‘People are dying on the streets’: Homeless advocates push to reopen Reuben Engagement Center

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Community advocates urged the city to reopen a 30-bed shelter and addiction treatment facility downtown that suspended all operations in April over COVID-19 concerns.

The Reuben Engagement Center on Market Street offered the city’s only free drug detox program for people experiencing homelessness, staffers said.

An online petition calling for its reopening had more than 1,000 signatures Wednesday night.

City officials publicly maintained the Reuben Engagement Center’s closure was temporary, but staffers and community partners said they believed it was slated to close permanently.

“We’ve put our heart and soul into that place,” a Reuben employee told News 8.

She feared retaliation for speaking out and requested not to be identified in this report.

She left her previous job to join the Reuben team shortly after the facility opened in 2017 on the second floor of Marion County’s former Arrestee Processing Center.

A human resources representative encouraged staffers to search for new jobs during a Webex call on Tuesday, she told News 8.

“My reaction is pretty emotional,” she said. “It’s sad for the Marion County residents, as well as all the staff.”

The employee feared community members experiencing homelessness and battling addiction would “overdose… and die in the streets by themselves” if the emergency shelter and detox center remained closed.

The city “is in the process of trying to determine the best way to reopen the Reuben Center in light of the continuing COVID-19 pandemic,” a spokesperson for Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett’s office said Wednesday in an emailed statement. 

The city established two additional facilities to help house the homeless in a non-congregate setting during the pandemic, the mayor’s office said.

Hogsett had trumpeted the city’s investment in community services when the Reuben Engagement Center opened in 2017.

He touted the facility as a “daily example of what becomes possible when Indianapolis comes together to work toward a better future for all” during a press conference to mark its opening in Jan. 2017.

“One individual who experiences homelessness in our city is one too many,” the mayor declared in March 2017 at a resource fair held by Reuben staffers.

New homeless encampments appeared downtown during the pandemic, including several tents near the Reuben Engagement Center’s locked doors, according to the employee who spoke with News 8.

“They’re just popping up everywhere,” she said. “Walk down Market Street and you’re seeing camps under bridges; you’re seeing camps on South Street.”

An open letter penned by directors of Pathway to Recovery, a local nonprofit organization that offers substance-free housing and support, compared the Reuben Engagement Center’s closure to “closing the emergency room.”

“People are dying on the streets – literally,” executive director Sandy Jeffers wrote. “Last Saturday, [a man] drank himself to death in a hotel room. His daughter and son will never forget Father’s Day because that’s the day they learned their dad died alone from alcoholism. We couldn’t send him to Reuben because it was closed.”

The city is working with public health officials to “find a location that can serve as a potential city-sponsored safe recovery site,” the mayor’s office said Wednesday, more than 11 weeks after the Reuben Engagement Center closed.