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South Bend, St. Joseph County to join forces on homeless intake center and hire service coordinators

Jeff Parrott

South Bend Tribune

South Bend and St. Joseph County officials are each moving forward on plans to hire homeless services coordinators and jointly establish a homeless intake center, and a group also is seeking state money to build another permanent housing apartment development.

The city in the last week of May interviewed three candidates for a “facilitator of homelessness efforts,” a new one-year contract position that would have a $75,000 budget, said Jordan Gathers, Mayor James Mueller’s deputy chief of staff and point person on homeless issues.

Mueller said the city also is willing to contribute $25,000 toward the county’s plans to hire someone in a similar role to serve the entire county. The county council May 27 gave Commissioners President Andy Kostielney the green light to seek applicants for a new “executive director of sustainable housing” position, said county Auditor Mike Hamann.

Hamann, whose final term in office ends at the end of next year, said he has been spending significant time working on homeless issues and said he seriously considered resigning to take the new job but has decided against that.

He said he set up a May 21 meeting with Mueller and Kostielney to identify common ground, and Mueller said he would support either building a new intake center on the county-owned Portage Manor property or buying the Knights Inn motel and converting it into a center. The motel is now fully used to house the homeless, in the county’s Motels4Now program.

Mueller confirmed as much when contacted Friday by The Tribune.

“We’re grateful for Mike Hamann’s and the county’s initiative on this issue,” Mueller said. “Many times over the past few years, it did feel like South Bend was alone and sometimes felt like on an island with some of our partners to move things forward.”

The city has tried for years to establish a low-barrier intake center in the city’s core, near services for the homeless but dropped efforts to rezone them under opposition from neighbors.

“The county has come forward with sites that weren’t on the table previously and we’re supportive of the county’s efforts and we’ll look to partner with them however we can.”

The Knights Inn, near the corner of Bendix Drive and Lincoln Way West, and Portage Manor, on Portage Avenue on the city’s far northwest side, are not in residential areas.

“There’s been a fair argument by neighbors and others that having services completely concentrated in one area isn’t necessarily the best idea,” Mueller said. “There’s also along (Transpo routes) that make them accessible.”

The developments were included in a set of recommendations that the mayor’s Implementation Group on Homelessness presented to the city’s common council in February.

Those steps included conducting a public information campaign to highlight the needs of the chronically homeless, with the aim of softening neighbor opposition to future attempts at establishing an intake center.

A public relations class at Indiana University South Bend spent the semester designing a campaign, and the winner, as judged by the mayor’s group, was exempted from its final exam, said Kim McInerney, senior lecturer in communication studies.

Mueller said the city might use the students’ ideas for an information campaign even if neither site has close residential neighbors.

“You’ve seen over the years the debates we’ve had and some of the conversations, and we need to make sure residents understand why these things are needed and why they’re good for the community.”

Those efforts could be needed to smooth the way for another project potentially in the works, another permanent supportive housing apartment complex.

A team recently completed the Indiana Housing & Community Development Authority’s Permanent Supportive Housing Institute, an annual competition for state tax credits to build PSH developments.

The team, comprised of representatives from the city administration, South Bend Heritage Foundation, Oaklawn, Beacon Health and 1st Source Bank, should learn whether they are awarded funding in the “coming weeks,” Gathers said.

Gathers said it’s too soon to discuss details of the plan, but it would result in construction, at a site yet to be determined, of a project similar to the Oliver Apartments in the city’s Rum Village area, and the Hope Avenue Apartments that South Bend Heritage plans to build soon in the Edison Park neighborhood.

The county and city looks to pay for some of the intake center construction with federal money they have been awarded by the American Jobs Plan

Hamann said he didn’t know how quickly the county council will hire the executive director position, but said he was “shocked” by the level of momentum and cooperation with the city that’s unfolding.

“If you look back 365 days ago to now, it’s kind of amazing what we’ve accomplished, that the city and county have agreed to work together,” Hamann said. “This really is kind of amazing. I have not seen anything like this.”