Niles City Council approves land purchase, aid for homeless

Published 8:41 am Wednesday, September 30, 2020

NILES — Two projects were greenlit at the Niles City Council meeting Monday evening.

Niles City Council members moved to approve the purchase of 45 acres of land on Monday evening at the cost of $748,000. Members also approved an amendment to the Community Development Block Grant program year 2019 annual action plan in response to COVID-19, utilizing Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act Funding with the homeless and those in danger of eviction in mind.

During the regular, remote Monday night Niles City Council meeting, a closed session was hosted for more than 30 minutes, leaving attendees on mute during a Zoom meeting while council members and city staff attended a separate Zoom meeting.

Upon returning from the closed meeting to the city council meeting, City Utilities Manager Jeff Dunlap read two additional actions for approval on the agenda.

The first item sought council approval for the purchase of a 30-acre parcel of land for $598,000, plus closing costs. The second item sought council approval to purchase 15 acres of land for $150,000.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for the city, if only for the future use for new wellfields,” said council member John DiCostanzo. “The benefits we’ll derive from it advancing and saving money on the dam removal are a plus.”

In council member Jessica Nelson’s notes from the meeting, Nelson noted the first 30 acres of land purchased are “adjacent to the Pucker Street Dam,” and the 15 acres of land are “near Pucker Street Dam.”

The city declined to provide further comment on the sale as of press time.

Another allocation in the meeting steered council members toward helping resolve some of the issues surrounding homelessness in the community.

The CDGB PY2019 annual action plan in response to the novel coronavirus drew discussion between council members on priorities and allocations of funding for the homeless.

The amendment sought to reallocate $80,000 from Public Services-Coronavirus and Utility Assistance to Economic Development-Coronavirus funds, with the intention to support small businesses downtown with loans or grants depending on the Department of Housing and Urban Development Community Development Block Grant and CARES Act requirements.

The amendment also included additional funding to utility assistance, $1,000; public services-coronavirus and eviction diversion, $16,000; public services-coronavirus and homeless assistance, $16,501; and public services-coronavirus homeless food program, $25,000.

The amendment was voted seven to one, with council member DiCostanzo opposing the amendment.

“I see now as we are trying to improve [the homeless populations’] conditions, it seems to be attracting more homeless,” DiCostanzo said. “I would prefer that we do not use these funds for the homeless. I prefer we use these funds for people in our community, living in our community for some period of time who need help because of COVID-19. I would prefer it if we could find a better way to spend this money on folks in our community who need it more and deserve it more than people coming from the outside and camping in the park.”

Council member Nelson responded in opposition of DiCostanzo’s remarks.

“I would like to take a softer approach, in that they are humans,” Nelson said. “No matter what their situations are, it’s a sensitive, opinionated and divisive issue. I don’t think there’s a magic answer to it.”

Nelson referenced the discussion the council had on Sept. 14 during its meeting of the whole about Riverfront Park.

“From my understanding, the goal is to keep people in their homes so they don’t become homeless,” Nelson said.

A portion of the money will be used to provide one hot meal a week and a port-a-potty, said Nelson, referencing discussion to a former committee of the whole meeting discussion.

“I think those are very minimal things to help humans who are dealing with the disease of addictions and trauma that has presented in their lives,” she said.

Nelson acknowledged numbers sent out to the council members prior to the meeting.

“We had four [homeless persons]. Now we have eight,” Nelson said. “I don’t think that will be unique to Niles. We are living in a pandemic that has a real impact on people.”

Council member Charlie McAfee said her perspective on how people become homeless has recently shifted. Council member Georgia Boggs agreed.

“We are sending more homeless people to South Bend and Benton Harbor,” she said. “Not everybody has mental problems. They’re just having a streak of bad luck. We need to look at that a little closer to people who need that hand up, rather than a handout.”