City Council members, including Matt Flaherty and Kate Rosenbarger, tried to stop Bloomington Mayor John Hamilton from having the Seminary Park encampment dismantled in January. He did it anyway, and, in response, Flaherty and Rosenbarger decided to co-author an ordinance that would provide protections to Bloomington’s unhoused population.
The ordinance states the city can’t move people from public parks if not enough transitional or permanent housing is available, requires the city to provide at least a 15-day notice if they are to displace people and provides guidelines for how people’s property needs to be preserved if it is removed from a camp. Rosenbarger said the legislation is still being edited and she expects it won’t be introduced to the city council until at least mid-February.
“I think we feel strongly enough about this and feel that the city’s actions over the last few months have not been reflective of the values we have,” Flaherty said.
When the people experiencing homelessness were removed from Seminary Park on Jan. 14, the city claimed that there were enough beds to support the number of people staying in Seminary Park. However, some leaders of local non profit organizations said there was not enough staff to support those beds and claimed there were more unhoused people in the park than the city had counted.
Emergency shelter space would not fill the housing requirement outlined in the ordinance, Flaherty said. The types of housing that would are transitional housing, such as Middle Way House, and enough affordable housing for those living in poverty.
Flaherty said the people staying in the parks and all organizations under the South Central Housing Network, such the United Way, would be informed at least 15 days before an eviction under this ordinance. It was important to include the 15-day notice in the legislation because there was not enough warning given to the people experiencing homelessness in Seminary Park both times they were evicted from the space, he said.
On Jan. 14, the people in the park were given a notice less than 24-hours before BPD personnel cleared out their belongings. However, they knew the city would start enforcing the rule which required people staying in the park from 11p.m. to 5 a.m. to have a permit on Jan. 11.
“This would ensure that all relevant service providers under the housing network are alerted with plenty of time for them to help,” he said.
Rosenbarger said some of the ordinance’s required protections for property taken during an eviction include finding and taking care of items such as medicine and heaters, keeping each displaced person’s items in a 96-gallon container for at least 60 days.
The legislation also includes two sections that have been added in response to feedback from department heads, the mayor’s office and some constituents. One section allows for government entities that own land not classified as a public park to grant permission for people to use the land under the rules outlined in the ordinance.The other section would allow the city to designate certain areas for unhoused people to stay on, which have to include adequate space, proximity to restrooms and walking distance to essential social services. If the second section is adopted, the requirements in the ordinance would only apply to those areas and not all public parks, Flaherty said.
Flaherty said he and Rosenbarger are still getting feedback on the document and it is not final.
Rosenbarger said she would not expect the legislation to be introduced to the council until mid-February or later. After it is introduced, the council would vote on whether to adopt it into city code about four to six weeks later. She said while the issues included in the ordinance have urgency, the council needs to follow the legislative process, which can take time.
Rosenbarger said the legislation was modeled after an Indianapolis ordinance that passed by a vote of 23-2 in 2016. She said the main difference between the documents is that the Indianapolis legislation indicates the city can’t move people from public property if not enough housing is available. The Bloomington document is limited to public parks or greenspaces. Rosenbarger said the term “public property” is too broad and has been hard to regulate.
She said she hopes the ordinance passes through the city council easily, like in Indianapolis. However, she said it too soon to tell. She said she believes there are some areas in the document that can be compromised, such as the type of housing that must be available, in order to get the ordinance approved.
“I’m hopeful that we can get something passed,” she said. “It really is about compromise.”
Following the dismantling of the Seminary park homeless encampment Dec. 9, local advocate Vauhxx Booker said he sent Flaherty, Rosenbarger and the other city council members the Indianapolis ordinance and the unhoused bill of rights, a document he authored outlining some protections and resources people experiencing homelessness should have a right to access. Booker has continued to provide feedback to city councilors on the ordinance and is optimistic about what the legislation could do if it is passed.
“We need to understand that we are not disconnected from our neighbors,” he said. “Hopefully, we can be a compassionate community that makes sure that we’re working for the best interests of everyone in our community.”
Booker said he sent this information to the council because he sees that his neighbors are hurting.
“The most important thing is for them to be seen and not forgotten,” he said.