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Apartments for the homeless planned on South Bend’s east side

By: Jeff Parrot

Originally posted Sept 18, 2020 – Link

SOUTH BEND — A year after the South Bend Common Council rejected plans to build apartments for the homeless west of downtown, city and South Bend Heritage leaders Friday announced new plans to build the residences in the Edison Park neighborhood.

The nonprofit developer plans to start construction in the spring on a 22-unit apartment building called “Hope Avenue Apartments.” It will be located on Hope Avenue about a block east of Edison Middle School, near the Ironwood Drive-Corby Boulevard intersection.

In a model known as “housing first” permanent supportive housing, Oaklawn, the mental health agency, will have offices in the building and will offer services to the tenants, such as helping them access health insurance and addiction recovery.

South Bend Heritage will pay for the project with about $3.9 million in federal grant money passed down through the state and city. Tenants will be chosen from a “coordinated entry list” of about 160 people who are chronically homeless, as determined by area homeless service providers, said the organization’s executive director, Marco Mariani.

The site is already zoned for multi-family housing and was once owned by Madison Center, formerly the area’s community mental health agency.

“The intention always was to have apartments here, client-serving residential apartment units,” Mariani said.

Mariani said he had been eyeing the two-acre site for five years, but its Texas-based owner hadn’t agreed to sell it until July. He said residents of the city’s west, south and southeast sides have said they’ve “carried the burden far too long” by housing most industrial and homeless services.

“We took it on the chin a year ago,” Mariani said. “There was really a directive from council leadership and others in the community that you need to find a site on the east side of the river, a site that isn’t a traditional location. I think this site fits that goal that we heard from the community. Some of our sites that we looked at, people didn’t want to sell to us.”

On Aug. 27, 2019, the Common Council voted 7-2 to deny a rezoning that South Bend Heritage needed to build the apartments in the 1500 block of West Washington Street, after neighbors voiced their opposition during an emotional four-hour hearing. Near the end of that meeting, when it was clear council members were going to deny the rezoning, Mariani told them, “We’re not going anywhere, we will pursue this.”

A year before that, in late August 2018, the Mayor Pete Buttigieg administration withdrew plans to build a homeless gateway center on South Michigan Street after hearing heated opposition from Southeast Organized Area Residents, a neighborhood group that said it already houses too many homeless services. A gateway center would offer immediate shelter while linking clients to services aimed at moving them into PSH, either scattered in single apartments throughout the city or in multi-unit developments.

Notifying neighbors

In voting down the West Washington site, council members criticized South Bend Heritage for failing to communicate with neighbors soon enough. At a press conference Friday at the new site, Troy Warner, the council member in whose district it lies, said South Bend Heritage sent neighbors a letter last week announcing the plans.

Warner said he had received a “couple emails” from neighbors expressing “concerns.”

“The previous sites had stalled out because people said not in my backyard,” Warner said, noting he once lived next to recovering addicts being served by Oaklawn in a home on Marquette Avenue. He said there were some “issues” but nothing he couldn’t tolerate.

“The fear of what could happen is greater than the reality of what happens,” Warner said. “I’ve told them that there’s not going to be a council vote on this. The project is going to happen. These are going to be new neighbors next fall. Greet them, reach out to them, get to know their new neighbors. These are people and humans.”

Across the street and south of the site is Corby Homes, which are federally subsidized apartments for low-income tenants; abutting it on the west is a row of single-family homes on Victory Avenue; to the north are the market-rent Waterford Glen Apartments; and to the east are the Uhrig Apartments, which are owned by Oaklawn and were built by Madison Center in 1993 to house clients with mental illness.

Madison Center in the early 1990s had tried to build the Uhrig Apartments at two other sites, in the Council Oak neighborhood and on Riverside Court, but the council had denied their needed zoning changes because of fears voiced by neighbors. Madison Center then managed to win a zoning change needed at the Hope Avenue site despite encountering the same opposition from Edison Park residents, who at public meetings said they worried that mentally ill tenants would accost children walking to the school or shoot up the school with a machine gun, according to Tribune archives.

Hearing that account from a reporter Friday drew a chuckle from John Horsley, Oaklawn’s vice president of adult and addiction services.

“Same stuff we hear today 30 years later, isn’t it?” Horsley said. “That’s what’s frustrating from my vantage point. We have these models that have been very successful … but no matter how many of these you build and you serve well, it’s always difficult.”

For at least a year, Oaklawn, using a state grant, has been offering services to residents of the Oliver Apartments, the city’s first PSH complex, built and opened by South Bend Heritage in early 2018 in the Rum Village neighborhood. That project has taught the agency the importance of having addiction recovery coaches, people who have previously experienced addiction and/or mental illness, working closely on site with tenants, Horsley said.

Although it faced no legal requirement to do so, South Bend Heritage sent the Sept. 11 letter to people living within 350 feet of the Hope Avenue site. The letter notes in bold print: “This is not a rezoning or special exemption notice. All zoning is in place for the apartment building,” and invites neighbors to learn about the project at a Microsoft Teams virtual meeting Sept. 22.

Neighbors expressed mixed views when interviewed Friday by The Tribune.

Komaneach Wheeler, 40, was visiting her 20-year-old daughter, Shakinah, who lives in a Corby Homes apartment across the street from the site. Shakinah lives there with her three young children.

“I visit my daughter every day,” Wheeler said. “With this environment here, I have to keep a check on her because of the environment that surrounds her. I don’t think it’s suitable for this area. They just have other places I feel they should house them.”

“A lot of homeless people are drug addicts,” Shakinah said. “Hanging out outside. I don’t think kids should be around that.”

But her next door neighbor, Sonya Harper, 61, who lives there with her daughter and grandson, called the project “wonderful.”

“Everybody needs help, and why not help them, too?” Harper said.

Waterford Glen Apartments resident Diva Irwin agreed. Her backyard will overlook the development.

“Everybody wants a nice, warm place to stay,” said Irwin, 34, who moved in two months ago with her four children, ranging in age from 5 to 14. She said she doesn’t worry that the homeless are any more liable to engage in crime than any other nearby apartment residents.

“It’s a lot of reasons why people are homeless,” Irwin said. “I’ve had a few conversations with homeless people on how they got there, and I’ve been around a lot of homeless people. Now that they have a stable place to stay, they might get them a job so they can get on their feet completely. I think it’s a good thing.”

Immediate shelter next goal

The project does not address the area’s need for immediate housing-first shelter, evidenced by the tent encampments that have formed this year downtown and in the Monroe Park neighborhood. Mayor James Mueller said a 32-member “Implementation Group” recently started meeting every other week to discuss potential solutions to that problem.

The 2021 budget proposal Mueller has sent to the council includes up to $330,000 that could be spent on such a shelter if the group recommends one, said Mueller’s spokesman, Caleb Bauer.

Since the Monroe Park encampment broke up at the end of July, at a property owner’s insistence and after many complaints from neighbors, homeless advocate Araquel Bloss said she’s been housing nearly 70 of those people in hotels using money from an anonymous donor. With about a month before that money runs out, and about 60 people on a waiting list, Bloss at the press conference asked Mueller whether he would commit city money toward the project.

“We have Memorial Epworth and Oaklawn Rehab referring folks to us,” Bloss told Mueller. “We really need a triage or low-barrier intake center, which is not what the Center for the Homeless is or Hope (Ministries).”

“An intake center was part of the strategy from the previous administration’s task force,” Mueller replied, “and that’s part of something we’re exploring in the Implementation Group that I’ve put together.”