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South Bend struggles to shelter homeless during pandemic

| Thursday, September 17, 2020

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the South Bend homeless have struggled to find safety and shelter with little aid from the city.

Since the start of COVID, South Bend residents without housing have been kicked out of multiple encampment sites, leading to public protest and criticism from many residents.

One local advocate, Araquel Bloss, was crushed by the police’s arrival at the camp, and said it went against the County Health Department’s advice to leave the camp undisturbed, along with its recommendation to provide proper PPE and resources.

“All we wanted was help, and they did not come to help,” Bloom said. “They came to arrest and intimidate.”

Public outcry and media coverage of the encampment’s dismantlement sparked meetings of the town’s council, headed by Mayor James Mueller, who struggled to create a safe, inclusive and affordable plan to house those in need.

Over the summer, group members met virtually to discuss next steps for the South Bend homeless, city sanitation and more long term preparations. Nearly four months later, and there has still been no effective plan created by the city.

Although Mueller said he plans to double the current budget for the homeless in 2021, Bloss said this is not enough, because the city has received millions in aid due to the CARES Act.

“The indignity of not providing water, sanitation, restrooms or even PPE is disgraceful,” Bloss said. “Other cities have taken the CARES Act funding and used it to create systemic change. The city knows they need housing but continues building condos.”

Without the city’s aid, it has fallen on the shoulders of the South Bend community and local organizations, volunteers like Bloss, and more recently, a mystery donor.

In late August, an anonymous donation was made through Our Lady of the Road, an outreach of The Catholic Worker house, to aid in their mission to provide housing, mental health and addiction services for those in need.

This anonymous individual’s donation has since helped kickstart a “shelter first initiative” that has housed over 64 individuals in just 3 weeks — with the hope to aid many more.

Margaret Pfeil, director and volunteer at Our Lady of the Road, said the donation was providential and acknowledged the hard work of her volunteers spreading the words about the organization.

“The work being done is the fruit of many intentional efforts and relationships, created through dialogue and the grassroots movement,” Pfeil said.

While the mystery donation has helped momentarily, Pfiel and Bloss realize the donation will not last forever. The community continues to urge the Mayor and Council to create an effective, long lasting plan, such as subsidized housing initiatives, or long term, low barrier shelters.

“There should be no divide in coming together for the greater good,” Bloss said. “Invest in the people and you will get your investment back ten fold.”

Saint Mary’s junior MaryKate Dempsey, a student volunteer at the Center for the Homeless is unsatisfied with the way the city has handled the issue.

“I am extremely frustrated with the city’s response,” Dempsey said. “These are South Bend residents. These are people.”

During her time at the center, she spoke about feeling alarmed by the lack of resources available even before the pandemic.

“I can’t imagine what they are going through right now.”

Saint Mary’s students gathered this past weekend to create hygiene kits for the homeless, organized by the Office for Civic and Social Engagement. The director of the office, Rebekah Go, said the homeless situation in South Bend is a complex problem that needs a speedy solution.

“It is not black and white, that’s just not life,” Go said. “Immediate needs need to be met.”

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