In Peoples Park, dozens of people sat on broken tables, concrete ground and along the brick wall. Some people chatted, and some smoked. Not everyone who spends time in the park is homeless, but the nervous stares from the sidewalk don’t discriminate.
At the corner of the park there was a commotion. A young man in an IU jersey was screaming and pushed another man into the raised planter at the corner of Dunn Street and Kirkwood Avenue. It was IU’s Homecoming, one of the rowdiest nights of the year.
“I’ll fuck this kid up,” said the man, slurring and stumbling with his fist raised high in the air.
Several men from the park rushed over to separate the two young men.
“Hey, it’s not worth it,” some of the homeless men said. “This isn’t the right guy.”
Finally, when the fight broke up, one of the men walked back to the park. His friends call him Beads. He’s 39, and almost no one knows his real name. Beads is the first to say he’s not homeless. He’s houseless, but he’s still the guy the others look to to speak on their behalf, to represent their loose, often-pitied, often-reviled little community on the busiest corner in town.
Three police cars were parked on the street. Their red, white and blue lights illuminated his face in the darkness.
“It’s OK for that to happen, but if that was two of us, they would have taken the whole park to jail,” Beads said.
Across the street, the line outside of Kilroy’s Bar N’ Grill grew underneath the yellow haze of the streetlights, illuminating a sea of cream and crimson. Inside, IU’s Homecoming game against Nebraska was playing on dozens of televisions.
In the park, Beads pulled two things — a small flashlight and a folded copy of the Indiana Daily Student — out of his backpack.
He spread the newspaper’s front page on the concrete and squatted next to it, the flashlight shone onto the headline: Community discusses discrimination of homeless people.
The article was about how Peoples Park had been the center of controversy after a petition on change.org called for the removal of homeless people from the park.
“Over the past several years, 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,” the petition on change.org said. “It is time for an END to People’s Park being a home for the homeless.”
As he peered down at his annotated copy of the article, Beads read aloud a quote from one of his friends.
“We don’t have money. We don’t pass go, we go to jail.”
While Beads looked over the IDS, IU senior Joe DiBenedetto was at Nick’s English Hut with a few friends from out of town. They spent their Homecoming night enjoying a few drinks in what DiBenedetto said was a quiet night.
DiBenedetto posted the change.org petition after what he described as an unsettling evening.
One night at Kilroy’s, he saw a woman beat a man unconscious in Peoples Park, he said. The same night, around midnight, he heard screaming from the park through the closed window of his Kirkwood apartment.
DiBenedetto received a flood of messages since he posted the petition.
Some comments asked why he deserves to speak on this issue. He isn’t even a Hoosier, they said.
Others praised his petition and said the park was a safety concern for the students at the bars. Another post said “Make Peoples Park Great Again.”
DiBenedetto said people didn’t understand the message he was trying to get across.
“Five years from now, I would love to see a brand new building from tax dollars for the homeless and less fortunate,” DiBenedetto said. “A pillow to sleep on, a bed to sleep on and a roof over their heads.”
Still, DiBenedetto said he is not comfortable walking through the park, “When I’m walking past it and see needles and fights going on, it’s not an area where people would feel comfortable walking through.”
In another IDS article from Oct. 3, a local homeless man called Leprechaun John was quoted in his response to DiBenedetto’s petition.
“I’d tell him to come out here and sleep where I sleep,” he said.
Midnight came and went, and there were only 15 people left in the park.
Beads is a short guy, with piercings on both eyebrows and his hair pulled into a low ponytail. His T-shirt said “Life is Good.”
It was calm. People sat together with friends. Missy and Bear — two dogs — wandered around sniffing bags and peeing in the grass.
On most nights, anyone in the park past 11 p.m. would have been kicked out, but on Homecoming weekend, police were busy with bar fights and thefts.
Hunched over a piece of cardboard on a table, Beads worked on a sign for one of his friends. He carefully outlined the letters to give them a three-dimensional effect — like a marquee sign — and added fireworks and stars.
“Homeless and Anything Helps,” the sign read.
Beads ran off to give the piece of cardboard to his friend and proceeded to gather miscellaneous bottles and cardboard that was left behind that day.
It’s important to keep the park clean so they won’t be known as the dirty bums, he said. Most people in the park acknowledge trash is a problem. Beads seemed to be the only person who does anything about it.
A police car rolled south down Dunn Street. A voice hollered from the car.
“Hey, guys, park’s closed.”
Beads gestured to the opposite side of the street, “Partying, fighting and drunkenness,” and then back toward the park, “or this.”
On Oct. 15 in Peoples Park, there were no needles in sight. One fight almost broke out but not quite. Some older men drank cheap vodka and sang along to Kid Rock’s “Only God Knows Why.”
However, to deny criminal activity in the park would be a mistake.
In October, 15 transient people were arrested in Peoples Park and the surrounding areas. Most arrests were for nuisance crimes such as public intoxication, but there were serious crimes as well, such as domestic battery and theft. Also, the police cite needles as an increasing issue in the park.
Bloomington Police Department Capt. Steve Kellams said the transient population probably doesn’t commit more crimes than the average population; rather, it’s specific people who repeatedly cause issues.
Since April 2014, direct resource officers — sometimes called “white shirts” for their distinct uniforms — have worked specifically with the homeless community.
“Arresting these people is not the cure,” Brett Rorem, a direct resource officer, said.
Rorem said he recognizes the persistent problems — addiction to drugs and alcohol, syringes left in public spaces and aggressive panhandling — within the community. DROs won’t hesitate to arrest when necessary but they find working with, instead of against, the homeless has been much more effective, Rorem said.
“They’re people just like us,” Rorem said. “You get a lot further with sugar than vinegar.”
At about 1 a.m., Beads and two other people from the park crossed Kirkwood.
“Now you’re in the war zone,” Beads said.
From the Upstairs Pub and Kilroy’s, people spilled into the street. Groups of girls and guys headed toward the bars and made their way across the trash-strewn sidewalk. One of the trash cans was pulled open — styrofoam Z&C boxes littered the street.
Beads and his friend Daniel Floyd, 38, sat on a bench in front of Z&C. Beads wore a 5-gallon water jug suited up with straps like a backpack. A sign taped to it read, “donations for the homeless.”
Floyd is tall and skinny with watchful eyes but has a playful demeanor. He likes to say he has “Forrest-Gumped” his way through life.
“Happy Arbor Day,” Floyd said as people passed him. Arbor Day is in April, but he likes to see them laugh.
Some students gave him a thumbs up; some looked confused. He threw his hand up to high-five a group of girls. They stared and walked under his outstretched hand.
The key is a hustle — not asking for money, but making people laugh and recognize you so next time they might give you a couple dollars or some food, he said.
“I’m more in it for the interaction, so they won’t see us like we’re animals,” Floyd said.
Beads was sitting on a bench in front of Z&C when a group of men from the bars asked if he could find them cocaine or heroin.
He told them no, he couldn’t, as if the daily temptation to fall back into addiction wasn’t enough already, he said.
“What about me makes me look like I do drugs?” Beads asked.
As the bars closed and people rushed onto the streets, it was prime time to score a bit of cash.
Daniel and Beads kept up their joking act when two men wearing Nebraska T-shirts approached them. One was scrawny with a busted eyebrow and black eye. The other was tall and meaty. They were both drunk, but the bigger man was looking for a fight.
He yelled inches from Beads’ face and spewed spit all over him.
“You don’t even have a phone,” he said. “You’re too poor, pussy.”
He pulled off his shirt and belt and exposed his bloated stomach. The man held his belt in hand like a whip.
Bystanders pulled out cellphones and took videos. The man tossed the belt to the ground.
He was practically incoherent as he rambled on about being a man of God, then later called himself an atheist. He said he spent time in jail but couldn’t name the institution. Finally, he accused Beads of being a sex offender.
Bystanders warned the Nebraska man to leave before he was arrested. Eventually, he did.
Beads doesn’t smoke — he turned down cigarettes all evening — but he lit one as he pleaded with Floyd to step back. A fight wasn’t worth going to jail over.
“We are on skid row,” Floyd said. “This is what you gotta deal with at the end of the night.”
It was 5 a.m., and the only reminder of a crowd was a street littered with bottles, cigarettes and the remnants of grilled cheese sandwiches.
Some homeless men and women gathered outside of the Big Cheese — a ritual on the weekends — to receive the leftovers at the end of the night.
Beads, broom in hand, swept the corner of Dunn and Kirkwood and put the trash in the Big Cheese’s dumpster.
He wanted to help the guys at the Big Cheese because they help them.
Finally, he snacked on leftover french fries as the night came to an end. Beads and Floyd would catch a few hours of sleep wherever they could find it. In a few hours, they would get breakfast at one of the local churches.
Before walking away, Beads turned.
“Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters,” he said, reciting Hebrews 13:1-3 from memory. “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing, some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.”
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