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Tuesday, April 16, 2024
The Observer

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‘This is a human rights issue’: South Bend community discusses homeless shelter placement

New center will help people ‘feel a sense of community and love,’ Saint Mary's senior says

Mayor James Mueller invited the South Bend community to an open discussion Tuesday evening about the placement and overall concerns for the New Day Intake Center. The meeting took place at LaSalle Academy, a public middle school, in downtown South Bend.

Mueller hosted this meeting as a result of a postponement from last Thursday, Feb. 1, when fire marshal Gerard Ellis arrived one hour after the original meeting began and forced community members to clear the building. The gathering at the Beacon Resource Center was so large, it had exceeded the capacity limit for the building. 

The project to launch South Bend’s first homeless shelter has been in progress since 2016 and began under former mayor Pete Buttigieg. It took a large step forward when the South Bend Community School Corporation approved the city’s purchase of a three-acre plot of land to host the center. 

Before this plot of land, several locations in different areas of the city had been offered and all had been turned down by the county. According to executive director of the Department of Community Investment, Caleb Bauer, the plot of land used for this project must adhere to the following requirements: the site must be located within city limits, at least three acres, located within a quarter mile of a bus stop or bus line, be an undeveloped or vacant lot, not contaminated with chemical pollution or categorized as a wetland zone and available for the city to purchase. 

The location under debate is located on North Bendix Drive, roughly a quarter a mile away from the Bendix Drive bus stop. 

The New Day Intake Center, sponsored by Catholic organization Our Lady of the Road, would provide shelter and other resources to those in need. This new building would replace Motels4Now and become South Bend’s first low-barrier homeless shelter. 

“We began this work about three and a half years ago in response to an urgent need in our community, with people living in tents with no water (and) no sanitation during the pandemic shutdown,” assistant professor of moral theology at Notre Dame and the founder of the Catholic Worker Community that runs Our Lady of the Road, Margaret Pfeil, said. “Since then, we've been able to build the staff, raise funding both for operations and capital cost and to make plans to build a more permanent facility to meet this need."

According to the Department of Community Investment, a low-barrier shelter is a “point of entry for chronically homeless individuals that provides shelter prior to their transition to permanent housing.” The low barrier status would also allow homeless individuals who may not necessarily be sober to find shelter. Several representatives from Our Lady of the Road emphasized guests would not be permitted to have illegal or chemical substances in possession while staying in their care. 

Concern raised by community members mainly included the close proximity to various churches, schools and small businesses, since the center would be located inside a residential zone. Several residents living on the west side of the city, where the site being proposed is located, argue the new addition would endanger the small businesses and families who live and work in that area.

“The proposed site to relocate the homeless population between the South Bend school corporation will not benefit the surrounding residents and patrons on the far northwest side,” local resident Kathleen said. “Placing 80 plus homeless people within 1,000 feet of Boland Park, 2,000 feet from a productive small business — namely Tom’s Car Care Center, 2,000 feet from Corpus Christi Church and School and 3,000 feet from Growing Kids (Learning Center) is not in the best interest of the general public, nor is it in the interest of our little citizens who are in the care of others during the day.” Kathleen did not disclose her last name during public commentary. 

A large portion of the concern focused on the safety of the children within that area, as a child’s daycare is located within 2,200 feet of the potential location. 

“I live literally two minutes away from the motel. I cannot go to the grocery store, to the gas station; I can’t send my kids through the neighborhood. I’m out there all the time picking up trash, needles, drugs. You push them away from the motel, then they come into our neighborhood … What are you going to do for the neighborhood?” local resident Jaqueline Ross said.

Bauer mentioned during his presentation “there are few parcels of land within South Bend city limits that are not within 2,200 feet of a licensed daycare or public or private school.”

Workers from and supporters of Our Lady of the Road also spoke up during the discussion, advocating for the community to have compassion and empathy for homeless individuals. 

“This is a human rights issue … these are human beings, and using​​ descriptors like ‘animals’ and ‘a blight’ is disgusting and completely dehumanizing. If the roles were reversed, I assure you would want the dignity of being treated with respect in return,” Our Lady of the Road worker Sophia Wilson said. 

According to Our Lady of the Road executive director Sheila McCarthy, their current intake center, Motels4Now, has served a total of 712 guests since August 2020. Each guest averages a four-month stay, and around 120 guests stay each night. Out of those guests, 78% of them have transferred into permanent housing and successfully escaped homelessness, with over 200 of these individuals finding housing placements with staff help. 

“What’s really incredible is when someone gets a room key and is able to shower and be able to sleep in a bed, their life gets so much better. They become so much more calm. They’re able to reconnect with a doctor with medication, take care of legal issues. The world just sort of opens up for them,” McCarthy said. 

Saint Mary’s College senior and ministry assistant Kathleen Hannon attended the postponed Thursday meeting and the Tuesday evening meeting in support of Our Lady of the Road. Hannon has volunteered at Our Lady of the Road for almost two years and believes the community will benefit with the new edition of the New Day Intake Center. 

“We still have the reality that there are so many more folks experiencing homelessness in South Bend, so the need for something a little bit more large-scale, to help more people, is essential,” Hannon said.

“​​The new day Intake Center is essential in that it’s going to help with the Catholic Worker mission of meeting people’s needs, helping people get back on their feet and feel a sense of community and love, which Motels4Now is doing, but it’s got to keep expanding a little bit in order to accommodate more people.”