bill will move to the Indiana House of Representatives for consideration following its 50-0 vote in the Senate.
“I think it will be well received,” Sandlin said.
To follow Senate Bill 67 and other priority legislation of the ICC, visit www.indianacc.org. This website includes access to I-CAN, the Indiana Catholic Action Network, which offers the Church’s position on key issues. Those who sign up for I-CAN receive alerts on legislation moving forward and ways to contact their elected representatives.