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South Bend's homelessness coordinator outlines path forward as city looks for permanent low-barrier shelter

 Carl Hetler, South Bend homelessness coordinator
Marek Mazurek, WVPE
Carl Hetler, left, speaks about his new role as South Bend's homelessness coordinator on May 22, 2023 in the County-City Building

Carl Hetler has been a pastor for more than 20 years. Most in the community know him from his work at Broadway Christian Parish a few blocks south of downtown South Bend.

In July, Hetler is taking on a new type of service when he becomes the city’s homelessness coordinator at a time when more than $2.5 million has been invested into programs meant to alleviate mental health and homelessness. However, a sweep of a tent encampment a few blocks south of downtown South Bend by city personnel on Monday also outlines the urgency of the issue in St. Joseph County.

With a variety of different programs, centers and partners in the community, Hetler’s main goal is to act as a go-between and source of information for care providers as well as homeless residents.

“There’s all these different parts to the connection and people need help navigating that,” Hetler said. “And service providers need help to know who to turn to because things are often changing and because there’s so much information out there.”

Many of the area’s pillars in homeless care have seen activity in recent months thanks to American Rescue Plan funds.

South Bend recently announced it will pay $1.5 million to keep the Motels4Now program running through 2024. The city is also giving $1 million to the Center for the Homeless for renovations and the center will serve as South Bend’s weather amnesty site in the winter months.

However, the top priority for Hetler and South Bend Mayor James Mueller is the creation of a permanent low-barrier intake center. That new center will be better suited to care for residents than the current Motels4Now setup and is expected to have more beds.

The city hasn’t yet decided where the center will go and past attempts to build a low-barrier homeless shelter have been strongly opposed by residents. Hetler hopes success with recent housing projects that have taken in at-risk residents will convince those near the proposed intake center to give it a chance.

“I think that’s a helpful model when anyone has concerns about services in their area,” Hetler said about the Hope Avenue apartments. “That we know how to keep people safe. We know what structure to provide. We know who are the right people to put in different situations. And It’s been a benefit to the community.”

Another group of people Hetler will work to convince are St. Joseph County officials, specifically Republicans, who have cut funding for Motels4Now and the mental health crisis center. The city of South Bend has stepped in to fund both ventures, but Hetler says he hopes constituents and recent legislation from state Republicans will put pressure on the local council to see the importance of funding items related to mental health and homelessness.

“We hope that, as we’ve done with past new opportunities like Motels4Now, by showing the success, by showing the benefits of these investments, that it will convince county leaders that these are worthwhile projects to fund,” Hetler said.

And Hetler sees the urgency of his new role. Just this Monday, the city cleared out a homeless encampment of around 20 people in an alley near the Our Lady of the Road church. Unlike in years past, there were no arrests during Monday’s sweep, but many of the residents told the South Bend Tribune, they don’t know where they’ll go.

Most shelters have a months-long waitlist as the lack of low-income housing in the area means it takes a long time to find places for those currently in the shelters to live.

“We know there’s more people in need. So we’re trying to find ways to work together and collaborate across the city,” Hetler said.

The homelessness coordinator role was first proposed in 2020 and local developer Anne Mannix served in the role until August 2022. Hetler will be paid up to $52,000 for the 2023 calendar year, according to a city spokeswoman. His first day is July 1.

Marek Mazurek has been with WVPE since April 2023, though he's been in Michiana for most of his life. He has a particular interest in public safety reporting. When he's not on the radio, Marek enjoys getting way too into Notre Dame football and reading about medieval English history.