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An Evolving City Calls for an Evolution of Services

By: Mary-Margaret Sweeney, director of community engagement, DVN

I spent a decade of my life in Chicago, moving there for college and staying after graduation. I was hungry for the excitement and vibrancy of city life in comparison to my sleepy suburban upbringing. And indeed, daily, I was confronted with the differences. The most noticeable among them – poverty was made much more visible by sharing trains and buses with people from different communities. It was also not out of the ordinary for your date night spot to be next to, say, a methadone clinic. This collision of worlds is jarring, but also a window into a world that I never knew growing up in the suburbs, where my home and the businesses we frequented were tucked away from people that lived very different lives than we did.

I have now had the experience of working in social services in both urban and more suburban communities, and this lent an entirely new lens to the differences as well. A recent Slate article adds to the ongoing conversation and research around place and resources, and reading it called to mind the clients I have served outside of Chicago, and how geography limited their ability to access services.

The night I left my first marriage, I packed a bag and hopped on the 24-hour bus that ran a block from my home. Cabs were also readily available without a call ahead of time, and that has only improved over time with companies like Uber and Lyft. When I began working as a social worker and told people the name of my agency, often people knew exactly where my office was located. They had passed it a dozen times as they stared out a bus window. When I referred a client to a service, it did not matter if they owned a car or not. None of us did, and we could still easily access the social service offices and food pantries around the city. City life is not without its inconveniences and they are greater for those living in poverty, for sure. But I was surprised by the additional struggles of suburban service work.

In a community with no public transportation or a limited system, there is constant anxiety around getting people from Point A to Point B. People who find themselves needing social services for the first time do not know where to turn for help. It is completely possible to never see the office of a service provider if you live in certain parts of our city and outlying communities. As the Slate article describes, we think of the suburbs as a place where people do not need support, and in fact, we build real fences between ourselves and our neighbors. We are very much individuals in the suburbs, and we do not have to interact with others if we don’t want to. When you live in an apartment, you are often privy to the lives of those living on all sides of you, and domestic violence in one home, for example, can quickly become apparent to those around you, and the safety of the entire community can be affected. There may be some shared responsibility for safety in these situations that does not and cannot exist with a perimeter of lawn and fencing around you.

In a city like Indianapolis, we see a mix of these community assets and needs. Our transportation is lacking, but as more people move toward the city center, we are seeing more people experience the connections and witnessing what comes with living in close quarters. Yet, some of our populations who are most in-need are being displaced from centralized locations near the services they access, and getting from a suburban apartment complex to a downtown agency can take over an hour on IndyGo. As our city transforms, our leaders need to be aware of how this migration of people might need to mean a migration of service providers, and a better means of moving us all around our city.

Written by Mary-Margaret Sweeney, DVN’s Director of Community Engagement