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Council deadlocks on Catholic Worker House

Sarah Wheaton | Thursday, November 17, 2005

After two hours of emotional testimony, the South Bend Common Council deadlocked Monday night over the zoning status of the Peter Claver Catholic Worker House.

The year-long controversy centers around whether or not the South Bend house, which shelters homeless people, can continue to operate in its current single-family zoned property.

The Council split 4-4 over the Catholic Worker house’s petition to rezone its 1126 West Washington St. property as a multifamily residence.

Concerned citizens packed the council’s meeting room in anticipation of the decision.

Supporters of the Catholic Worker petition wore white ribbons and included guests of the house, neighbors, Notre Dame professors and students and the pastors of Sacred Heart, St. Adalbert’s, St. Joseph’s and Christ the King parishes.

Letters of support from University President Emeritus Father Theodore Hesburgh and Fort Wayne-South Bend Bishop John D’Arcy were also read.

The opponents of the zone change were also present in force, including some neighbors, several South Bend residents including one Notre Dame employee, and South Bend Mayor Steven Luecke.

Margie Phiel and Michael Baxter, two Notre Dame theology professors who co-founded the house and who live there full-time, argued for the zone change.

“This is not a homeless shelter, but our own home. We live there,” Phiel said.

Mike Griffin, a Catholic Worker staffer who also lives in the home, argued the area is de facto not a single-family area.

“In our immediate vicinity there are 50 empty houses,” Griffin said. “We are only three houses away from a multifamily zone.”

Opponents spoke about the need to uphold the zoning ordinance.

“It’s purely zoning,” said Cindy Lewis, an opponent of the zone change. It’s not about who they are or what they do. A win-win situation would be to help them relocate.”

Luecke agreed.

“I support the mission of the Catholic Worker, but I also support the current zoning of the neighborhood. The house ought to be in a multifamily zone, not a single-family area,” he said.

Charlotte Pfiefer, president of the Common Council, was one of the most outspoken critics of the house.

“[The house] has been a magnet for people to come into the neighborhood and go into people’s backyards and demand that they be fed,” Pfiefer said. “Now people walk in and they think they can do whatever they want. My 85-year-old mother is scared to death.”

Brenna Cussen, a staff member who lives in the house and a 2003 graduate of Notre Dame’s Masters in Peace Studies program, disagreed with this assessment.

“Our closest neighbor has two small children,” Cussen said. “There are kids playing basketball in our yard everyday. We feel like we’re making it safer for kids in the area because they’re playing ball, not doing drugs. They think we’re bringing an area down when in fact the area is not good to start off. We’re making it more stable.”

The original founders of the house knew of the code but did not realize its importance because so many abandoned buildings and businesses were in the immediate area, Cussen said. In October 2004 the managers of the house received their first notice that they were out of compliance with the code.

“We started the process to apply for rezoning, but we decided to take the advice of Jeff Gibney, who is the head of the Heritage Foundation and who lives in the neighborhood,” Cussen said. “He told us he would help us try to work out something with the neighbors and not to try for rezoning because of the history of the neighborhood.”

The managers decided to take his advice and did not apply for rezoning at this time.

In June the house received another notice, stating that if they did not rectify the situation or apply for rezoning they would be fined $1,000 a day for every day they have been out of code since their founding. Cussen said they went through a lot of paperwork and got the application in August.

The Heritage Foundation has since stated it is opposed to the zone change.

On Oct. 18 the Area Plan Commission gave the request an unfavorable recommendation. Two days later, the city Board of Zoning Appeals sent the request to the South Bend Common Council with no recommendation.

If the Catholic Worker’s petition is not approved, they will have to make changes to come into compliance with the zoning code.

“The women’s house would have to ask a couple women to find somewhere else,” Cussen said. “Maybe one or two from the duplex would be asked to go. We don’t want to put any one on the street, but we can’t afford to be fined $1,000 a day. We’d eventually move.”

The Catholic Worker house in South Bend is one of a number of similar communities operating around the world under the ideals of the movement founded by Dorothy Day. It has drawn many volunteers from the Notre Dame and South Bend community.

“The Catholic Worker is a movement of people who wish to follow the Gospel by practicing nonviolence and the works of mercy, in particular sheltering the homeless in a personal way,” Cussen said.

The Catholic Worker community members have dinner at the house every night at 6:30 p.m., Cussen said. Those who want to stay the night eat dinner with the community. If people who have been living at the house miss dinner without pre-arranged notice, their beds are open for the night. The community takes anyone who needs a place to stay, though there are strict rules forbidding drugs, alcohol and acts of violence, Cussen said.

Cussen began living in the community after she graduated from Notre Dame.

“This is real,” she said. “This is people trying to live out the Gospel in a real way. The responsibilities of the community members are divided equally. The guests and staff members share household chores duty on a weekly basis.”

The Catholic Workers are also starting a day center downtown, which is scheduled to open in December or January, Cussen said.

“There is no place in South Bend where men can go during the day to take showers, do laundry, make phone calls, or just grab a cup of coffee and get out of the cold,” Cussen said.

Guests of the Catholic Worker house are required to be out of the house from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. All of the house funds come from personal donations or churches.

Michael Balber, a guest of the house since July of 2004 who now lives in the rectory, said he found the Catholic Worker house after he was released from federal prison for illegal firearms possession.

“Because I am a convicted felon, I couldn’t find a job in South Bend. I was homeless for a few days, sleeping at the bus station, when someone told me about the Catholic Worker house,” Balber said.

“They took a liking to me when I got here because I fixed anything and everything,” Balber said.

After a few months he landed a job with AJ Wright and is saving to get back on his feet.

“Here everybody is willing to lend an ear, to lend a hand. They’ve become a family,” Balber said.

Catholic Worker supporters said they were surprised by the council’s vote. Two of the council members said that though they were initially going to vote against the zone change, after visiting the house and hearing the testimony they changed their minds.

Because of the tie vote, the council will have to reconsider the matter at its next meeting on Nov. 28. Council member Al Kirsits, who was not present Monday night, will probably make the deciding vote. In the past he has stated that he does not support the zone change.