The people inhabiting Seminary Park and the items they have with them, including heaters, blankets, food and tents, remain in Seminary Park Tuesday morning, despite the City of Bloomington’s claim that they would be removed after 11 p.m. Monday night.
The city ended a month-long suspension of a rule requiring anyone staying in the park between 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. to have a special use permit Monday night. The rule was initially suspended in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Beverly Calender-Anderson, director of Bloomington’s Community and Family Resources Department, said Tuesday morning the rule is no longer suspended, even though the U.S. had more than 300,000 cases in one day Jan. 8.
Mary Catherine Carmichael, Bloomington’s director of public engagement, said in an email Tuesday morning that the city is, “staying with our announced timeline of ‘on or about January 11.’” This means that the city will start regularly asking people to leave the park if they stay past 11 p.m.
But, as of 1 p.m. Tuesday, the tents still stood in the park and close to the sidewalks along South College Avenue and South Walnut Street, which border the park.
Ryan Pedigo, Bloomington Police Department’s public information officer, said in an email that all questions regarding Seminary Park would need to be addressed by the Office of the Mayor. He did not address questions relating to why BPD personnel did not evict those in the park and move their items to a parks and recreation facility, which was the initial plan.
Bloomington Homeless Coalition board members and volunteers, such as Molly Stewart, were at the park Monday night to provide support to people experiencing homelessness and help them if BPD personnel moved their items. Stewart said BHC and other organizations were working Monday on different efforts to stop the eviction.
BHC created an online petition to ask Bloomington Mayor John Hamilton to allow those living in the park to stay for the duration of the pandemic. Beacon, an organization that oversees programs to provide resources to people facing poverty in Monroe County, released a statement asking Hamilton to establish an immediate moratorium on evictions based on the alleged violations of the 8th amendment and the fact that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends leaving encampments like Seminary Park’s alone.
Aries, a man who has been unhoused for about 12 years, moved to the park about two weeks ago. He said he is receiving more help, food and supplies this year in Seminary Park than he ever has. This is the first year he has ever celebrated Christmas and he attributed that to the community in the park and the volunteers who have visited and donated items and food.
“This winter has been the winter for homeless. You know why? People give a fuck if they can see you,” Aries said. “If you’re asleep under their staircase, they just call the cops.”
He said because he’s been staying at Seminary Park, he was able to get a job moving large equipment for the owner of Japonee. Because he has a tent, he said he is able to have somewhere safe to sleep and a place to shave his face and get cleaned up for his job.
He said he had to leave early from his job Monday because he heard people were possibly going to take his tent away, which would have meant another night sleeping under a staircase on Kirkwood Avenue.
Carmichael said the city is returning to enforcing the special use permit rule because they want to encourage people to seek shelter due to the recent cold temperatures. Calender-Anderson said based on a recent census, there are fewer people in the park, indicating that at least some have found shelter.
Although the CDC recommends not moving these encampments, Carmichael said people possibly freezing to death is more of an issue than COVID-19. There have only been five recorded cases of COVID-19 in local shelters, and following a recent rapid test conducted by Beacon, none of the 23 people tested were positive, she said.
Calender-Anderson said based on numbers collected by Centerstone and Wheeler Mission, there are enough beds to support the people who have been staying in the park.
A statement released by the Office of the Mayor Monday on its Facebook page said a census taken Sunday night in Seminary Park indicated about 15-20 people were staying in the area. The same statement said more than 60 beds were available to those experiencing homelessness in the area shelters, including more than 30 at the Wheeler Mission men’s shelter and 35 at the Winter Contingency Shelter for Women.
“While availability varies from night to night, our shelters consistently report ample vacancies at their facilities,” the statement said.
However, the statement released by Beacon said a survey conducted by its outreach team found 38 were sleeping in the park and estimated about 20-25 people are sleeping in other camps. It also said there are many people who are sleeping in vehicles.
“With Friend's Place at capacity and Wheeler Mission near capacity, forcing people to vacate Seminary Park will cause them to retreat to more distant, hidden, and unsafe locations, further away from the services they need,” Beacon’s Facebook post said.
Aries said some people in the park do not want to go to local shelters because of personal reasons such as religious differences with the shelter management or issues with people working at the facilities. He said he doesn’t want to go to a shelter because he shares a sense of community with the other people at Seminary Park.
“Here we have community,” he said. “We have safety in numbers. We have people that got our backs.”
Stewart said BHC has worked hard to get people supplies to keep them warm for the winter, such as tents and heaters, and she feels the city should leave the homeless encampment in the park alone for now.
“We’re trying to make this winter livable, and it’s like the city could just leave us alone and we could all survive it and then try to fix it for next year,” she said.
Aries said he believes the city should wait until it starts to get warmer to make people leave the park because it is easier to survive without a tent in the spring.
“But, in winter, it’s death,” he said. “It’s death.”