By Jeff Parrott South Bend Tribune
Feb 17, 2021
Establishing a homeless coordinator position, creating more permanent supportive housing and exploring whether to launch a new fund for homeless services are among the recommendations that a mayor’s group plans to present Monday to the South Bend Common Council.
Mayor James Mueller in August appointed the 31-member group to come up with solutions to the area’s homeless problems, two months after a homeless tent encampment formed on an empty city-owned lot downtown on South Michigan Street.
Mueller’s initial response was to propose the city launch a homeless shelter to serve the chronically homeless, generally defined as those, many with mental illness or addictions, who can’t or won’t stay at existing drug- and alcohol-free shelters.
When the council gave the idea a chilly reception, Mueller scrapped it and appointed the working group. Mayor Pete Buttigieg also convened a homelessness task force in 2017 after downtown business owners complained about a tent city that formed under the Main Street railroad viaduct.
The Buttigieg group’s report included recommendations to establish a gateway center and permanent supportive housing project, embracing the “housing first” model that immediately provides shelter despite substance abuse or behavioral problems.
But the city, unable to find a location for the project because of opposition from neighbors, ultimately gave up on the idea and has instead tried to develop scattered-site housing with participating landlords.
Mueller’s group, more broad-based than its predecessor, met each week virtually from August through December. After the first two meetings, the group broke off into three subcommittees: health and sanitation, led by County Health Officer Dr. Robert Einterz, primarily focusing on COVID-19; short-term housing and weather amnesty; and permanent supportive housing. The committees and full group alternated meetings each week.
Jordan Gathers, Mueller’s deputy chief of staff, coordinated the effort and said the mayor will ask the group to reconvene to help implement some of the recommendations.
Mueller spokesman Caleb Bauer said the group wasn’t ready to release the more than dozen recommendations it will give the council Monday, but he shared a few examples:
Housing trust fund
Nonprofit housing developer Anne Mannix led the permanent supportive housing subcommittee. Her group came up with several recommendations, but one of her favorite ideas is the housing trust fund, which PSH communities could tap to help pay for services for tenants, security at complexes, maintenance on buildings, buying land for more projects or as local matching funds for federal grants.
Indiana is one of 33 states with laws that allow the funds, which exist in Indianapolis and Evansville, and 116 cities nationally. Evansville’s fund is derived from the city’s general fund and proceeds of the sale of city property, while Indianapolis’ fund comprises electronic filing fees for property sales disclosure forms and document recording fees.
Mannix said implementing a $10 fee on property-related documents recorded in St. Joseph County would generate about $470,000 annually, 40% of which would have to be sent to the state’s housing trust fund, according to state law.
For example, a homebuyer would pay $10 to record a mortgage and another $10 to record the deed.
“It’s painless for most people and you only pay it, say, every seven years if you buy a new house that often,” Mannix said. “And then we would have stable funding to expand resources because it’s a problem for the whole community if you have people camping out and disturbing people downtown, and then it’s a problem for the homeless people … it’s a win for the people that live there and for downtown and for the neighborhoods.”
The fund would need to be established by the county council.
Creating a homelessness coordinator position, either as a city employee or a city-funded employee of a nonprofit. This was a strong recommendation from Mayor Pete’s homelessness task force.
Homeless service providers and downtown businesses united to send Buttigieg a letter requesting city funding of a “central leadership” position on homeless issues.
But Buttigieg opposed it, saying he would rather devote city money to nonprofits that directly serve the homeless.
South Bend Common Council member Troy Warner, who supports a permanent supportive housing project that South Bend Heritage Foundation plans to build this spring in the Edison Park neighborhood, part of his council district, said he thinks it’s time to create a homeless coordinator position. The job could be either within the city administration or in a nonprofit, funded partly by the city and other sources, Warner said.
“It came up in almost every single discussion,” Warner said. “I believe in it, and I’d push for it if it wasn’t coming. Somebody who can coordinate between all the providers and the community, the neighborhoods, food bank, food pantries, Oaklawn, all those different agencies. Just someone who can connect the dots when those dots need to be connected.”
More permanent supportive housing
The group also will urge the city and community to embrace the development of more permanent supportive housing, in which advocates and service providers help the homeless move into apartments and set them up with services aimed at helping them stay off the streets. South Bend Heritage partnered with the city in 2012 to build the Oliver Apartments in the Rum Village area on the city’s near southwest side.
But since then the city and the nonprofit have met strong resistance from neighbors when seeking rezoning approval to site other such projects. South Bend Heritage last year announced it was building Hope Avenue Apartments in the Edison Park neighborhood, over the objections of some neighbors, and it didn’t need rezoning because the site already was zoned properly for apartments.
The mayor’s group will recommend attempting more such projects, in addition to asking more existing apartment complexes and landlords to set aside some of their units for PSH.
The Indiana Housing & Community Development Authority last week announced that South Bend Heritage was one of six teams selected for this year’s Indiana Supportive Housing Institute, the same program through which South Bend Heritage secured state and federal money for the Oliver and Hope Avenue projects.
South Bend Heritage, the city and partner organizations that include Oaklawn, Youth Services Bureau and Beacon Health Systems, will contribute members of a team to participate in the institute, with an end goal of devising a project idea that will apply for tax credit funding from the IHCDA.
Mannix said her subcommittee will recommend a public relations or advocacy campaign aimed at winning over neighborhood opponents of PSH projects. An Indiana University South Bend public relations class plans to make designing the campaign its class project for this semester.
“It scares people, and they don’t have any information,” Mannix said about PSH projects. “Some people might think if you’re homeless you should just go get a job, and that isn’t always possible for people. And our mental health system used to keep people in hospitals and they don’t do that anymore, so there’s a lot of complex reasons why we have a homeless issue.”
Mannix said she worked with a PSH project in Fort Wayne that won neighborhood approval after a social worker approached a neighborhood association three months ahead of time and explained it.
“Then they supported the project,” she said. “If we work on it over time, it will get better, I think.”