GOSHEN — A group formed to address the growing homeless population in Goshen expects to have a plan in the next few weeks.
The city formed a task force to develop what the mayor's office calls a short-term solution to the homeless encampment along the Millrace trail and canal. The tents that have been set up along the treeline near the Hawks apartment building, along with some accompanying campfires and noise, have drawn complaints in recent weeks from residents and trail users.
"We've seen a dramatic increase in the homeless population in Goshen over the last four to five weeks here, and the police department and my office are receiving more complaints," Mayor Jeremy Stutsman said earlier this month. "Some of those complaints are perceived issues, some of them are actual issues that have arisen."
The city's task force held its first meeting Tuesday. It includes city department staff, three city council members and nonprofit agencies that work directly with the homeless population, as well as a number of neighboring residents and business owners.
The group is looking at all options, according to the announcement from the mayor's office, since allowing a permanent encampment near the canal isn't considered a solution. It's expected to come up with a step-by-step plan in the next couple of weeks, which will serve as a guide for the mayor and city departments in addressing the homeless population.
"We want to make sure we do what we can to help the homeless, but at the same time we have to do what's right for the community as well," Stutsman said. "This task force will be looking at all of our options and helping me to decide what that correct path forward is. We have not made any decisions yet of how we're gonna move forward, but that's what we need to discuss."
The issue was brought up at the April 9 city council meeting by a resident of the Hawks, and it was expected to receive further discussion at Tuesday's meeting.
'Just made it through winter'
The task force is separate from a group that is looking at longer-term housing issues in the city. Councilwoman Julia King, a member of the housing committee, said her group is looking at what kind of policies other communities have set in terms of affordable housing and what might work in Goshen.
"We're looking at what we can do locally and what's within our grasp," she said. "Most things are on the table for discussion right now."
Stutsman said he believes many of the homeless people who have come to Goshen this year were drawn in from nearby cities, including Elkhart and South Bend, based on conversations he's had and information from the Window and the Interfaith Hospitality Network.
In January, Interfaith opened an overnight shelter for men and women at 105 S. Third St., which operated when the temperature dipped below 20 degrees. Elkhart County Clubhouse, Oaklawn Psychiatric Center, Faith Mission, GIHN and the Window took turns providing staff and volunteers to greet people as they came in and to look over the shelter.
"We worked really, really hard to do all we could last winter for the homeless population here in Goshen, and just made it through the winter. With the help of Interfaith and other entities, we were able to supply the facilities needed," Stutsman said. "We did an awful lot for the homeless community last year and there was a lot of attention to that, I'm sure people heard about it, and everybody wants to be in a town that's gonna take care of you."
But he expressed a fear that the city won't be able to serve a larger population this winter.
"I can tell you we don't have the ability at this point to increase that homeless population in Goshen, and we won't have those facilities to be able to get everybody inside next winter, if the population's this large," he said. "I would love to be able to say we'll take care of all the homeless, but we're struggling with our own population. I don't know how we start fitting in other communities' homeless population into our struggles right now. So we have a lot of work and a lot of discussions to get through."