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South Bend homeless tent camp neighbors still frustrated with lack of action from city

By Jeff Parrott South Bend Tribune | Jul 9, 2020

SOUTH BEND — A group of common council members, spurred by the frustrations of Monroe Park residents six weeks after a homeless tent camp formed in their neighborhood, continue to urge Mayor James Mueller to quickly offer emergency shelter and case work at the city-owned former Salvation Army building downtown.

Mueller says it’s not quite so easy.

Neighborhood leaders tried to exert similar pressure on him two weeks ago, and say it seems he’s still taking no action. Margie Pfeil, Monroe Park Neighborhood Association secretary and a founder of the Catholic Worker house a block away from the encampment, said the association’s leaders last had a conference call with Mueller June 29.

“We were proposing various options in the immediate and short term, and it just seemed like there were barriers to every option and he had no other ideas to offer us,” Pfeil said, “so we ended up taking away the message of well, let’s just wait and see what happens, which is just not sustainable for people living in tents or for the neighbors surrounding them.”

At the next council meeting July 13, council members Lori Hamann, Karen White and Henry Davis Jr. plan to introduce a resolution, which has no legal teeth, asking Mueller to declare a “state of emergency related to the current homelessness crisis.” Action steps would include immediately renovating the former Salvation Army building at Main and Monroe streets with federal money the city has received for the coronavirus pandemic, and issuing a request for proposals from service providers to operate a “Bed Bridge” program there.

The concept involves immediately housing people and then having “trauma-informed” care workers link them to services, such as mental health, addiction and employment, before helping them move into permanent supportive housing elsewhere.

Florida-based homeless solutions consultant Tom Rebman, who has been critical of the city’s handling of homelessness in the past, recently joined a weekly Zoom meeting the neighborhood association has been scheduling on Wednesdays to brainstorm solutions to crime, drug use and violence surrounding the encampment. He told the group about how a Bed Bridge program has found success in the Daytona Beach, Fla., area.

Mueller said he recognizes the “problematic situation” in the neighborhood, but he doesn’t think the former Salvation Army building idea has enough support from downtown businesses and adjacent property owners. They reluctantly agreed to let the city fund nighttime weather amnesty at the building at Main and Monroe streets last winter and this coming winter but have said they don’t want a permanent homeless shelter there. The council last fall approved rezoning the site for homeless shelter services temporarily until next spring.

“There’s been a lot of pushback to the idea of concentrating our services in one end of town,” Mueller said. “The ability to site yet another facility in the same area would be challenging. I’m not saying that site is out of the question. I’m just saying we have a lot more work to do to get buy-in if that is a site long term.”

Common Council member Lori Hamann, who has been among the more vocal council members calling for action from the administration, called Mueller’s response “very sad.”

“In my world, he is putting capital over humans,” Hamann said.

Pfeil said the city needs to “step up” and “be more energized, involved and proactive.”

“This is far beyond the capacity of a neighborhood to deal with,” Pfeil said. “Here we are in July and it really won’t be long before we hit late October, early November and the weather will turn. We’ll end up in this cycle again of tent camps, into weather amnesty, back into tent camps. We have to interrupt that cycle. It’s not sustainable for anyone.”

Mueller said it’s not his intention to do nothing now so he can wait until weather amnesty at the building this winter, but he hasn’t yet heard of an entity interested in operating such a shelter year round. Many of the people living in tents, considered the “chronically” homeless, aren’t allowed in the downtown’s two existing shelters, the Center for the Homeless and Hope Ministries, for a variety of behavioral reasons ranging from drug and alcohol abuse to mental illness.

Mueller and local service providers have long said a new intake center would need to follow the “housing first” model, which doesn’t mandate sobriety, operating on the premise it’s easier to help people with their problems if they have shelter.

“That’s a real hurdle to doing this, is that there’s not a clear operator,” Mueller said. “Even if we said here are the dollars today and here’s the building and here’s the zoning and here’s everything in line, we still have to have someone who is willing and able to operate it.”

Mueller said he could issue a request for proposals, but he expects providers to be deterred by the lack of known funding to support the effort in future years. The city during the pandemic has received about $292,000 in federal money it would be allowed to spend on homelessness efforts, such as renovation of the building, but nothing for the future.

But Pfeil said requesting proposals for the building is worth a try.

“I think if we really want to do it, we can do that,” she said. “We haven’t even tried as a local community, as a city, lately. The homeless task force happened three years ago and those recommendations were shelved and nothing was done. Clearly, there is much to do and we need to invest more effort.”

She was referring to a homelessness task force Mayor Pete Buttigieg convened in 2017. The group ultimately recommended opening a gateway center and building a permanent supportive housing apartment complex, both of which the city has been unable to find sites for because of neighbors’ opposition.

Hamann said she wants the council to reconvene the task force, and Mueller said he is working on that also.

“It’s time for us to really dig in again and take a look at what worked and what didn’t work,” Mueller said, “and what we need to do to move forward as a community.”