While homelessness in South Bend goes back for decades and homelessness persists in South Bend today, this case study focuses specifically on an encampment that formed along a stretch of Main Street near the heart of downtown South Bend from 2016-2017. Click through the timeline to learn more about key events in this Main Street encampment history.
Unsheltered homelessness exists throughout the United States, yet encampments have specific origin stories tied to local policies, culture, and history. In the case of the Main Street encampment in South Bend, both the local and regional environments in which the encampment was located have been fighting to rebound after nearly a half century of economic decline. Those disruptions to economic vitality, followed later by the loss of the largest community-wide mental health provider, created a loss of support services and opportunities for stability.
South Bend is in the heart of the Rust Belt, a region in the northern United States that spans from upstate New York to Wisconsin. It’s dotted with cities that were once hubs for steel production and manufacturing, since proximity to the Great Lakes and several large rivers made it easy for companies to ship in raw materials and ship out finished products.
As blue collar jobs began to move overseas in the latter half of the 20th century, factories closed and were abandoned throughout the region. Since then, many Rust Belt cities have had to cope with growing poverty and dwindling populations. South Bend was named one of “America’s dying cities” by Newsweek in 2011 given its population decline as younger people sought better jobs elsewhere, reducing stability in the community.
The Renaissance District, an 80-block area just south of downtown South Bend, bounds the former 140-acre Studebaker automobile manufacturing campus. At its peak, Studebaker employed as many as 22,000 people in South Bend. It closed permanently in December 1963, sparking a 60-year economic decline and 30% population loss for the city.
In 2016, transformation of 1.3 million square feet of former Studebaker factory buildings into a mixed-use technology campus began, led by local entrepreneur Kevin Smith. Redevelopment of buildings in surrounding community has also been on the rise.
Main Street Railroad Viaduct
Main Street runs through the burgeoning Renaissance business district of South Bend. A bridge allows active railways to pass over Main Street just a block from the TRANSPO public bus hub, and it’s close to social service agencies used by many low-income residents, making it an ideal location for access to services. Bridges provide a sturdy roof for people seeking shelter on the streets, so they’re a common site for homeless encampments. Since the Main Street bridge was closed for repairs in 2016, the absence of traffic made it an even more attractive place for people to gather.
As we met people in the South Bend community, it became clear that everyone has a stake in addressing homelessness. Each person we talked with recommended other people who had relevant experience and insight. We reached as many as we could but know we left many voices out due to limited resources and because some people did not want to talk on the record about such a sensitive issue. Over time, we found that the people we talked to represented, in a general sense, the following 4 core groups.
People Experiencing Homelessness
The people experiencing homelessness who we interviewed expressed a desire to share their stories of joining the encampment so that others could learn from their experience. They gave many different, compounding reasons why they became homeless and unsheltered after having been in stable homes. They also narrated the steps they were taking to find permanent housing and how hard it was to pursue school, care for kids, and stay sober while living unsheltered.
Local Business Owners
From small businesses such as restaurants to large businesses such as the South Bend cubs baseball stadium, business owners felt the impact of the encampment and responded by organizing informally as a group to consider how they could respond. Business owners expressed concern for the welfare of encampment residents and for the challenge the encampment posed to meeting their business goals. They identified sanitation and safety issues as deterrents to customers. They were frustrated by the time and money it took them to manage those issues. They also worried that the encampment would deter new businesses from choosing to locate in the Renaissance District.
Some of the stakeholders we interviewed became involved with the encampment because they worked for local organizations that address homelessness, such as Allen Child. You may read his interview here. Others were area residents who organized informally to provide food and supplies to encampment residents.
The City of South Bend was a key stakeholder in the encampment since the encampment formed on public land. City officials were ultimately responsible for addressing ongoing public health and safety issues, and only they had the authority to remove tents, pallets, and other items from the encampment. You may read our interview with Genevieve Miller, The Deputy Chief of Staff and Policy Director for the Office of Mayor Pete Buttigieg.