Jill Boughton
Freelance Writer
April 4, 2023 // Bishop

Bishop Blesses Motels4Now which Houses the Chronically Homeless in the South Bend Area

Jill Boughton
Freelance Writer

SOUTH BEND — Motels4Now is a housing-first program in South Bend that was created in August of 2020 that houses the chronically homeless in dignity and helps people move into more long-term, month-to-month housing.

On Thursday, Mar. 30, Bishop Rhoades led a brief prayer service to bless the residents, staff, volunteers, and benefactors of Motels4Now, which he called “the work of the Lord, a work of mercy and love.” Representatives from Catholic Charities were also present, intending to solidify their partnership with the undertaking.

Photos by Jennifer Wiertel
Bishop Rhoades offers a blessing for the Motels4Now homeless center, its residents, staff, volunteers, and benefactors in South Bend on Thursday, Mar. 30.

After the singing of “Amazing Grace,” the bishop read the familiar passage from Matthew 25:31-40 about finding Jesus in the hungry, the ill, the stranger. He also cited Matthew 8:20, where Jesus says He has nowhere to rest His head. Guests wandered around wearing everything from torn pajamas to top hats, some accompanied by pets.

His formal blessing included, “Be always close to the people who reside in this housing center, nurturing their love, sharing in their joys, comforting them in their sorrows, and aiding in their every need. Let your angels of light stand watch over them. Shield this place from all harm.”

That morning, a grant from the City of South Bend enabled the purchase of the facility so that guests can be welcomed there until the New Day Intake Center is ready to shelter them two or three years from now.

“We have effectively ended long-term homelessness in the Michiana area,” said Sheila McCarthy, Director of Motels4Now, a ministry of the Catholic Worker under the umbrella of Our Lady of the Road. “It’s amazing. When people have a key to their own room, they don’t look homeless anymore. They’re indistinguishable from everyone else.” She referenced Father Greg Boyle (Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion), who says his mission is going to the margins and erasing divisions between people. Everyone benefits!

“There’s a widespread myth that people are homeless by choice,” McCarthy continued. She said she has been surprised to learn by experience that the overwhelming majority of the unsheltered desperately long for the same thing we all crave if we ever have to spend unplanned time in a place like an airport terminal, which is to arrive at a destination where we can put down our things, lock the door, take a shower, and settle down to sleep. She’s always believed in the housing-first model, but it’s been far more successful than she dared to hope. An amazing 76 percent of Motel4Now’s guests, more than 400 people, are now stably housed, many in apartments in the community.

The program, which opened its doors in August of 2020, has served nearly 600 unique individuals. Of those, 83 percent had been unhoused for more than a year, and 10 percent for ten years or longer.

Melissa said, “I just needed a breakthrough, and this is my start.”

Steve declared. “I felt like I was drowning and I couldn’t find a way to get up on shore. Motels4Now has been the hand that reached out.”

Mistine remarked, “They are good people. They help with everything.”

Finally, Kevin added, “Outside of housing, it’s restored my faith and hope in humanity. Despite whatever your darkness may be, tomorrow is a new day.”

About 115 people sleep at the former Knights Inn on Lincolnway West on any given night, and the average stay is four months. There are currently about 50 people on the waiting list and it takes three to five months to get to the top. Some are newly unsheltered due to illness, eviction, or release from incarceration and no family with the financial means to assist them; but about two-thirds have already spent time at Motels4Now. They were asked to leave because they didn’t keep the rules they agreed to, but they are welcome to try again.

McCarthy explained that those rules are necessary for safety and security and help guests establish a rhythm to their days and nights. Guests at Motels4Now are not allowed to shelter those not enrolled in the program, and they are asked not to entertain other guests in their rooms during quiet hours.

Motels4Now is a low-barrier or housing-first approach, so it can accommodate residents dealing with addiction and mental illness. It includes 24/7 support staff and a security team. Besides housing, Beacon Health runs a bi-monthly on-site medical clinic and the community mental health provider, Oaklawn, has had a dedicated presence since November of 2020, providing wrap-around mental health and addiction recovery services.

As in other American cities, four years ago it was hard to avoid seeing homeless people on benches, in tents, and under bridges in downtown South Bend. Catholic Workers and volunteers from many parishes got to know these individuals by serving them breakfast at Our Lady of the Road every weekend and providing a daytime place where they could hang out and do laundry. Housing was an obvious need, but there was no funding.

When overnight Weather Amnesty ended and then Covid-19 shut everything down in 2020, the problem became acute. More than 100 people were consigned to live in tents, with no sanitation facilities and no potable water access, on the edge of a shuttered downtown South Bend near the Catholic Worker houses. Where could unsheltered people with Covid symptoms safely quarantine? The solution was to put them in hotels and motels that suddenly had no traditional guests. A quarantine isolation center opened at Motel 6 on Highway 933. That experiment worked, which prompted two advocates, Araquel Bloss and Tracy Leliart, to envision a program to address homelessness as a public health issue more pervasive than a short-term virus. They kept calling until they found the one motel owner willing to take a chance on providing space for a more long-term program. Initially only a small number of the units at Knights Inn were in good enough repair to house guests. Today, that facility has three buildings and 74 renovated double-occupancy rooms.

After St. Joseph County agreed to help fund the program using money from the CARES Act, McCarthy became Director of Motels4Now in September of 2020. She had been teaching an interdisciplinary global perspectives course at Westville Correctional Facility, which pivoted to remote work with the Covid lockdown. She said it wasn’t what she envisioned doing when she earned a Ph.D. in Theology from Notre Dame, writing a dissertation on trauma healing and liturgy, but God hasn’t wasted any of the education, gifts, or experiences she brought to her new role.

By January of 2021, Motels4Now had 150 residents, including 41 children. Since schools were still closed, a school bus with Wifi enabled them to do their work, but it wasn’t the best environment for children, so all the families have transitioned into rental housing.

St. Joseph County officials elected in November of 2022 decided not to use any more federal American Rescue Plan funding to support Motels4Now. “We are working on building relationships with these folks,” said McCarthy. In the meantime, the City of South Bend and many individuals and organizations have stepped up to help. On the Feast of St. Joseph, a grant was confirmed which will enable the program to continue operating for another five or six months. A number of other grants and conversations are in the works.

As for the future, Board President Margie Pfeil wrote, “Our first goal is to transition Motels4Now into a permanent low-barrier intake center, building a facility specifically designed for this purpose and offering dignified accommodations.” Kil Architecture has developed a preliminary design with 38 double-occupancy rooms and four single ADA-compliant rooms. A $2.5 million grant from the Department of Mental Health and Addiction will help with capital costs. In addition to a grant toward capital costs, the City of South Bend has committed $500,000 in annual operating costs.

Because of the lack of affordable housing in the area, there is a growing need for permanent supportive housing units. Therefore, Phase 2 is “to collaborate with South Bend Heritage and Oaklawn to build an integrated housing community adjacent to the intake center,” accessible to Oaklawn and the New Day staff.

Those wanting to learn more about Motels4Now can check the website at olrsb.org/motels4now. Many current residents have Section 8 housing vouchers but nowhere to use them, so there is a need for landlords willing to rent to them, as well as furniture for those apartments. Financial contributions are essential. Tax-deductible donations can be made out to Our Lady of the Road, P.O. Box 4375, South Bend, IN 46634, with “M4N” on the memo line of the check or via PayPal.

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