Center for Social Concerns, Klau Institute host conference on homelessness

The Center for Social Concerns and the Klau Institute for Civil and Human Rights hosted an unprecedented summit of South Bend leaders on the issue of housing and homelessness on Friday, February 10. The event was held at the St. Joseph County Library in South Bend, although attendees and speakers came from locations across Indiana, including Bloomington, Lafayette, Indianapolis, and South Bend. 

The Klau Institute advertised the conference’s goal ​​as “deepen[ing] the conversation about affordable housing, particularly seen through the lens of ‘Housing First’ as a human right in service of the common good.” 

Through presentations, workshop sessions, and discussions, the conference created a space where South Bend leaders of organizations such as Our Lady of the Road, the South Bend Heritage Foundation, the South Bend Common Council, and the St. Peter Claver Catholic Worker Community could both network and analyze best practices for addressing housing insecurity and homelessness in the South Bend community. 

The event opened with a welcoming address from Prof. Margaret Pfeil of the Notre Dame Department of Theology and the Center for Social Concerns. After thanking the event cosponsors, Pfeil summarized the rationale for the conference by stating, “We strongly believe that housing is a human right and duty that serves the common good of civil society.” 

Her words echo the sentiments of Catholic Social Teaching, especially as expressed in a 1988 document from the USCCB which states,“The Church has traditionally viewed housing, not as a commodity, but as a basic human right. This conviction is grounded in our view of the human person and the responsibility of society to protect the life and dignity of every person by providing the conditions where human life and human dignity are not undermined, but enhanced.”

South Bend Mayor James Mueller addressed the attendees with a hopeful speech about the future of housing insecurity and homelessness in South Bend. He noted that “Housing First” is a “national best practice” and, therefore, established it as a preeminent principle in local housing conversations. Mayor Mueller, a Democrat, also emphasized that “compassion [is] a bipartisan principle that we need to return to” and affirmed that this issue spans across party lines. 

Mueller explained “Housing First” by stating, “We know we need to get folks out of emergency [situations] before we can deal with other issues.” Following the mayor’s remarks, Katrina Van Valkenbourgh of the Corporation for Supportive Housing elaborated upon how “Housing First” addresses housing and support through services while being financially less straining on communities than letting homelessness perpetuate. 

Valkenbourgh noted the economic strain of homelessness on communities since “[individuals experiencing homelessness] may have hit jail systems, they may have hit prison systems, they may have hit shelter systems … and the use of emergency rooms … They actually cost us a tremendous amount of money when we really track individual people and the way they cycle through systems.” 

The next speaker, Mary Morgan of Heading Home of South Central Indiana, declared that the goal of these organizations should be to make homelessness “rare, brief, and non-repeating.”

In addition to the Corporation for Supportive Housing, the South Bend Common Council, the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority, and the South Bend Housing Authority, the conference included speakers from specific community organizations that work to address homelessness in a more localized and concrete manner. Mike Perez, representing Faith Mission in Elkhart, and Jennifer Layton of LTHC Homeless Services in Lafayette both gave presentations about the specific ways in which their respective organizations approached homelessness through a lens of “Housing First.” 

Layton, who has worked at LTHC for 28 years, detailed how her organization moved from a “three hots and a cot” model of “managing homelessness” to creating a “community strategic plan” that focused on streamlining their community efforts into a “Housing First” action model. Describing “Housing First” as “new” and “revolutionary,” Layton states that before this program, the Department of Housing and Urban Development “had really embraced the transitional housing model. So, people needed to be ready to change. People had to be sober, they had to be clean … they had to get those ducks in a row before they were actually allowed permanent housing.”

Other speakers at the conference followed suit and highlighted the low-barrier model of housing that has become what Mueller termed “national best practice” and for which many programs such as South Bend’s Motels4Now are now advocating. This includes eliminating common barriers to housing such as sobriety tests, drug tests, use of profanity, and confiscation of possessions for the night in order to widen the net of those who could be sheltered. 

Layton was one of many speakers who spoke about the barriers that arise through the current organizational and logistical structures that are in place to systematize the issue of homelessness. These include the VI-SPDAT triage tool, the Homelessness Management Information System (HMIS), and the privacy concerns of HIPAA that can complicate timely care. 

The conference progressed to include workshop sessions with experts working in the fields of medical care, financing of homeless shelters, architectural perspectives on shelters, and next steps in terms of enacting permanent supportive housing for those who experience homelessness. 

Sharon McBride, President of the South Bend Common Council, closed the conference and further underscored the community focus of the issue of homelessness and the community nature of solutions. 

The Center for Social Concerns will be hosting its next Social Concerns Fair on February 20 with a focus on housing as a social issue. The event will feature community organizations such as Broadway Christian Parish, the Community Forum for Economic Justice, Hope Ministries, and the St. Peter Claver Catholic Worker. 

Mary Rice is a senior majoring in the Program of Liberal Studies and theology. As a local, her strongest recommendation is to bypass Starbucks pastries and head to Macri’s Italian Bakery for an M&M sugar cookie. Send ratings, reviews, and cookies to

Photo Credit: Our Lady of the Road