After hours of debate Tuesday night, the St. Joseph County Council voted 6-3 to extend the Motels4Now homeless shelter program through March at a cost of $829,000. The funding is coming from the county’s share of federal COVID relief dollars through the American Rescue Plan.
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 on South Bend’s West Side.
At last count, South Bend had 500 homeless residents. Motels4Now currently houses 120 people, with 250 on the waiting list.
The program is coordinated by the nonprofit Our Lady of the Road. South Bend is paying for mental health and addiction treatment services from Oaklawn, and St. Joseph County is paying for staff operating costs and the rooms.
Sheila McCarthy, the head of the program, said it has reduced homelessness by over two-thirds.
She also said the six-month extension will house people through the winter, further reduce homelessness and allow Our Lady of the Road to develop a permanent shelter solution funded by private donations.
Motels4Now is a housing-first program, so priority number one is getting people into shelter — there’s no ban on alcohol, for example. Once there, services can be provided.
John Horsley is the vice president of Adult Protective Services at Oaklawn. During a community meeting last week, he said at least 170 people have engaged in mental health and addiction counselling thanks to the low-barrier shelter Motels4Now offers.
“The problem wasn’t that the services were not available, the problem was connecting with people enough to get them to the services,” Horsley said during the Tuesday council meeting. “This low-barrier shelter has allowed us to engage people on a regular basis and help us make progress that we haven’t seen in years."
“Our portion of the program is working because you’re funding the shelter,” Horsley added.
The vote to extend Motels4Now came after hours of public comment and debate among council members. Letitia Bonds, a former motel resident, said the program is “awesome.”
“I graduated from the program — I got my own house,” Bonds said. “Without them, I wouldn't know where I would be. I’d still be homeless, out there in the world.”
Paul Kemp is a current motel resident. He said he used to sleep in a field, but now has a roof over his head.
“I am there because I have no place to go,” Kemp said. “They have gotten me my ID — the only thing I need right now is a job.”
And Clara Ross, a homeless advocate, said the program has kept people safe.
“It’s some woman being safe,” Ross said. “It’s some child being safe. It’s some man being safe. Now is it perfect? Of course not. We as a society are not perfect. We as a city are not perfect. But we must work together to be successful."
Most members of the public spoke in favor, but some were opposed. They shared concerns over security and panhandling and said the Knights Inn is in a dilapidated state and unsafe for human habitation.
That includes local resident Jerry Niezgodski.
“I live three blocks from this — I drive by it multiple times a day,” Niezgodski said. “Some of the elderly ladies are afraid to go to some of the stores because they get people panhandling, coming up to them.”
He wants the program to continue, but in a different location with more security and better facilities.
“I see this more than anything as bailing out a slumlord,” Niezgodski said. “You wonder why that building was leaking? Because he doesn’t care, and we’re bailing him out. This place should have been condemned.”
Tim Bayer, Our Lady of the Road’s director of maintenance, said he understands those concerns.
“I remember how shocking it seemed to see some of the living conditions at the motel when I started,” Bayer said.
But he also said motel owner Henry Patel isn’t ignoring the problems — for example, he replaced the roof on building three due to the leaks.
“When Motels4Now moved into the motel, it wasn’t a fully occupied place,” Bayer said. “Henry could put motel guests into the nicest rooms he had, and most likely, he wasn’t using building three at that point.”
Motels4Now is occupying every available bed due to the demand. Bayer said buying the property as-is would cost $1.5 million but buying and fully rehabbing it would cost $5 million.
“Although Henry is receiving a sizable amount of money each month, the scope of problems at our hotel require our time and patience,” Bayer said.
County auditor Mike Hamann is a major advocate for Motels4Now. He said they are aware of the problems, but it’s a temporary fix — the long-term goal is building a permanent, low-barrier facility funded by private donations.
“If you say no to this, these people are back out on the street,” Hamann said. “We’re all aware of the problems. We’re not stupid, and we’re not blind. What we’re trying to do is buy ourselves some time so we can continue to build a public-private partnership to come up with a better facility that can do even more to help these people.”
Speaking through tears at one point, he said the program must be extended through the winter.
“I have never felt so passionate about an issue than I do about this right now,” Hamann said through tears. “These are our most vulnerable, weakest citizens. They need champions.”
He called the federal American Rescue Plan funding a historic opportunity. Combined, South Bend and St. Joseph County are getting more than $100 million.
“We approved $4 million to pave subdivision roads. Six-hundred thousand dollars to pave roads in the parks. I’m supportive of that, but what are we going to do for our most vulnerable citizens going forward? We need to support these people.”
Speaking in opposition, County Commissioner Derek Dieter said he has collected signatures from 21 nearby businesses that are opposed to the extension. He also said it’s a South Bend issue, and the city has “left us out there alone.”
In response, South Bend Common Council member Lori Hamann said Mayor James Mueller has earmarked $4 to $5 million to focus on preventing homelessness.
“The idea is to continue to work with the county to build a permanent low barrier intake center,” Hamann said. “Which would be coupled with the crisis center both police departments have requested, along with the crisis unit that would be out on the streets.”
After the end of public comment, County Council member Richard Pfiel said the extension is only a six-month commitment, and he supports it because the program is getting people off the street and providing services.
“It is not in our shoes that we should walk when we make this decision — it is in their shoes,” Pfiel said. “They are in a place that is heaven to them that we would consider inadequate because we are privileged.”
Council member Mark Catanzarite said the county can find a better location and proposed an amendment that would award the funding on a month-to-month basis. He also said that he would not support any more money to repair the facility.
Catanzarite’s amendment ultimately failed 5-4 due to concerns that month-to-month funding would create instability for the residents, Our Lady of the Road and Oaklawn. Mike Hamann also said that would hurt the chances of securing a public-private partnership for a permanent facility.
In addition to Catanzarite, council members Michael Root, Robert Kruszynski and Mark Telloyan voted in favor of the amendment.
Soon after, the six-month extension ultimately passed six to three, with council members Corey Noland, Richard Pfeil, Diana Hess, Rafael Morton, Mark Root and Joseph Canarecci voting in favor.
But the council does expect significant improvements.
“I don’t think that this is a grand solution, and I’m going to expect security and improvements and plans in place at the end of the six months,” Noland said. “This is not sustainable — we need to have a better path.”
Council members Robert Kruszynski, Mark Telloyan and Mark Catanzarite voted against it.
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