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New home OK’d for PADS homeless shelter

September 19, 2018

MICHIGAN CITY — The former Sacred Heart Church in the city’s Westside neighborhood will be the permanent site of the Interfaith Community PADS homeless shelter for men and women after the Michigan City Board of Zoning Appeals approved a use variance on Sept. 11.

For approximately two hours, the board heard from local merchants, community activists, elected officials, people who work and volunteer with the homeless population, and people who once used the shelter’s services.

Most of those who addressed the board spoke in favor of the moving the shelter – which has operated by rotating every one or two nights between eight Michigan City churches for the past 18 years – to a permanent location.

But two women who operate a business in the Uptown Arts District were skeptical, saying it’s been their experience that homeless people defecate on the sidewalk outside their store, and threaten and follow their employees, making them and their customers feel unsafe.

Larry Sylvestri, of the Michigan City Redevelopment Commission, asked the board not to approve the use variance to allow the defunct Sacred Heart Church, at 1001 W. 8th St., to become homeless shelter’s permanent location.

“If you do a Google search on homeless facilities, Michigan City is clustered with facilities. It’s not that we are uncharitable – we are very charitable,” Sylvestri said. “... We just had a facility request to go behind the Eastgate Plaza. There’s the tiny homes near the Michigan City High School. And now we’ve got a request on Eighth Street.

“I don’t think an additional homeless shelter will reduce the problem in Michigan City. We are providing services to the region. ... We are providing the facilities for the entire Northwest Indiana region and I think the other communities have to step up.”

Sylvestri noted that no communities between Michigan City and South Bend on the east, and Gary on the west, provide shelter or programming for homeless citizens.

And he mentioned that the Redevelopment Commission has invested nearly $10 million in the northern TIF district in an effort to attract new, and assist current business owners there.

“We need to show compassion and consideration for the people who are risking their lives, their pensions and their kids’ college educations, and starting businesses in the art district,” he said.

Amy Straka is a business owner in the Uptown Arts District, but she spoke Sept. 11 in favor of the shelter being permanently moved to the former Sacred Heart Church.

“My first thought when I hear of a wonderful group that’s been doing great service in the community to help our most vulnerable members have a safe place to stay and nutritional food to eat,” she said, “wasn’t how it might look to Chicago people coming to buy my wares. I don’t think this will have any negative effect on my business at all.”

She surmised that most people who own or work at businesses in the Uptown Arts District are likely just one emergency away from facing homelessness themselves based on the average income of their demographic.

“As a city ... we should concern ourselves with the basic human dignity of every person and make certain that we take care of everyone in our community, especially the most vulnerable,” she said. “The statement read by Larry was so troubling to me. I think this will be so wonderful for the community that I have my business in, that I spend my days in, and I would be so happy to be neighbors.”

More than a dozen other people addressed the board, most with sentiments similar to Straka’s. One man, a retired Chicago police officer, even offered to monitor the streets in the Uptown Arts District during the day in order to keep homeless citizens from causing a nuisance for local businesses.

A man who identified himself only as Robert Johnson said, “What the program does during cold months is stops people from dying on the street. So, if you’re concerned with aesthetics, I posit a frozen corpse as pretty bad – if that’s the concern. My thing is that we don’t want people to die on the street.

“I also want to clarify that this program isn’t asking for anything new. We are not opening a new homeless shelter; it’s relocating a shelter that does exist to one of its previous locations so that it’s consistent.”

Rev. Dr. Ericka Kilbourne of First Presbyterian Church said it was both the “flourishing” Uptown Arts District and the city’s active approach to helping the homeless and disenfranchised that led her family to relocate to Michigan City in 2011, noting the latter is what determines a community’s real value.

“We can all be known for being a really cool city where we ‘Create. Play. Repeat.’ – and care – for each person,” she said.

Skyler York, the city’s assistant planning director, recommended that the issue be tabled until after his and other city departments could meet to determine what the maximum capacity and specific use restrictions for the building should be.

However, BZA board members G. Wallace Hook and Lester Norvell offered that the board could vote on whether to allow the use variance right away, and the remaining details could be worked out later.

“Aside from the few years that I was gone at college, I’m a lifelong resident of Michigan City,” Norvell said. “I’m also a retired police officer of Michigan City. And I would like for Michigan City to be known for something other than the beach and the Lighthouse Mall. I couldn’t think of a better use for the Sacred Heart Church than for it to remain as a facility for the homeless of Michigan City.”

Hook, Norvell and fellow board members Karen Janus and Ricky Jackson voted 4-0 to approve the use variance with the contingency that no occupancy can resume until the building has been inspected by the proper city departments and the fire marshal to determine its capacity and appropriate uses.

Interfaith Community PADS, an acronym for Public Action Delivering Shelter, serves women year-round and men from October through April.

Director Harrison Holtkamp said more than 7,000 bednights were recorded in the past year at the shelter, which receives no government funding. He said operations are paid for through grants from the Unity Foundation of La Porte County and Michigan City Community Enrichment Corporation, and charitable and in-kind donations from private donors.

In the three years Holtkamp has overseen operations at the shelter, he said the average intake was 85 men his first year, 90 his second year, and 119 last year.

Last year was the first year the shelter was made available for women and children, and they served 40 different individuals through that program.

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