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Pete Buttigieg and homelessness: Advocate on slow South Bend response
by Matt Simonette

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Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg cites the revitalization of South Bend, Indiana, which he largely stewarded, as a prime reason he should be elected president.

But one organization head serving persons experiencing homelessness in South Bend maintains that city officials have offered relatively little help to his clients during Buttigieg's tenure.

"The mayor has not pushed for anything that we see to help the homeless problem here in the community," said John Shafer, who heads and co-founded the South Bend-based nonprofit Michiana Five for the Homeless. "If nothing else, he's aggravated the problem, and the city just continues to harass the homeless."

Shafer, who is gay, has been active in efforts to assist persons experiencing homelessness in Chicago as well as South Bend and other Indiana cities. He maintains that the South Bend response has been neglectful at times and needlessly aggressive at others.

"The shelter is full—we have one emergency shelter—and yet the homeless can't start a temporary tent for too long of a time before they are evicted and forced to move," Shafer said. "The issue of homelessness here continues to remain ignored."

Buttigieg has enjoyed widespread popularity in South Bend during his tenure. When he ran for re-election in 2015, he carried about 78 percent of the vote; and residents have largely met his efforts to revitalize South Bend with enthusiasm.

Buttigieg also usually confesses to his errors in judgment. For example, he acknowledged overly aggressive and insensitive components of South Bend's popular "1,000 Homes in 1,000 Days" initiative that put the pressure on homeowners to repair blighted homes or face the prospect of demolition. He also apologized for saying publicly that "all lives matter" before realizing that the phrase had heavy anti-Black connotations.

Buttigieg's husband Chasten has spoken about experiencing homelessness when he was a student. Shafer told Windy City Times, however, that Buttigieg's administration has not followed through on addressing the homelessness issue in South Bend.

"We don't know if the police and code enforcement, who continue to harass the homeless, are acting independently or on the wishes of the mayor," Shafer said. "But we certainly know that the mayor never stopped them, has never apologized for them, has never interfered. He won't; he wants to stay out of the picture."

Shortly before Buttigieg officially kicked off his 2020 presidential bid in April, the situation came to a head when a longtime encampment was vacated after a local developer purchased the lot upon which they were living.

Shafer recalled, "During the winter, there was always a homeless encampment, even though, right next door, there was a building being used for weather amnesty. Prior to the winter, there had always been an encampment there, for as long as we can remember. Now that it is owned property, there will no longer be a tent city, and it limits where our homeless can go."

Schafer acknowledged "It is [the owner's] right—it is his property. So the police informed them that they had to be out of there by Monday at 8 a.m. They are now all scattered. Wherever they go, eventually they will be pushed out again. We see that as a continuous cycle for the last many years."

He recalled a similar eviction in fall 2017, when an encampment arose under a bridge. Shafer's organization provided wooden skids upon which the residents could place their belongings and sleep. The city forcibly evacuated the residents and destroyed the skids one month before indoor cold-weather shelter was even made available.

Buttigieg's administration has also been criticized for not following through with recommendations from homelessness and housing-instability experts.

Also in 2017, advocates and stakeholders brought to town Thomas Rebman, a prominent homelessness-solutions expert based in Florida. "He came to the city and spoke on two separate trips, at his own expense, for four days, holding different meetings and sessions, with stakeholders and city officials," said Shafer, who added that a representative from the mayor's office was in attendance at all the meetings.

"The city basically responded, 'Thank you but no thanks, for your time and solutions—we're going to handle it our way,'" Shafer noted.

Buttigieg formed a working group of about 20 stakeholders, who met over the course of eight months and developed a 50-page report that Shafer said disregarded the past suggestions.

"That 50-page report proposed a gateway center and $1.5 million was put into the 2018 budget to create that gateway center," he added. "None of that 50-page report has ever been talked about since. Nothing in it has ever been put in place. It was a complete waste of time. The gateway center only becomes a topic when something like this last evacuation of the tent city is brought to surface in the local media."

The center would house persons experiencing homelessness, offer wraparound services and be an intake center where other persons could be linked with scattered-site beds. A local community college donated several trailers to the city to aid in homelessness advocates' efforts; those have gone unused, Shafer said.

Shafer said he was looking forward to "a new mayor." A primary election was held May 7 to determine who'd be the contestants in the final contest to replace Buttigieg; Republican Sean Haas will be up against Democrat James Mueller, who has both close ties with and an endorsement from Buttigieg.

Shafer hopes circumstances change for the persons for whom he advocates: "These people are trying to survive, and the simple solution is give them housing and give them shelter."

Windy City Times asked both Buttigieg's campaign as well as the South Bend Mayor's Office for comment. Neither had replied as of press time.

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