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UPDATE: Thursday night, the IPS Board of School Commissioners approved the use of Susan Leach School 68 as a temporary overflow shelter for homeless families.

INDIANAPOLIS — The City of Indianapolis has plans to breathe new life into a defunct elementary school.

In the Winter of 2020, the city used hotels to provide shelter to the homeless to allow them to remain socially distant to keep from contracting COVID-19. This program used a lot of federal funding and quickly became expensive to continue that operation.

Andrew Merkley, housing specialist for OPHS, said in their conversations with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, they learned that other cities were using vacant public schools for temporary shelters.

“When we learned that from HUD, we decided to reach out to the Indianapolis Public School system to identify whether or not there were any vacant schools available for the same use,” said Merkley said.

Susan Roll Leach School 68 closed in 2009 after facing declining enrollment and has mostly sat empty ever since. In 2015, IPS leased the facility to the Indiana Juvenile Detention Center, which operated Marion Academy. That lease ended in 2019, and the building has remained empty since.

The city proposed that they use this school as overflow winter contingency housing for people experiencing homelessness from December 1 through April 1.

“This is new territory for the city of Indianapolis and we’re essentially creating a homeless shelter from scratch at this school,” Merkley said. “If we were to move forward, and we are moving forward with the planning process.”

When word initially came out about this proposed plan, neighbors in the Otterbein Neighborhood were initially hesitant.

“At first we were taken by surprise,” said Deb Hall, Board Secretary for the Otterbein Neighborhood Association.

Merkley said people in the neighborhood felt like the city was planning this without engaging them.

“This is, like I said, new for the city of Indianapolis, and we intended to work with the neighborhood, but we had a lot of other pieces to get in place before we were ready to go and speak with the neighborhood,” said Merkley

Indianapolis Public Schools and city government officials eventually met with Otterbein residents to talk about the project, helping to alleviate some of their concerns.

“It was very well received and once they went through the agenda, in the protocol, it relieved a lot of our minds, and so I think slowly we’re embracing it, and I would say that the Neighborhood Association is behind it,” said Hall.

One point that the city brought up to residents is that this would not be a shelter where people show up at the door at night looking for somewhere to stay.

“I think we thought there was gonna just be a homeless contingency from the neighborhood. They weren’t going to be like vetted out through Wheeler Mission. We just didn’t know how that would look,” said Hall.

OPHS says the shelter would be for women, children and families that have been screened and referred to the location by Wheeler Mission staff.

“Ultimately, Wheeler Mission is going to vet everyone that comes into this facility like they do every winter,” said Merkley. The folks that are coming to the facility will have to go through Wheeler normal process before they get there. So we aren’t going to be accepting folks, you know, day of walking to this walking up to the front door of the school and trying to get in that way. They’ll have to go through the normal channels before they can come to this location.”

Another concern that was brought up was security. OPHS says the site would be staffed 24-hours by Wheeler Mission staff, with on-site custodial and security contracted for by the City of Indianapolis.

There would be a nightly curfew of 9:30 p.m and no drugs or alcohol will be permitted in the facility or on the property. There would also be shower trailers with 16 stalls installed adjacent to the building, with covered access.

This would also not be a permanent solution for the people who are placed at the shelter. Merkley said the facility would have case managers, employment and housing support services, with the intent to transition residents to permanent, stable housing.

“The end goal is for us to rehouse because we don’t want to see them exit back into homelessness,” said Merkley. “I just want to be clear that…this is so that we can keep folks safe during the winter and during a pandemic.”

Hall said with hearing from the city, the neighborhood association is more understanding, and appreciates what the city is trying to do with the school.

“We’re all one crisis away from sharing in these circumstances, and I believe that a lot of us are really open in our thinking that let us do what we can,” said Hall. “That building’s been empty two to three years. We supported it in its other endeavors, and so why not support it in this?”

The plan remains a proposal with Indianapolis Public Schools. Board members will vote on the plan at Thursday’s board meeting.