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South Bend neighbors debate proposed apartment for chronic homeless

South Bend neighbors debate proposed apartment for chronic homeless

  • By Howard Dukes South Bend Tribune
  • Jul 29, 2019

SOUTH BEND — After some people got a bit testy at June’s meeting, Marty Mechtenberg didn’t know what to expect at the July meeting of the Near West Side Neighborhood Organization.

The issue at the center of discussion at both gatherings was a plan for a permanent supportive housing apartment building on three vacant lots in the 1500 block of West Washington Street that would provide housing for 22 chronically homeless people and would be similar in scope to the Oliver Apartments, which are located on West Indiana Avenue.

Mechtenberg, the organization’s president, said some people support the plan and others hate it.

“People asked questions. Some liked it. Some got upset and some stomped out of the room,” he said of last month’s meeting.

Nearly all neighbors agreed, however, Mechtenberg said, that they needed to get more information.

The would-be developer of the project, South Bend Heritage, then agreed to pull a request to rezone the property from the Area Plan Commission’s July agenda, postponing the issue.

The neighborhood group devoted its July meeting, which took place last week, to a fuller discussion of the plan. However, Mechtenberg said the NWSNO wanted to proceed in a way that allowed people on both sides of the issue to have their say in a passionate but civil debate.

So, the organization decided to hold a debate in which a resident who supports the proposal, Micah Towery, debated Allen Larkin, a resident who opposes it.

Residents then got an opportunity to express their opinions. City officials were there to address questions.

“I would argue that we do in fact know what well-run projects like this look like. We know they can be successful and that the risks can be monitored and dealt with,” Towery began.

Based on a similar model, the Oliver Apartments, he said, have become successful after a rocky start.

“The executive director of The Upper Room (recovery program) said they refer clients (to Oliver Apartments) with confidence,” Towery said.

Most of the problems at the Oliver, he said, are caused by unwanted people looking to prey on the residents. Staff and the police are learning to adapt to deal with that problem, he said. For example, police stagger their patrols of the area so that drug dealers and others will not know when squad cars will be driving through.

Towery also said the fact that South Bend Heritage is located within the NWSNO’s boundaries means that the agency has a greater stake in ensuring that the project is successful.

Larkin countered by saying he did not believe that Oliver Apartments are an example of a successful permanent supportive housing program. He agreed that the issue is the people who do not live at the complex but come there to take advantage of the residents.

However those people create major quality of life problems for people who live near the apartment complex.

“The neighborhood has noted an uptick in crimes like prostitution …,” Larkin said.

After the meeting, Larkin said people want to provide shelter and services for the chronically homeless. And while the Oliver Apartments provide shelter he does not think that the residents there are as safe as they could be.

“One of the things that can be done to make it safer is limit access to people who threaten that population,” he said. “It’s not been done effectively and I see no signs of them doing it.”

Opinions of others who spoke, meanwhile, ran the gamut, although the sentiment of most leaned toward opposition.

Patricia G. Smith said she worries about putting the apartment in a neighborhood that included four churches and the Martin Luther King Center.

MariClare Osborn, human resources director for Manufacturing Technology Inc., spoke in support of the program.

“We believe in partnerships and we will be partners with the program if it goes through,” she said.

Ken Howbold, who was once homeless, said that it is important for groups to include those who have experienced homelessness in discussions on how to address the problem.

“The moment we begin to make decisions for another group of people we become paternalistic and condescending,” Howbold said.

Mechtenberg said residents were asked to vote by secret ballot on whether they supported or opposed the proposal and that tally, as well as other data they collect, will be given to the South Bend Common Council.

South Bend Heritage would pay for the estimated $3.5 million construction cost with $2.2 million from the state of Indiana and $1.3 million from the city — $800,000 in federal block grant money allocated to the city and $300,000 in tax incremental finance property tax money.

The situation marks another potential obstacle that the Mayor Pete Buttigieg administration must overcome to help the chronically homeless. The city also earmarked money to build a housing-first intake or “gateway” center but hasn’t been able to find a site that’s not opposed by neighbors.

Last year the city tried to establish the center on South Michigan Street, near existing services for the homeless, but scrapped the project in the face of heated opposition from the Southeast Organized Area Residents Inc., who said they have enough such services in their area.

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