What Pete Buttigieg Has and Hasn’t Done About Homelessness in South Bend
Romantix Adult Emporium sits off South Main Street in South Bend, Indiana, about a mile from a sign welcoming people to the city. On a warm afternoon in May, Lisa Loww pulled into its discreet side lot and parked her car. Her friend Tracy was riding shotgun. Loww, a youthful forty-year-old with long brown hair who was born and raised in South Bend, wore a baseball cap, bluejeans, and flip-flops. “It’s a running joke between us,” she said. “We park in the porn parking lot and take off into the middle of the woods where the homeless people live.”
Loww became interested in homelessness in South Bend while photographing the city’s many abandoned buildings. “I’ve been through a lot, too,” she said. “I get how someone could be at that point.” She has since worked with South Bend’s weather-amnesty program, which has provided winter shelter for some of the city’s homeless, and she’s pursuing a graduate degree in counselling. “But I spend most of my time and what little money I have on the tent camps,” she said. In addition to this and other spots in the woods, she visits ad-hoc shelters in a garage, in a factory, and on the lawn of a church. “When we get too many camps together, that’s when the city comes through and will evict and vacate. So I’m trying to keep them a little more scattered,” she said.
Shouldering bags of water, food, and toiletries, Loww and Tracy headed behind Romantix into a few acres of scrubby, head-high half-growth, dotted with trash. Until recently, Loww explained, the land was owned by the city. She’d tried to find the money to buy it, so that she could create a “tiny-home camp” for those with nowhere to live. It was purchased for around fifty-six thousand dollars. The name of the buyer has not been disclosed.
South Bend has a handful of homeless shelters, which, together, can accommodate as many as a hundred or so people. But they are only open for certain periods of time and provide limited help, and most of them restrict their services to those who are sober, which rules out a significant portion of the homeless population. On a recent morning, for instance, the beds at Hope Ministries were completely full, and the Center for the Homeless was also at capacity, with two possible openings in the near future. Broadway Christian parish had no beds; it offers meals, showers, and laundry on certain days. Stone Soup Community and Our Lady of the Road provide only meals. Life Treatment Centers, which is for addicts, not the homeless, had a few openings for men who met their criteria.
“These camps are the only option for a lot of people,” Loww said, in the woods. “Our city leadership hasn’t taken a real interest in the homeless.”
She was referring, primarily, to the mayor of South Bend, Pete Buttigieg, who is running for President, and who has pointed to his success in improving life in South Bend as evidence of his readiness to run the country. “In so many ways, South Bend is our message,” he has said. Buttigieg was first elected mayor in 2011, taking office in 2012; he ran for reëlection in 2015, winning the Democratic primary with seventy-eight per cent of the vote, and then the general election with more than eighty per cent of the vote.
But, in Buttigieg’s second term, homelessness became a flash point for the city. A tent camp formed under a viaduct downtown, where, by late 2016, dozens of people were sleeping. The South Bend Tribune began covering the issue steadily and in depth. One reporter, Jeff Parrott, has since written more than three dozen stories on the subject, many of which ran on the front page. (The paper also set up a dedicated Web page for its ongoing coverage.) In early 2017, Buttigieg convened a working group on homelessness, and the city eventually earmarked funds to carry out the group’s proposals; late last year, Buttigieg pointed to these accomplishments while defending his record on the issue in the local press. But critics, such as Loww, say that the mayor has failed to follow through, and that he has not made the problem enough of a priority. (Buttigieg’s campaign referred all questions on the subject to the city, and told me that Buttigieg was too busy to offer a comment for this piece.)
In the woods, Loww and I came upon a jury-rigged enclosure constructed out of canvas, blankets, tarps, and sundry other materials. “This is where Wild Bill lives,” Loww said. A white man wearing a trim goatee, baseball cap, and tucked shirt stepped out. “Just a hardworking guy down on his luck,” Bill said to me, by way of introduction. Next we met Lee and Ruthie, a homeless couple in their thirties, who stood over a pile of blankets, a broken-down tent, and overflowing boxes of personal items. “Here come the water fairies,” Ruthie, a white woman in her thirties wearing bluejeans and a tank top, said.
As is the case in most cities, pinpointing the number of homeless people in South Bend is difficult. The Department of Housing and Urban Development oversees an annual point-in-time count, but, in recent years, it has not broken down the data except by state. The most recent county-specific information is from 2016, when four hundred and fifty-seven “sheltered homeless” and eleven “unsheltered homeless” were counted in St. Joseph County, where South Bend is situated. By all accounts, a majority of the county’s homeless live in South Bend, the county’s largest city by far; given the number of people who were living under the viaduct by the end of 2016, the old St. Joseph figure seems low. In late 2017, the deputy director of the county’s Emergency Management Agency told a local reporter, “We have an increasing homeless population obviously in the City of South Bend specifically, and Saint Joseph County as a whole,” and Loww maintains that the number of homeless has continued to grow in the year and a half since.
The E.M.A. declined to comment for this piece. When I asked the mayor’s office for its figures, a spokesman cited recent numbers from what’s called a coördinated entry list; such lists generally include people who have sought out services—food, shelter, and so on—from organizations or agencies that relay information to city government. This count tallied a hundred and thirty “total individuals,” ninety-eight of whom were unsheltered and considered particularly vulnerable.
Loww insists that, based upon her almost daily interaction with the unsheltered homeless population, this number is “far too low.” Sara Rankin, a professor of law at Seattle University who also directs the Homeless Rights Advocacy Project, and whose interest in Buttigieg has prompted her to study the situation in South Bend, said that “some of the larger numbers from South Bend”—I heard five hundred, or more, in a city of a hundred thousand—“likely reflect more realistic estimations based on the experience of workers on the ground.” (Rankin also noted that “the point-in-time technique is widely panned as flawed, resulting in stark underestimations.”) The spokesman from the mayor’s office pointed to figures indicating that homelessness had been largely stable during Buttigieg’s administration, acknowledging a rise in “panhandling and visible street homelessness,” which he attributed to the “growing vibrancy of downtown South Bend.” That is, more people with money around means more people asking for it.
There is likely a connection between homelessness and rising affluence, but it is not simply a matter of visibility. “Homelessness is often a symptom of prosperity,” Rankin told me. A study from the Journal of Urban Affairs, published in 2012, found that a hundred-dollar increase in monthly rent in larger cities was associated with a fifteen-per-cent rise in homelessness. In smaller cities, according to the study, the effect was even more pronounced. The median cost of rent in South Bend went up nearly six per cent between 2014 and 2017, the most recent years with data available. (During that same period, gross rent costs went up less than three per cent in the rest of Indiana.) South Bend’s population is growing, unemployment is decreasing, and private investments in the city are rising, Rankin noted. “They’re hoping to certify that they’ve reached what’s called a functional zero in terms of veterans’ homelessness,” she said. “But, when you look more closely at South Bend, a lot of indicators of homelessness and displacement have gotten a lot worse.”
One of Buttigieg’s signature accomplishments is what he calls his “1000 Houses in 1000 Days” project. The goal was to demolish or improve abandoned buildings; the city hit its target two months before the deadline it had set. “It was a classic example of data-driven management paying off,” Buttigieg writes in his book, “Shortest Way Home.” The effort, he adds, “raised the expectations our residents had for themselves and our community.” Buttigieg is widely credited with helping to spur economic development in South Bend, but inequality is still keenly felt in the city—roughly a quarter of its residents live in poverty.
In South Bend, Rankin said, she saw a lack of affordable housing, a glut of vacant and distressed properties, and some of the country’s worst eviction rates. “All of that exists at the same time with really pervasive evidence of harassment and criminalization and what I would call the ‘functional exile’ of people of color and visibly poor folks from public spaces,” she added. “Like cities throughout the country, South Bend, under Buttigieg, has been engaging in the sort of conflicting, inconsistent dance of giving and taking.”
The working group on homelessness that was assembled by Buttigieg met for the first time in February, 2017. Around the same time, a South Bend businessman, Kevin Smith, invited Tom Rebman, a retired Navy lieutenant and middle-school teacher who has become a prominent advocate for the homeless, to visit the city and offer his suggestions. Rebman arrived a month later, and ultimately met with a few of South Bend’s city-council members to talk about the issue. “No one has the engagement South Bend does,” he said at the time. “The guidance is out there, the funding is there, so it is a very solvable problem. All that is truly needed to solve this is community and political will.”
In August of that year, the working group released a twenty-page report detailing its conclusions. Experts widely believe that the most effective means of countering chronic homelessness is through supportive housing, which comes with mental- and physical-health services and is offered without any kind of time limit. The working group’s report called for eighty units of such housing, and also the creation of a “gateway” or “intake” center, which would be open year-round, and which, unlike most shelters, would admit those with drug problems. The intake center would offer case management and medical assistance, and employees there would work to place people in the supportive housing units established by the city.
Thirty-two units of supportive housing opened in late 2017, in a development called the Oliver Apartments. Much of the cost—around six million dollars—was covered by the South Bend Heritage Foundation, a long-standing community-development corporation, which oversees the property. Management and service providers were contracted to assist tenants in the development. According to local news outlets, in the nine months after it opened, police reported a hundred and sixty calls from the site, many for “unwanted persons,” but also five regarding drug investigations; seven reports of theft; five calls for shootings or stabbings, assaults, and fights; five reports of sex crimes; and four calls for overdoses and deaths. “People are getting beat up every night,” a disabled resident named Dewayne Polk told a local news station, last September. “The drugs are being passed through here.” Buttigieg noted the challenges inherent in housing the most vulnerable people in a community, and said, of the calls to police, that seeing “what happens to those numbers over time is what matters most.” Loww told me that a woman she met a few years ago in the woods near Romantix, named Rose Vines, “ended up getting into one of these Oliver Avenue apartments and died a very short time later inside of one.” Her death made local headlines. Buttigieg expressed his continued support for the development, saying, at the time, “You’re not going to turn around every problem overnight.”
When I spoke to Rankin about the situation, she said, “If you’re investing in supportive housing, but you’re doing it inadequately, you’re going to have failures, and that can actually be more damaging, because then people become less supportive of those sorts of proven interventions in the future.” Rankin mentioned Salt Lake City, which, as recently as 2015, seemed to be a model for how to “fix” homelessness, mainly by giving homeless people homes. When that failed—“You can’t just put them in an apartment and expect them to succeed; they have to have significant wraparound support,” Rankin said—people gave up, and the problem got worse. “The political will sort of withered, but the problems that contribute to homelessness don’t,” Rankin said. “That’s the outcome I’m afraid of in South Bend.”
A spokesman for the mayor’s office told me that more supportive housing was on the way; they’ve lined up funding for more than seventy units in all, he said, including those at Oliver Avenue. Specific locations had been identified “for the majority of these units,” he added. According to the official, they will be scattered among existing housing developments, as determined by a service provider, over the next twelve to eighteen months. Oaklawn, a Christian health-care organization, will offer residents transportation, as well as mental- and physical-health resources.
As for South Bend’s proposed intake center, there has been no public update on such a project since the spring of 2018, when the South Bend Tribune reported that the city had budgeted a million and a half dollars for its construction. “Siting services for vulnerable residents is a complex issue in any city, and the mayor and community stakeholders have made steady progress over the past two years,” the spokesman for the mayor’s office told me.
David Matthews, a thirty-five-year-old real-estate developer in South Bend, told me that he has been in discussions with the city for more than a year about a property that he owns and which he believes could serve as such a center. Matthews has been described as the real-estate equivalent of Mayor Pete: a young, ambitious white guy focussed on bringing prosperity to his home town. (In 2012, the Notre Dame alumni magazine ran a profile of him, titled “This is the man who will fix South Bend.”) The property in question is a thirty-four-thousand-square-foot warehouse at 702 South Michigan Street, downtown. “This building is between two homeless shelters, within walking distance to a lot of other services to homeless people,” Matthews said. “It has a sprinkler system, good bathroom facilities.” Any deal with the city would be short-term, though. “In ten years, we don’t want to have three homeless facilities within three blocks on the south side of downtown,” he explained. If the city were to buy 702 South Michigan, it would make improvements to the building before selling it back to Matthews for the original purchase price, with credits for any renovations, Matthews said. This strikes him as a win for the city, for him, and for the homeless.
“At best it’s shortsighted, and at worst it’s a stunt,” Rankin said, of the Matthews plan, adding, “People don’t just recover from those circumstances within a number of years. It’s a lifelong struggle.” Loww, when I described Matthews’s proposal, said, “It would be wrong of the city to do this. What happens to the city’s homeless in five years or whatever? Buttigieg will be gone, to the White House or somewhere else. And we’re back to square one.” When I asked the spokesman for the mayor’s office about Matthews’s proposal, he replied, “The city continues to work towards a solution on a number of different fronts.”
Tom Rebman, who was encouraged by what he saw when he came to South Bend in 2017, has become a vocal critic of the mayor’s handling of the issue. “I thought South Bend was going to put a huge dent in homelessness in a short time when I got there,” he told me recently. “But everything that I recommended against, they’re doing. And everything I said they should do, they’re not. I could give you a list that’s as long as my arm.” He mentioned South Bend’s anti-panhandling campaign—the city placed signs downtown that read “Do Not Give To Panhandlers, Contribute To The Solution”—and the absence of “homeless-to-housed” tracking, which would allow the city to check up on those who receive services at shelters and elsewhere, to help insure their progress. “I have no axe to grind with the city of South Bend,” Rebman went on. “But a lot of people have suffered because of Mayor Pete’s decisions. His administration has made people freeze. There’s no leadership at the city level when it comes to homelessness. They’re just not interested in solving the problem. They’re interested in dealing with symptoms.” Rebman said that he had asked for a meeting with Buttigieg, but it never took place.
A supporter of Buttigieg’s Presidential campaign who has worked closely on homelessness in South Bend also expressed disillusionment. “Is this lack of experience that we’re allowing people to live on the street, or is this, like, active policy?’ ” the supporter said. “We saw a solution that gave us all of these wins—better outcomes for people, better use of resources, economic development, and a political win for Pete—and he didn’t take it,” the supporter added, referring to the proposals laid out in the working group’s report, and the energy that had gathered around the issue in 2017. “So now we’re stuck with this ongoing problem of people living on the streets. I saw someone shooting heroin on Michigan Avenue the other day. I was, like, ‘For fuck’s sake!’ We could have had a year-round low-barrier shelter in place by now. Instead, we’re still limping along with Band-Aid after Band-Aid. We could have offered a national model on the issue.”
Not everyone I spoke to in South Bend was pessimistic. David Vanderveen, the executive director of Hope Ministries, which provides transitional housing for some of South Bend’s sober homeless population, told me, “I know there are people questioning, Could things have been done more quickly?” He said that he didn’t “want to minimize any night that someone is on the street,” but solving the problem would take time. “The upcoming budget isn’t entirely clear, but I expect that there will be funds for more permanent supportive housing,” he added. “There are details to be worked out.”
On my visit with Loww, she took me to a church downtown where some of South Bend’s homeless had been camping out, with support from the pastor. Loww noted that it was a short walk from the mayor’s office, but that she’d never seen him there. Two weeks after my visit, the church received a notice that the handful of tent dwellers on the lawn were violating city ordinances and had one week to leave. Loww helped them find other places to squat, including the bushes behind Romantix. She texted me a few days later. “We had tornado warnings here, and my boyfriend and I went and stayed out with them during the storms. The rescue mission downtown won’t open their doors to them, even with tornado warnings activated. It just has me thinking: What will happen if we have an emergency weather situation? They have nowhere in this city that will accept them.”
Not surprisingly, Loww said that she had concerns about the prospect of President Buttigieg, though she emphasized that she is focussed primarily on the situation in South Bend, and hoped that she could work with the mayor’s office to improve things there. Rebman told me that, in his mind, Buttigieg’s record on homelessness is not much different from any other politician’s—none of them care about it enough, he said. Rankin echoed the sentiment but noted that, while there seemed to be a failure of execution and follow-through—and a resort to some counterproductive measures, such as the eviction of the homeless from makeshift shelters—she could also see that Buttigieg “trusts experts, believes in data, and searches for proof of what works.” She added, “No one should mistake good ideas for real impact. The latter requires far more vision, strength, and persistence. I still have my eye on South Bend and Buttigieg.”
I also spoke to Eric Tars, the legal director at the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, which is based in Washington, D.C. Tars told me that he had been thinking about how Buttigieg’s relationship to housing and the homeless in South Bend positions him among the other Democrats running for President. As a mayor, Buttigieg has had to address the issue of homelessness more directly than, for instance, some of the senators in the race. But there is also the question of how one talks about the subject. “He sounds more like a moderate, on this issue, than a progressive,” Tars said. “Folks like Senator Harris, Senator Sanders, Senator Warren, and Senator Booker—they’ve all put forth major housing bills addressing the poor. They’ve said, ‘We believe that housing is a human right,’ in the same way we’re now talking about health care.” He went on, “There’s real value in talking about housing in those terms, rather than as a commodity that can be bid up and rigged. Talking about it as a right changes what’s politically possible. I’ve not heard that language from Buttigieg.” Tars added, “For me, a ‘progressive candidate’ is somebody who’s not just talking about the ‘forgotten middle class’ but the truly forgotten poor.”