Created in August 2020 as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Motels4Now program provides low-barrier shelter for the chronically homeless in the Knights Inn at 3233 Lincoln Way West.
The program is coordinated by the nonprofit Our Lady of the Road. St. Joseph County has been paying for staff operating costs and the rooms — they’re getting them half off at $35 a night — while South Bend is covering mental health and addiction counseling services from Oaklawn.
On Thursday night, South Bend’s Lincoln-Bendix Park Neighborhood Association hosted a community meeting to gauge feedback from West Side residents and learn about the future of the program — next week, the county council is voting on whether to extend it through March.
The extension would cost about $829,000, and the funding would come from the county’s share of federal COVID relief dollars through the American Rescue Plan. South Bend has already committed to funding six more months of Oaklawn services.
Program director Sheila McCarthy said Motels4Now has kept people safe during the pandemic, provided stability and helped them access services.
“When people get a motel room key, they often cry because it has been so long since they have had a place they can begin to call their own,” McCarthy said. “To have a motel key to a room with a shower, a bed and a toilet is incredibly dignifying, and provides the basis of stability to begin to make other decisions in one’s life.”
At last count, South Bend had 500 homeless residents. Motels4Now currently houses 120 people, with 250 on the waiting list. McCarthy said that out of the 580 people who signed up for the program over the past year, the vast majority said their last zip code was in South Bend.
And several months ago, the program also started collecting data on where people went to high school.
“I’ve been shocked at the results — more than half have said Riley High School,” McCarthy said. “More than 95 percent are from right here in town. We got a couple Niles High School, we’ve gotten a Kalamazoo. But almost no one is from Chicago, or Gary, or Indianapolis — that you always hear 'This is where people are coming from.' Almost no one. It’s a South Bend issue.”
Motels4Now is a housing-first program, so priority number one is getting people into shelter — there’s no ban on alcohol, for example. Once people are sheltered, services can be provided.
John Horsley is the vice president of Adult Protective Services at Oaklawn. He said at least 170 people have engaged in mental health and addiction counselling thanks to Motels4Now.
“We would not be able to do this work with our neighbors if they were spread all over the city with no place to lay their head at night,” Horsley said. “We are able to engage and change 170 lives — more than that, actually — but documented, 170 lives, because they have a stable place to live.”
The motel has also held several COVID-19 vaccination clinics, and residents are provided with a 30 day Transpo bus pass.
Paul Kemp is a motel resident, and said the program has kept him safe and given him a roof over his head.
“I used to sleep in a field,” Kemp said. “And a brick almost fell on me and killed me, so I moved over to the other field.”
Now, he’s looking for a job.
“Everything else has been done for me, or I had access to it for it to be done — and there are other people there who have taken advantage of that,” Kemp said. “Everybody has to have a place to go and start all over again. No matter how messed up, washed up or f’d up they truly are.”
During the community meeting, many neighborhood residents said they supported the program, but had some concerns. One big issue? Safety, and solicitation by motel residents.
Rhonda Neal has lived on the West Side for 47 years.
“I’m a senior citizen,” Neal said. “What frightens me and what I don’t appreciate is being approached.”
She said she’s been solicited at gas stations near the motel, and almost pepper sprayed someone at one point.
She suggested a nightly curfew for motel residents. Currently, the program provides overnight security guards and 24 hour monitored security cameras, but residents can come and go as they please like any motel.
“I’m not saying put you out,” Neal said. “But what I am saying is I have to keep me safe. And keeping me safe, I have to keep you safe — I love my neighbor.”
Jason Smith works at the Advance Auto Parts a few buildings down on Lincoln Way, and shared similar concerns.
“Multiple times over the last year, even in the last month, I’ve had to shoo people out of our parking lot because they will literally walk up to somebody’s door when they are getting out or getting in,” Smith said. “When you get that close to somebody who’s getting into their car, it makes them feel unsafe.”
McCarthy said the city code allows people to solicit. It is discouraged by the program to do it in the neighborhood, but they cannot prevent residents from doing so. She also said that if anyone experiences an issue, they can call the program and the staff will respond immediately.
Justin Grove said he’s happy to take on the responsibility of having a homeless shelter in the neighborhood.
“You have to put people somewhere,” Grove said. “A motel’s better than a tent encampment, don’t get me wrong.”
But he shared a concern that the motel would evolve into a permanent shelter on the West Side, which is a disadvantaged part of the city.
“The people downtown don’t want it in their backyard, so they’re happy to send it out to the West Side,” Grove said. “I think there’s a lot of things where it’s OK if it’s the poor side of town’s problem.”
However, multiple panelists said that’s absolutely not the plan.
“It was never our intention to settle in your neighborhood permanently, this was a crisis situation,” Our Lady of the Road founder Margie Pfeil said. “We want to be good neighbors to you.”
The next step? Extending Motels4Now for six months, to get through the winter. County Auditor Mike Hamann said the eventual solution is building a permanent low-barrier intake facility.
“If I could wave a magic wand, we would not be there long term,” Hamann said.
He called on private entities to “step up” and help fund it.
“The city and county cannot do this long term at this level,” Hamann said. “It’s just not feasible.”
Baye Sylvester, a neighborhood resident, said the Lincoln-Bendix Park Neighborhood Association could be a force to advocate for a permanent facility.
“We can either be a part of the problem or a part of the solution,” Sylvester said “Across this city, every effort that has been made for permanent supportive housing for homeless people has gotten pushback.”
“This neighborhood association, from this meeting, can show up down there and say ‘get something done!’” he added.
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