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New tents under Main St. bridge raise questions about a permanent solution

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It's been a couple days since homeless people under South Bend's Main St. bridge got some tents donated to them. On Wednesday, homeless activists brought a few more to the site. The good deed is raising questions for some, about finding a permanent solution for the estimated 20 homeless under the bridge.

We found Robert Forrest at the tent site picking up trash. He says he moved back to South Bend from Oklahoma to be with family. That's when he noticed something from the Transpo bus stop.

"People were just layin' out and I started wondering, wow, what's this?"

Forrest says this is what he found.

"They're turning their backs on themselves, they're feelin' sorry for themselves," he said, "They're spending their money on drugs."

Forrest says he's seen and talked to people who are drunk, doing heroin, and synthetic drugs. Nonetheless, he says he shows up every day to clean up the space.

"This is a daily and nightly thing, I come through, majority of these guys are my friends."

He says he believes there are programs and help here for the residents under the Main St. bridge, and is happy to see the tents. However, he says it's not enough.

“I’m helpin’ out because this is what God would want me to do," said Forrest, “It only goes so far."

Forrest has a helper, who goes along with him, picking up garbage. Her name is Melissa Lebron.

“I’m homeless," said Lebron, “I’ve had my problems."

Lebron says she's been under the Main St. bridge for about a month, but has been homeless for about five years.

She says she sees the same problems around her as Forrest has seen.

“They get their checks and when they get their checks they do what they wanna do with their checks," she said.

Lebron says she'd like to live in a house, and move back to Elkhart.

“It’s just that everything’s taking time," she said.

Lebron says she got into trouble with the housing authority, not showing up for appointments. She says that's where the trouble started. As for finding a shelter, Lebron says it's easier said than done.

“In order to be included in anything you got to follow the rules," she said.

For now, she says the tents are a welcomed relief from bugs and more.

“It’s extreme and it’s very violent at times," she said about the encampment, “You’re not certain you know if a fights gonna occur and how violent the fight’s gonna be."

John Shafer with Michiana Five for the Homeless is responsible for bringing the tents. He says they cost $35 at Walmart.

“It’s better than them sleeping on cardboard beds," he said.

Shafer says the tents also prevent the area from becoming an eye sore, “Feeling like they’ve got a little bit of self-respect, and privacy having a tent.”

He says it's also a sign of appreciate to the City of South Bend, for allowing them to stay there. However, Shafer says he realizes the tents aren't a permanent fix.

“There are some that I know that have addictions and it’s, they need a program in this city for the homeless that have addictions," he said.

Steve Camilleri is the Director at South Bend's Center for the Homeless. He says the folks under the bridge are definitely on his radar.

“We’re hoping that we can help people never experience homelessness again."

Camilleri suspects the issue is in the public eye now, more than ever, because drivers are slowing down in the area because of construction.

He says reaching out to the homeless can be challenging.

“If folks are under the influence we have a zero tolerance policy," he said, “Let’s not forget some folks who are experiencing homelessness under this particular bridge they may choose not to stay at a facility like ours."

Camilleri says he's in talks with other community organizations about how to find permanent solutions for those who struggle with mental illness and addictions.

“People need to choose to accept the help that the community is offering."

For now, he says the best resources for mental health in our area are Oaklawn and Epworth Center.

At noon on Sunday, Sept. 25, some people are meeting at the Main St. bridge to provide a meal to the homeless. If you want to learn more, click here.

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