GOSHEN HOMELESS; Advocates protest as removal of millrace camp approaches

Roger Schneider | The Goshen NewsMercede Gonzalez, in back, and her mother Donna Antomori, of Goshen, hold signs advocating for the city’s homeless population, some of whom are facing a removal deadline for their camp along the millrace.

GOSHEN

There was a simple reason for holding a protest sign along Third Street Sunday afternoon for one woman.

“I’m homeless,” Robin Smith said when asked why she was among two dozen people lining the street and calling attention to the pending removal of Goshen’s homeless camp along the millrace.

Smith, and those inhabiting about 13 other tents and shelters along the millrace a short distance from the protest site, have been given until May 27 to leave the city park property. Mayor Jeremy Stutsman announced earlier this month the residents of the camp would be given a notice to leave by the 27th and offered relocation help and other services through the Goshen Homeless Coalition. The coalition is a group of about a dozen local agencies that provide a variety of services. Stutsman had appointed a homeless “task force” to address the camp after local residents and business owners complained about the growing size of the encampment.

Stutsman’s news release cited several violations of city ordinances that are occurring at the the camp, such as camping without permission and open fires.

One resident of the camp said Sunday he believes there are 14 tents or shelters at the location, with more than one person living in several of the tents.

NOT EASY OUT THERE

Smith said she, her grown son and his girlfriend had been living in a rental unit along North Eighth Street until the end of April, but were evicted.

She said city officials have offered to move the three to Faith Mission in Elkhart, which she said won’t work for her.

“I can’t be moved out there,” Smith said. “I have a job out here in Goshen.”

She also has three dogs that would not be accepted at Faith Mission, and she refuses to give those up.

She said her son’s girlfriend is on disability and her son recently lost his newspaper delivery job because his truck broke down.

Now that she has been handed a removal notice by city officials, Smith was asked if she has a plan once she is forced from the park.

“No, I actually don’t. I do not know what we are going to do,” Smith said.

Right now, with just one income for the three, she said they cannot afford the Goshen rental market.

“They got rent so high it is pathetic,” Smith said.

She said all she can afford to pay for a rental unit is $650 a month.

But even that figure would be a struggle, she added, because landlords want a deposit, then the first month’s rent, an application fee, and another deposit due to her dogs.

“And I cannot afford all that,” she said.

NOT A SOLUTION

John Shafer has long been an advocate for Michiana’s homeless. He said he expected that at some point city officials would attempt to move the homeless out of Shanklin Park.

“It’s a Band-aid approach,” Shafer said of the city’s plan.

“There are some homeless that can benefit being in a shelter, there are some who refuse,” Shafer said. “The city of Elkhart is the nearest emergency adult shelter (Faith Mission) and there are some individuals who have already been there and have left for whatever specific reason they had and some of them won’t go back.”

Shafer has advocated in the past for an adult homeless shelter in Goshen. Last winter he and others asked the non-profits and city government to open a winter shelter that provided a warm place to sleep for the homeless in Goshen. Stutsman and the Homeless Coalition worked quickly to make that happen through Interfaith Hospitality Network. But that temporary shelter closed once the weather warmed and was never designed to be anything but a stop-gap measure.

“We need to provide the homeless options,” Shafer said Sunday. “They don’t really want to live in a shelter, they want to live in a home. These people are homeless.

“So, if they are not going to stay at a shelter for a long time and maybe be benefited by the program they offer, they are just going to go back to the streets.”

Shafer said the first need to break up that cycle is to provide housing for Goshen’s homeless. He said that could be in the form of an “official” tent city where portable toilets and dumpsters are provided and the residents are required to keep it clean, or by allowing the use of “tiny houses,” which could be made by local RV companies.

“As a community we should not have any veterans who are homeless or any families that are homeless, but we do,” he said, adding many people are sleeping in vehicles.

HOMELESS SENIORS

Like Shafer, Julie Kramer believes the city needs transitional housing to keep people from falling into homelessness.

“I meet people weekly that are getting evicted because they are on disability and they can’t afford $650 to $750 a month rent. I know three seniors right now living in their vehicles because they are on disability and they cannot find housing right now in Goshen they can afford.”

Kramer and her Christian friends have formed Operation Treehouse to reach out to Goshen’s homeless population. They have been providing hygiene products, tents and other items. Kramer said because of the new removal order, Treehouse will no longer provide replacement tents, but will supply sleeping bags and mats.

She said there has always been in recent years a core group of eight homeless people who have camped in Shanklin Park.

Last summer Treehouse helped 24 different people who were camping in the park at one time or another.

“People don’t realize we have a continual flow of people being evicted,” Kramer said. “We have seniors who get on disability, who have to wait for their disability. A lot of them lose their places, so everything they apply for is a waiting period.”

She indicated the recent influx of homeless in the camp began when the winter amnesty program ended.

“So a lot of them go back outdoors,” Kramer said. Because in the shelters they have to follow more rules and stuff. Being outside they have more freedom to do the stuff they want to do by being outside.”

And some inmates being released from jail also join the ranks of the homeless.

“We meet several, weekly, monthly, that get out of incarceration and pass through because they have no where to go,” Kramer said.

As for relocating Goshen’s homeless to Elkhart or other cities with shelters, Kramer said that is not something the local homeless want to participate in.

“There have been many opportunities for them to go to Interfaith Hospitality and the shelter in Elkhart,” Kramer said. “That is not something they want to do because they have jobs here, they go to church here, they eat (at churches) Wednesday nights, they go to church here on Sunday’s a lot of them, and some of them go to work at 5 a.m.”

Mercede Gonzalez and her mother Donna Antomori of Goshen, were on the west side of Third Street holding up signs.

Ganzalez, like others at the protest, said affordable housing is badly needed in Goshen to keep vulnerable residents from becoming homeless.

“We are kicking them out and they have no where to go,” she said. “Thirty days in the Faith Mission is not going to cut it. We need affordable housing, we need a place for them to go.

She pointed behind her where a developer plans to build upscale apartments along Third Street, saying, “We keep on building these high-end apartments. That is not going to get us anywhere. And living off of Social Security or disability is not going to cut it. And even if they have a job, if it’s one person they are not going to make enough to live on their own. So, we need affordable housing and we need an affordable place for them to have the rehab they need to get back in the right state of mind.”

Roger Schneider can be reached at rschneider@goshennews.com or 574-533-2151, ext. 309. Follow Roger on Facebook and also on Twitter @rschneider_TGN

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