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IndyCAN Movement Aims to Help Residents Better Their Lives

March 6, 2012 | The Indianapolis Star | Link to Article

Anita Bjork is a proud Near-Northside resident. She lives off College Avenue, a few blocks from where she attends services at Our Redeemer Lutheran Church.

"We have shootings a block away. Prostitution. A dead body in the alley," she told me matter-of-factly. "A prostitute was found dead a couple of years ago."

People, for the most part, stay in their homes and keep to themselves. Bjork says she never hears kids outside playing.

It's not a safe neighborhood, but it's home. Yet Bjork is convinced that things can change, that things can get better.

Thousands of other Indianapolis residents share that belief, and tonight they plan to turn that belief into action at the Founding Convention of the Indianapolis Congregation Action Network (IndyCAN).

Think of it as a faith-based quality-of-life plan.

"It began by just listening to each other's stories as pastors about what issues we were facing in our communities," said the Rev. John McCaslin of St. Anthony Catholic Church. He's one of IndyCAN's founding members. "Many of us were sharing the same challenges."

So together, members and leaders of about 30 congregations will meet at Light of the World Christian Church to launch a campaign to help residents of some of the city's most troubled neighborhoods get on their feet. To achieve this, the congregations want to work with local leaders, including Mayor Greg Ballard, City-County Council President Maggie Lewis and Public Safety Director Frank Straub.

Now, plans to help residents who live in troubled neighborhoods are nothing new. These days, everybody seems to have a plan to do something.

What makes IndyCAN's plan different is its scope.

About 2,000 to 3,000 people are actively involved in the campaign at this point. Most are ordinary people who simply want to make a difference in their communities. Collectively, they interviewed 20,000 residents over several months to try to understand their lives.

What's stopping people from getting jobs? An education? From accessing transportation? How does crime affect them personally?

"We really look at this as more of a movement," said Bjork, a volunteer for IndyCAN. "This affects the whole city, not just a single neighborhood."

IndyCAN's goal is to improve the lives of 10,000 people over the next couple of years.

How? Well, based on interviews with residents of all different races, ethnicities and economic backgrounds, IndyCAN discovered common threads that run through some of the hardest-hit neighborhoods in Indianapolis.

The biggest problem? Jobs.

When someone doesn't have a job, can't get a job or can't get to a job, he doesn't have much of anything. There's no steady source of income, so supporting one's family is much harder or even impossible. Without a job, access to health care is limited. And without money, it's tough to own a car and buy gas to get around.

Finding a job that pays a decent wage is a particularly tough hurdle for ex-offenders.

"When you look at an application and it says 'I committed a felony,' the employer just throws it in the trash," Bjork said. "There are people who committed a felony 30 years ago and can't find a job."

The steep barriers to re-entry are a problem especially for inner-city neighborhoods. People who committed a crime once are more likely to do it again if they can't find another way to support themselves. So IndyCAN wants Indianapolis to follow the example of other cities and "ban the box." In cities such as Baltimore, Minneapolis, San Francisco and Austin, Texas, employers must wait until the final stages of the hiring process to ask about an applicant's criminal background.

"It gives them the time to explain what happened," Bjork said.

IndyCAN also is pushing for a more robust mass transit system. In interview after interview, residents said they had a hard -- even impossible -- time getting to work and school because IndyGo is so insufficient.

In the end, IndyCAN wants to give the residents who need it most the tools to get on their feet. That's fueled by the belief that everyone, no matter his or her status in life, should be given a chance to succeed.

"We're ready to do this," Bjork said. "We're ready to move forward. We're ready to put aside politics and work for common good of all people."

Contact Star columnist Erika D. Smith at (317) 444-6424, erika.smith@ indystar.com, on Facebook or on Twitter: @indystar_erika.