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South Bend officials make pitch for low-barrier shelter amid familiar cries of opposition

A familiar chorus of opposition has emerged this week to a proposed low-barrier intake center for the homeless in South Bend. After a number of residents came out to speak against the shelter, the city’s redevelopment commission on Thursday tabled buying land on Bendix Drive near the airport for the project.

On Friday, Mayor James Mueller stood with representatives from Our Lady of the Road and the Center for the Homeless to emphasized the need for a low-barrier shelter.

During the sometimes tense press conference, Mueller urged naysayers — including some Republican St. Joseph County Officials who were in attendance — to do the research and see that “housing first” is the best approach to alleviating homelessness.

“To those who say housing first doesn’t work. It works” Mueller said. “Again, what are the alternatives? What are their solutions to chronic homelessness?”

And to those who continually say they want the homeless to have services, but just not in their backyard, Mueller had a strong message.

“If there is a better site, if someone comes forward with a better site, we would love to look at that. But to those who say ‘We need these critical services in our community, but this site is not the right one’ — Show us! Which site is better?” Mueller said.

The city is hosting a public meeting on the topic at the Beacon Resource Center on Lincoln Way West next Thursday at 6 p.m. There, officials hope to gather more input and give out more specifics on the project.

The land where the city hopes to put the project, called the New Day center, is currently owned by the South Bend School Corporation. The school board on Monday voted to approve the sale of the land for $277,500.

The sale has to be approved by the redevelopment commission and then it would need to be rezoned by the city’s common council before any construction starts.

The center would be run by the nonprofit Our Lady of the Road, which currently runs the Motels4Now program in the Knights Inn. Early estimates put the total cost at somewhere between $12 to $16 million, with the city pledging a couple million.

Representatives from Our Lady of the Road say they have raised about 60% of that total.

Opponents to the shelter point to problems with the Motels4Now program in the Knights Inn on Lincoln Way West and disruptions to nearby businesses.

But Motels4Now director Sheila McCarthy emphasized the motels were an emergency stop gap to give a place for people living in large encampments to go. In a new center that’s purpose built to help people struggling with mental health and addiction, there would be fewer problems, she said.

“We've had over 710 guests. We’ve moved over 200 into permanent housing. More than that number have come up with their own best options, creating a success rate of over 78% of our total guests who are stable at the motel or have moved onto better options,” McCarthy said. “That’s amazing considering the amount of deep-seated trauma people come with.”

According to the South Bend Police Department, the number of police calls for service to the Knights Inn complex has gone down each year since 2021. From 2022 to last year, police responded to 57% fewer calls, statistics show.

City officials also say a housing first approach — where clients can receive immediate shelter and services even if they aren't sober or getting mental health treatment — is the best way to get folks off into permanent housing.

Housing first has been the federal government’s best practice starting under President George W. Bush, though more recently, some conservative lawmakers in Washington are attacking the notion in favor of programs that require sobriety and employment before homeless receive assistance.

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.