You are a young, relatively new member of the South Bend Mayor’s Office. You earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from Indiana University, and this is your first full-time job in a political office after graduation. You know that how you perform during this next year will impact your future opportunities in the field, as well how the South Bend community sees you. You have dreams of one day becoming a mayor yourself.
There are murmurs that the Mayor is considering running for president of the United States, and his increased political presence has attracted attention to South Bend from across the country. National media are paying close attention to everything that happens in your office. Recently, you were contacted by a reporter from The New Yorker who wants to do an in-depth story on the Mayor’s policies and practices regarding homelessness since it’s a major issue nationwide. You know that the Mayor and your office need to have a plan to address homelessness for the story, or all of your political futures are in jeopardy. Also, if you have a good plan, it could positively affect the way other cities manage homelessness.
South Bend has had a population of people experiencing homelessness for decades, but in recent months, the issue has become highly visible due to the formation and rapid growth of a tent encampment under the Main Street railroad viaduct. You’ve received a lot of complaints about it from local residents and business owners. Crime has increased, significant public health and sanitation issues have come up, and investors are becoming wary of putting money into South Bend.
After decades of economic decline, even being named a “dying city” by Newsweek, South Bend turned a corner in attracting economic development. The Mayor’s Office has invested significant time, money, and energy in working with business leaders to attract and retain a variety of companies in a part of downtown that encompasses the homeless encampment site. You sense that your office needs to do something soon to prevent business and homeowners from moving out, reversing the Mayor’s Office’s hard-earned economic progress.
At the same time, you’ve received a lot of calls from concerned residents, advocates, and social service providers who want to help encampment residents have the agency and dignity to live where and how they want. They’re advocating for allowing encampment residents to move on their own terms: to places that meet their specific needs on their own timeline.
The issue of the homeless encampment has become a hot potato in your office—although people want the issue resolved, they worry about the very public criticism that may come with attempting to resolve the problem, so now there’s a sense of urgency to save not only lives on the streets but also your own political future.
What actions do you recommend to the Mayor to address stakeholder needs, including your own?
Given the business and public health concerns expressed to the Mayor’s Office, you recommend the Mayor take a stand and have the encampment cleared. If it isn’t disrupted now, you fear it will grow in every way, making it harder to address later.
The Mayor accepts your recommendation, so your office posts a message near the encampment that the site will be cleaned the next day and people should take their belongings. At lunchtime, when almost everyone is at Hope Ministries for a meal, bulldozers move in and scoop up everything left behind in the encampment site.
Almost immediately after the encampment clearing begins, your office is flooded with calls from local community members, media outlets, and activists. All of them raise concerns about where the homeless residents of the encampment will go now, and your office is criticized by the local newspaper, the South Bend Tribune, as well as The New Yorker for acting too quickly without a plan to help the encampment residents.
Also, although some local business owners are happy that the encampment is being broken up, many of them are concerned that this is not a long-term solution and homeless individuals will continue to spend time in the surrounding area due to its proximity to local services that they use on a daily basis. They worry—as do you—that people could just return to the area and settle in again after a short period of time.
Moreover, a number of the former encampment residents decide to move to an encampment on a wooded private property a few miles away. The temperatures are dropping, the waitlists for temporary housing are long, and you worry about how people will survive the winter. You fear that by clearing the encampment, you’ve simply moved the bump under the rug.
This only led to the encampment's relocation; the issue of homelessness persists. Try another option.
You begin distributing food, sending in sanitation crews to clean up the sidewalks, increasing police patrols, and subsidizing healthcare services at the encampment site. Initially, this plan seems to be welcomed by some members of the community, especially local activists and some residents who believe people should have the right to reside on public land if they want. They know that some people live in the encampment because other subsidized housing providers will not take them in due to drug and alcohol use or previous incidents at shelters.
However, the number of complaints from the local business community has increased. They believe that the city will not act on their behalf, so they form an independent group and brainstorm solutions on their own. You seem to have lost their trust and will have to work with them to get it back. You’re also noticing a continued decline in interest from investors and developers, who don’t like the ongoing growth of the encampment, which seems to have no end in sight.
In addition, you begin to see some unintended side effects from your effort to improve conditions in the encampment. It’s attracting new residents from neighboring cities, Goshen and Elkhart, which have also experienced a significant increase in homelessness. The cost of providing services, such as emergency care and police protection, is starting to consume the city’s budget. You worry that this decision is going to cause a bigger problem in the future as the encampment grows and your budget shrinks.
This option mitigates some current issues but is not a long-term solution. Try another option.
You decide that this is the best option for now because freezing temperatures are setting in and you’re concerned for the health and safety of encampment residents. However, activist groups have warned you that some people will opt to not relocate to it, as people experiencing homeless often don’t see the rules that shelters have as being in sync with their needs.
For example, many shelters don’t allow people to keep all of their belongings with them, so homeless individuals opt to stay on the street to remain somewhat self-sufficient. Also, the other local shelters don’t take in homeless individuals who use drugs or alcohol, so the new temporary shelter will need to accept drug and alcohol users. Although this will increase risk and cost, you’re concerned that not accepting them would leave the most vulnerable population with nowhere to turn.
You also begin to get quite a lot of complaints from homeowners and local business owners in the neighborhood where your office has proposed to build the temporary shelter. By now, you’re pretty familiar with the “not in my backyard” mentality, NIMBY, that a lot of people have; although they want to help in some way, many residents are concerned that a homeless shelter will have negative effects on their neighborhood.
You’ve secured a warm place to sleep for many of the tent encampment residents for this winter, but the issue of homelessness is only temporarily mitigated. Try another solution.
Your task force includes various members from the local community, religious leaders, local business owners, and homeowners. You’ve tried to represent multiple interests and stakeholder groups in an effort to come up with the best long-term solution, but this diversity is also causing some setbacks. The task force is moving slowly in their deliberations, and it’s taking them months to agree on an approach so they can begin outlining solutions. The task force members finally decide to adopt a “housing first” philosophy, according to which homeless individuals need housing as a prerequisite before they are able—and can be expected—to make other changes to improve their wellbeing.
You realize that given how long the task force is taking to isolate a solution, you’re losing the trust of the local business community. By now, investors and developers have lost significant interest in building in the neighborhood. At the same time, the encampment has continued to grow, and you’re deeply worried about increasing health and sanitation concerns. The homeless population has also recently become a target for predators who want to take advantage of their vulnerable situation, either by stealing from them, harassing them, or selling them drugs.
When the task force finally presents their proposed solution to you and the public, you encounter strong resistance from some of the other local community members. The task force recommends long-term housing in the form of apartments, and homeowners in the neighborhood where the apartments have been proposed react with anger. Although your office tried to make the argument that this is the best solution in a public hearing, the residents were not swayed. Moreover, it will take a long time to find funding for the proposed buildings and build them, which will give resistant residents more time to organize against the proposal.
This solution will take 2-3 years to implement. Try another option to mitigate homelessness in the meantime.
After thinking through the options and possible drawbacks, you decide it will be better for you if someone more senior in the Mayor’s Office takes the lead on addressing homelessness.
As winter approaches and temperatures drop, encampment residents start seeking the services of shelters in town since staying out overnight is simply too dangerous—they could get frostbite injuries or even die. Some of the encampment residents move into abandoned buildings and light fires to keep warm, which leads to frequent calls to the fire department.
The overnight shelters are full every night, but it isn’t clear that everyone has a place to stay because you don’t have a way to track the wellbeing of each person. Shelter staff report that they’re turning away people every night because there aren’t enough beds available across the city to meet demand.
Local business owners are temporarily appeased because the encampment is disbanding, but they worry that when temperatures warm up, the problem will begin all over again. Some of them are asking what the Mayor’s Office do in the long-term to address homelessness in South Bend. Worse yet, your office starts to receive forceful criticism in The New Yorker, the South Bend Tribune, and on social media for your inaction.
The seasonal expenses for the city are beginning to rack up: the cost of repeated fire emergencies, police department calls, emergency care and food at the weather amnesty shelter. It turns out, doing nothing has had significant financial and human costs.
Try a more proactive solution.