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A helping hand for the homeless in Michiana

NOW: A helping hand for the homeless in Michiana

SOUTH BEND, Ind. --- Homelessness has been a chronic problem in South Bend for years and headlines were recently made again with the formation and relocation of tent city downtown.

Homelessness might be a problem that is hard to imagine for many in Michiana, but it is real and hundreds of people are homeless in the community.

In South Bend, many homeless people live in tent city, but it is not a forever home.

When you live on the streets of Michiana, the decisions you make could mean the difference between life or death.

“If that one person wouldn’t have given me the information, I don’t know if I’d be alive,” Certified Recovery Specialist, Lorie Simmons, said.

“I battled the bottle—so to speak—and I won,” Center for the Homeless resident, Allen Wheat, said.”

Temptation is always around the corner.

“You don’t think you’ll ever get to that point,” Simmons said. “You think you have it under control.”

Lorie Simmons and Allen Wheat are now both off the street.

“Couldn’t ask for better assistance in rebuilding what was lost,” Wheat said. “I needed help, I asked for help and I have no complaints whatsoever.”

Wheat has been living at the Center for the Homeless in South Bend since November and he has worn a lot of hats over the years, specializing a lot in production work maintenance, but he, like many others, got down on his luck.

“From where I was, I was living under a bridge,” Wheat said.

With winter on the way, he knew he needed to do something.

“Best choice I think that I could have made,” Wheat said.

Wheat had decided to stay at the Center for the Homeless.

“To get back on my feet again, to live the life that I want to live,” Wheat said.

Wheat is now working part-time at Goodwill and is actively looking for a full-time job.

“I’m 100% better,” Wheat said. “I can stand tall. Just smile.”

Allen Wheat is not alone; Lorie Simmons is now a certified recovery specialist over at Oaklawn, but her journey did not start there.

“My addiction took me to my homelessness,” Simmons said. “I started out here and there and then ended up where I was sleeping in between buildings, you know, benches, abandoned cars, whatever I could find to keep warm. At that point, I was, I felt so low that I wouldn’t be able to come up above that.”

Simmons was feeling so low until one unexpected person lent a helping hand.

“Somebody had reached out to me one day and it was a maid at a hotel and told me about some resources in the area,” Simmons said.

Simmons got help using resources including St. Margaret’s House

“I could go there and take a shower, get clothing, I could eat,” Simmons recalled. “The more people that you got to know, more resources came in. But I spent a good portion of my life, homeless.”

The journey was far from an easy one. Lorie caught charges and wounded up in the drug court system, spending her life in and out of jail, eventually getting clean for 10 years before things took another turn.

“I fell off the wagon and was back out on the street for another three years,” Simmons said.

That is when Simmons found Oaklawn, a resource that helped her get back on her feet.

“And then at the end of that last day, somebody came in from Oaklawn and told me to put my application in,” Simmons said.

An application to be a recovery coach.

“I didn’t think I would get it,” Simmons remembered. “You know, my life experiences, I was an addict, you know I’ve been in an out of the jail system… I still had that low self-esteem going on.”

Little did Simmons know, she was the perfect match for the position. Now, she is helping others the same way they helped her—the part of her journey she is most proud of.

“You know, you got to reach a certain point to say enough is enough and do something about it,” Simmons said.

“They’re not invisible,” activist and homeless advocate, Clara Ross, said.” They’re not helpless and they’re not hopeless.”

Clara Ross is an activist in South Bend. Ross helped move tent city to Doulos Chapel, not far from downtown after police officers cleared the former city-owned site.

South Bend Mayor, James Mueller, said the city had no choice because tent city was becoming a public nuisance.

“It was a public health and sanitary issue,” Mayor Mueller said. “There was also increased calls for services, you know, fights and drug use and other things that were going on and so those were components to that site as well as it is, it was trespassing.”

COVID-19 did not help the situation either as homeless folks have tried living on the streets amid a national pandemic.

Deputy Health Officer, Dr. Mark Fox, said breaking up the camp is really a double-edged sword.

“Because on the one hand, the encampment provides open air, may allow for greater distance than would be possible in a sheltered setting, but doesn’t have access to the running water and hygiene facilities,” Dr. Fox said.

So what can be done to solve this growing, chronic problem? Clara Ross said it might be as simple as asking the right questions. 

“The problem has been previously is you don’t ask the right questions to the right people to get the right answer,” Ross said. “No one was asking the homeless community what they needed to move forward. “We’re seeing them at their point where they are—not what we think they need, but they’re telling us what they need and we’re being proactive instead of reactive.”

What are the things folks living at tent city need to move forward?

“Somebody to help me fill out my application, to give me references, to talk, you know and anything else they can provide,” tent city resident, Timberly Boble said.

“Mentor,” tent city resident, Lekisha Sheppard said.

Ross is that mentor for Lekisha.

“Anything we need she right there with it,” Sheppard said. “Like I say, she keeps us in line, like a mom out here.”

Ross said the community involvement has been a huge milestone in the path towards success with the tent city site, with more and more people getting jobs and searching for permanent housing.

“They always did have resources within themselves,” Ross said. “They always did have skills themselves, they always had talents. They just needed someone to connect the dots and open up doors for them.”

That is exactly what Brandy House, the Addictions Program Coordinator at Oaklawn, is trying to do—provide needs so that people suffering from homelessness can get back on their feet.

“We have found that once a person has a safe place to sleep and has adequate food and clothing that then they’re able to focus on the other issues in their lives,” House said.

Oaklawn can provide a number of resources to eliminate those barriers and help people overcome what might seem like the impossible.

“We want to let everyone know that they’re worth it,” House said. “And that despite what they may be going through there are people out here who care. We went through those issues also, but we were able to make it to the other side and we want them to know that they are able to do the same.”

Overcoming homelessness or struggles with addiction is no easy feat, you have to want it for yourself, but these survivors say it has been well worth it and they will never look back.

“If I didn’t have that hand reached out to me, I probably would have ended my life because it’s to that point, you know, it got that serious for me, that hand was a godsend,” Simmons said. “And ever since then I’ve been trying to pull up and keep going. You know, I never want to go back to that. That was the deepest part for me is to end my own life because my addiction took me there.”

“I don’t want to be a disappointment to myself,” Wheat said. “In the end days, I want to go back and go ‘I made it.’ Be ready to take the leap. It’s all inside you and you can do it. Don’t be afraid; there’s help out there. All you have to do is ask.”

Mayor Mueller said his administration is looking at a number of options to get people off the street, such as possibly partnering with providers out in the community to see what services they could establish.

At the end of the day, the whole community must come together, not just South Bend, according to Mayor Mueller.

If you are interested in resources, below are available organizations in the community.

Click here for Oaklawn.

Upper Room, known as "Recovery Cafe" and the Mobile Opioid Response Unit are both resources also available to anyone in the community.

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