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Neighbors concerned about new proposed apartments for homeless

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Neighbors on the near west side of South Bend are voicing concerns about a potential new apartment complex designed specifically for the chronically homeless. A zoning hearing for the project is scheduled for next Tuesday. Many feel that's too quick to have an educated opinion. Most of the neighbors didn't learn about the proposed project until the end of June.

The apartments would be similar to the Oliver Apartments project that opened a little less than two years ago. And is being pursued by the same group, the South Bend Heritage Foundation. But, an ABC57 investigation into that housing showed several problems with those apartments, specifically crime.

“I’m concerned about drugs. I’m concerned about crime.” Erin Lemrow, who lives near the proposed site on West Washington Street, said. “On the surface it looks great. Nobody wants to deny the homeless around us a place to call their own, right? A safe supportive space. But, when I did some further digging, it really looked as if Oliver was falling short of the promises that come along with housing first and supportive housing.”

In September of last year, ABC57 outlined several problems with the city's first project, specifically crime. In the first 10 months after opening, police were called to Oliver Apartments nearly 160 times. Most of the calls were for "unwanted person," but we found 7 reports of theft, 5 calls for shootings, assaults and fights, 5 reports of sex crimes and 4 calls for overdoses and deaths during that timeframe. ABC57 requested a more recent calls for service list, but we have not received it yet.

According to one homeless advocate, John Schafer, things were so bad at Oliver Apartments, he stopped referring people to the facility.

“The environment became hostile, it became unsafe, and we could not in good conscience ask any other homeless person to fill out an application and try to get them in.” Schafer said last year.

“That’s a different slice of the homeless population (than will be at the new apartments).” Marco Mariani, Executive Director of the South Bend Heritage Foundation, said. “The focus was on, can we house the most vulnerable homeless and the most costly to our community (based on frequent ER visits).”

Mariani says this project will focus on chronically homeless, but not the most vulnerable of the population. He says the new facility will have the same features as Oliver Apartments. They will work with Oaklawn to provide mental health and other services. Plus, they will have staggered police security.

Now, many of the neighbors at least want more time to do their research. The president of the area's neighborhood organization is hoping the zoning hearing will be pushed back a month.

“I’m not taking a pro/con stance on this. I’m very interested though in making sure the neighbors get as much information as they can.” Marty Mechtenberg said.

When asked by ABC57 News if that would be something the Heritage Foundation would be willing to do, Mariani said he wouldn't have a problem with a short delay.

“I’m fine with that. I think the city would be fine with that too.” He said.

As of right now, the zoning hearing is still scheduled for Tuesday at 3:30pm. 

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