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People's Park petition illuminates many sides of homelessness



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After a petition that was brought about by IU senior Jo DiBenedetto, local restuarants and businesses as well as the homeless who sleep in People's Park shared their opinions about the petition. Now, students through IU Oxfam Club are using an online campaign to bring in donations of menstrual products for homeless women. Rebecca Mehling Buy Photos

Jo DiBenedetto heard another catcall, aimed at one of his female friends, coming from People’s Park. Then a barrage of blue and red lights illuminated DiBenedetto’s walk home from class. Later that night screaming from the park filtered into DiBenedetto’s room in his Kirkwood Avenue home.

This compelled him to attempt to effect the change he and his friends had discussed for years — finding a better place to live for the park’s homeless population.

In his sleeplessness, DiBenedetto, an IU senior, composed a change.org petition and posted it to the IU Class of 2017 Facebook page.

By afternoon, he said the petition was the talk of campus. He had received more than two dozen messages via text, email and Facebook.

Some shamed him. Others congratulated him.

“The police aren’t trying to help them,” DiBenedetto said in an interview with the Indiana Daily Student. “No one’s really trying to help them, so I was kind of hoping that people would help out, and this would try and get someone’s attention that’s way higher up than I ever will be.”

The petition portrayed a complex juxtaposition between two transient Bloomington populations: IU students who are in town for a few years of college and the homeless.

Some students and members of local businesses near the park argue that the homeless people commit crimes in and near People’s Park.

According to an Indiana Daily Student analysis of Bloomington Police Department crime logs, police officers make almost daily stops near the park.

DiBenedetto’s petition asserted the homeless “have decided to make this park their home, starting fights, doing drugs, setting one another’s belongings on fire, and causing raucous 24/7,” and asked the park return its “original value” by placing inhabitants in better homes.

However, homelessness is a complex issue, affecting real people in very different ways.

The petition, which received 673 supporters as of Monday evening, created a campus-wide discussion beyond the statistics and brought many nuanced perspectives into the spotlight.

***

On a Saturday in September, college students stuck their heads out of a pick-up truck.

“People’s Park!” they, laughing as they passed the park and the group of people gathered on the benches and around the tables, shouted out.

Leprechaun John shook his head and reached down to pet his dog, Missy, as she drank the water in the bowl on the ground.

Leprechaun John moved to Indiana from California in 1985 with his mother when he was 22 to find work. He worked around Indiana before he came to Bloomington to work for IU’s janitorial staff 5 years ago, when he said the University fired him due to consolidating janitorial work. He’s been homeless ever since.

“Usually I come to a different park than here,” John said. “There’s a lot of idiots that hang out here.”

Leprechaun John, 52, said this is not the first time People’s Park has been under attack. Local bars and business owners downtown, he said, have tried in the past with petitions of their own.

“If they wanna weed out all the disrespectful, rude people, I’m all game for that, but this is called People’s Park for a reason,” John said. “It’s for 
everybody.”

When a reporter told him about DiBenedetto’s petition, John said he understood the ideas but didn’t like being judged.

“I’d tell him to come out here and sleep where I sleep,” John said. “Walk a mile in my shoes before you judge me.”

***

Nick’s English Hut owners Susan Bright and Gregg Rago said the homeless create additional stress on the business. Managers have seen people shooting up on heroin in the alley behind Nick’s, and Rago said he regularly has to clean up human waste, used needles and bedding.

“If I wasn’t working here I don’t think I’d bring my family downtown,” Pete Mikolaitis, a Nick’s manager, said. “We want our employees and our customers to feel safe.”

Bright and Rago said they estimate they call BPD at least once a day because of disruption from the homeless panhandling customers or physically or verbally assaulting employees. Rago said there have been days where he has called five or six times.

The mayor and police chief encourage businesses to call 911 when any incidents occur so the calls can be logged and patrol staff can be adjusted to the locations with the most need, Rago said.

At Jimmy John’s, homeless people often come in and get free water cups, or buy the day-old bread for 51 cents. Manager Nathan Blye said he once saw a group of homeless people teaching a kid how to ride a bike in front of the store.

The disruption gets worse at night because more of the homeless are drunk, said Joe Gralak, a Jimmy John’s employee.

Once a homeless man came in with a cardboard box with holes in the bottom, Gralak said. He tried to fill up the box with ice, but water poured out everywhere and made a mess, but the man did not realize what was happening. He took the box outside and was arrested, Gralak said.

The biggest issues are drugs, particularly heroin and spice, a synthetic marijuana, and mental health, Rago said. He said many people who should be on medication are not.

“We can’t arrest ourselves out of the problem though,” he said.

***

It took 22 minutes for the first comment to appear on DiBenedetto’s Facebook post.

In the comment, Zane Naylor said he could not determine if the petition was intentional or satire. DiBenedetto replied about a half-hour later.

“Zane, this is a very serious petition,” he wrote. “If you, or anyone, has suggestions on how to word it better to make it feel less like satire, please feel free to let me know.”

Dialogue had set in by early afternoon, a matter of hours since the initial posting.

DiBenedetto said he didn’t expect the feedback, from love to hate and encouragement to shame, he received, but he welcomed it all.

One member of the Facebook group, Logan Calman, asked anyone “hating on jo” to direct message him.

“I will personally send you all the disturbing photos and videos I have seen first hand,” Calman wrote. “It may help you understand how serious this issue has become and make you rethink about signing that petition.”

To the sound of 59 likes and a substantial string of comments, Bloomington native Camilla Burrell suggested students forego signing the petition and instead volunteer at one of Bloomington’s shelters. In conjunction she posted a map of volunteer options.

“The homeless presence on Kirkwood is in no way new as it represents a symptom of a greater problem,” she typed. “I would also venture to bring up that most of the harassment I’ve experienced on Kirkwood is not from the homeless population but rather my peers.”

***

IU senior Sean Buehler sat in the Pourhouse Café, just blocks from People’s Park. As the clock struck 4:30 p.m., he posted a 498-word Facebook response to DiBenedetto’s 
petition.

“I do not wish to attack those who have supported the petition,” he typed. “Rather, I hope to provide some background information that may help frame your 
discernment.”

Having worked with Volunteers in Medicine of Monroe County, Shalom Community Center, Walnut Grove Apartments and the Hoosier Hills Food Bank, Buehler said he’s spent enough time with members of the homeless community to consider some of them dear friends.

He said Mayor John Hamilton is doing his best to address homelessness and the Community Justice and Mediation Center are making tangible headway, but there remains much to do.

Leprachaun John agreed Hamilton has been kinder to the homeless than past 
mayors.

“He was down here one day, and this lady I know talked to the mayor, and he was like, ‘Well, who can I buy some sandwiches for in this park?’” John said. “And he sent the secretary to get us goddang White Castles for us.”

Buehler closed his post: “In the meantime, examine how you, as a student of Indiana University and therefore a member of the greater Bloomington community, can do your part to better our city.”

According to Buehler, the University and its students don’t do enough for the homeless population.

“They don’t even look at them,” he said in an interview. “They just pretend that they’re invisible. For a human being, that’s very degrading and honestly causes some serious psychological problems.”

***

People’s Park has a rich Bloomington history and is the center core of IU and Bloomington’s downtown, Bloomington Parks and Recreation Development Director Dave Williams said.

While still an active downtown urban park, the park also faces the complexities of the homelessness problem, Williams said.

“We have had issues with homelessness in the park.” Williams said. “There are issues we’re working closely with social services that involved inappropriate behavior, illegal drug use. All those types of issues we’re engaged with.”

The homelessness problem in Bloomington has gotten worse, BPD Capt. Steve Kellams said.

“We’re down there a lot,” Kellams said.

BPD made 17 trips to People’s Park in the span of three weeks from September 3 to September 24. The calls ranged from mental health checks to criminal mischief.

It’s not safe to assume all of the calls were made on behalf of homeless-related criminal activity. Not all calls end in arrests. However, in that short time frame in September, police arrested those without a permanent home address — labeled in the logs as transient — 13 times.

A call for panhandling Thursday transitioned into public indecency when BPD’s Downtown Resource Officer Brett Rorem approached Paul McCown, 44, who was peeing into what residents of the park refer to as the pissing hole.

The hole is located at the northeast corner of People’s Park right next to Bicycle Garage Inc. Kellams said the employees of Bicycle Garage often call BPD about the problem.

Kellams said officers generally know the people who have caused trouble in the park before and that helped Rorem identify McCown.

He was later charged with public indecency and taken to jail.

***

Isaac Copeland, a homeless man who frequents the park, said People’s Park is a community where a give-and-take of resources occurs. He, petting dogs, sat on the benches facing the Kirkwood Avenue in the sun. People passing by glanced his way or ignored them all together.

“I’ve been here for like ever. I can’t think of how long it’s actually been,” Copeland said. “I was married at first and stuff, and I didn’t know there was a homeless population down here until me and my wife split up. But I been around here, seen a whole lot of crap.”

Copeland, along with friends, is a frequent visitor of the park. He said they had no idea a petition to get rid of them existed.

“The funny part is the person that started this petition ain’t even going to be here like that,” he said, “they’re just here for school, and after they do what they do here they’ll go back home.”

Data reporter James Benedict contributed reporting

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The petition, written by Jo DiBenedetto, portrayed a complex juxtaposition between two transient Bloomington populations: IU students who are in town for a few years of college and the homeless. Rebecca Mehling Buy Photos

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