By Christian Sheckler and Jeff Parrott / South Bend Tribune
SOUTH BEND — St. Joseph County leaders Monday said they had dropped a proposal to house homeless people in the former Madison Center for Children, after zoning complications and opposition from neighbors in the East Bank area threatened to derail the idea.
County officials were exploring the idea of paying David Matthews, a real estate developer who owns the building, to house people as part of a county-funded program operated by the Our Lady of the Road ministry.
The county has been using federal COVID-relief dollars to fund the program, Motels4Now, which pays for motel rooms for people who otherwise would be on the street. The city of South Bend is paying for services for the participants through Oaklawn.
Our Lady of the Road recently identified the former Madison Center building as a transitional housing option for program participants who had achieved some stability, said Sheila McCarthy, the program coordinator.
The program is currently housing about 140 people, mostly at the Knights Inn motel at Lincoln Way West and Bendix Avenue. More than 170 are on a waiting list, McCarthy said.
The Madison Center building, McCarthy said, would have opened up more space that could be used for people who were doing well in the program but were not yet ready to live on their own in a separate apartment.
The building would have provided good security and would have been close to the mental health and substance abuse services at Oaklawn.
County officials mulled the idea for several weeks but said Monday it seemed to face insurmountable problems.
“We wanted to make sure we had sufficient buy-in from neighbors, and that things would work out from the standpoint of the city,” said County Auditor Mike Hamann, who is part of a local committee working on homelessness. “At this point it appears to be too heavy of a lift.”
County Commissioner Andy Kostielney said he had heard from at least a dozen individuals and businesses in the area with concerns about the proposal.
Officials said the building’s zoning would not have allowed for its use as a group home without a special use exception from the South Bend Common Council. With neighborhood opposition, that approval seemed unlikely, Kostielney said.
“Typically if you’ve got something most of the neighbors are against, it’s very difficult to make that lift,” he said. “We had so many people come out and have the concerns they had, it didn’t make sense to pursue it.”
Matthews said he was disappointed the proposal fell through, and mostly blamed the city, saying South Bend officials nixed the idea and forced the county to back off.
Matthews, who has clashed with the city before on zoning issues, said he thinks it’s the latest example of the city failing to take action on homelessness issues.
“They’ve done very little,” he said of the city. “They keep kicking the can down the road.”
Caleb Bauer, a spokesman for South Bend Mayor James Mueller, said in a written statement: “We are working with the county to make progress on this important issue and find the best way to extend these services.”
The proposal also brought criticism from Common Council member Troy Warner, who represents the East Bank area and said in an email to constituents Monday that the county had failed to involve city officials in discussions about the idea.
“We’ve gotten zero information from them,” Warner told The Tribune.
County officials dispute that. Hamann said his wife, South Bend Common Council member Lori Hamann, who also is part of the committee on homelessness issues, had emailed Warner and her two fellow at-large council members to tell them of the idea.
Kostielney said county officials had not had a formal discussion with Mueller because they were still early in the process and first wanted to speak with neighbors. County leaders had contacted businesses and groups including the CASIE Center, St. Joseph High School and St. Joseph Grade School.
Warner also alleged Matthews had refused to allow planning, building and fire inspectors into the building Thursday.
Matthews said the city never contacted him directly to ask to get into the building, and that he declined when “planning tried to arrange access to the building through a prospective tenant.”
The city still sent a fire inspector, who was allowed to walk through the building, Matthews said.
Matthews also contends there was no need for a city inspection in the first place. That’s because, instead of getting a special use exception from the city to use the building as a group home, he proposed classifying the building as a hotel, which would not require zoning approval, but only potential design changes to bring it up to code.
Kostielney said county officials told Matthews they did not want to pursue the idea of classifying the building as a hotel because they felt that would “skirt the intent of some of these zoning ordinances.”
McCarthy said Our Lady of the Road will keep looking for sites that can offer transitional housing through Motels4Now. She said she was disappointed with the opposition to the Madison Center idea, adding that she thought the opposition was linked with unfair perceptions of the homeless.
“I think what people are afraid of or what they perceive is a ragged, dirty individual digging through a trash can and talking loudly and being disruptive and scary,” she said. “That’s not at all what we’re proposing. They’re people who have been with us for more than six months, who are very stable. No one would be able to tell the difference between anyone else in town.”