The Bloomington Board of Park Commissioners struck down a policy change that would have prohibited encampments on any city structure or property any time of the day without a permit.
About 230 people were on the Tuesday evening Zoom call at one point in the meeting. After almost two hours of public comments critical of the policy change and its effect on the homeless community — some from leaders of the Bloomington Homeless Coalition, Hotels for Homeless and Monroe County Affordable Housing Commission — the board voted 1-3 against it. Board members Kathleen Mills, Ellen Rodkey and Israel Herrera voted no. Les Coyne was the sole member in favor of the change.
The policy that overnight encampments require a permit still stands, though.
At least three members of the public expressed support for the policy change using Zoom’s chat function but didn’t make public comments. Throughout multiple messages, one of them cited concerns about safety and cleanliness and promoted the idea that homelessness is a choice.
The city administration and Parks and Recreation Department were also in favor of the policy change, stating in a press release that semipermanent structures “can limit and/or discourage access” to park properties for “a broad range of users.”
A public commenter by the screen name Eli disagreed with the idea that homeless encampments prevent people from going to the parks. He said he thinks people are more likely to go to Bryan Park, the Cedars Preserve, Griffy Lake or Monroe Lake for outdoor recreation, as opposed to Seminary Square Park where many homeless people congregate throughout the day.
“They’re not likely to go to a small strip of landscaping between College and Walnut just so they can take in that glorious Kroger view,” Eli said.
Many community members said the policy change reflected leaders’ lack of empathy for homeless people.
“I’ve watched the city and its various institutional arms treat the homeless population in the most disrespectful and dehumanizing ways,” Bloomington resident Jerrett Alexander said in a public comment. “I’ve seen homeless people herded from one part to another as if they’re livestock in order to get them away from the university and as far away from the university in Kirkwood as possible.”
Forrest Gilmore is the executive director of Beacon, the parent organization for the Shalom Community Center day shelter and A Friend’s Place night shelter. He said in a public comment that the policy change was an attempt to fight the poor rather than fighting the issue of poverty.
Multiple public commenters referenced the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidance on how to handle homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“If individual housing options are not available, allow people who are living unsheltered or in encampments to remain where they are,” reads one of the suggestions. “Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers. This increases the potential for infectious disease spread.”
Bloomington resident Melanie Davis, who said she previously experienced homelessness in Indianapolis, said Bloomington’s response to homelessness has been lacking no matter the time of the year.
“This isn’t about just the time of the pandemic, this isn’t about just winter or Christmas,” Davis said. “This is a question of responsibility to our fellow citizens.”
A few community members spoke about Ian Stark, a homeless man who was found dead in an apartment complex stairwell in December of 2013, according to the Herald-Times.
Alessia Modjarrad, College Democrats of Indiana president, said she notices an “us versus them” dichotomy in discussions about homelessness.
“We’re acting as though they are some piece of dirt on our beautiful little town and that they are other, and they’re not us and they're them,” she said. “I want everyone here to remember that we’re all a lot closer to being homeless than we are to being rich.”
Many public commenters used the words “villainous,” “immoral” or “cruel” to describe the policy change.
“I’m just really ashamed that this is even up for debate, it almost feels like a ‘Parks and Rec’ episode,” Bloomington resident Savannah Pearlman said. “If it weren’t so tragic it would be laughable.”
Some said rejecting the policy change was the least the board could do.
“I think it’s time to think about the next step, and that next step is explicitly allowing tents in our parks, maybe only temporarily, maybe only until we come up with some other resources, but certainly right now,” community member Martin Law said.
Editor's note: Jerrett Alexander has previously worked for the IDS opinion desk.