The Bloomington Police Department will remove the personal items of people staying in Seminary Park past 11 p.m. Monday and the people will be asked to leave. This is the second eviction in the park in five weeks, despite the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation against the removal of encampments.
The camp was cleared out Dec. 9 when BPD personnel enforced an overnight park use policy. People were given information for local services but few used them. After personal items left in the park were returned by the city, many found their items damaged.
Some, including Bloomington Homeless Coalition board member Marc Teller, blame the city’s anti-homeless policies in part for the death of one person experiencing homelessness on Dec. 24.
Bloomington requires a special use permit for all people who have a tent set up in the park from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. The rule has been in place since April 2013, according to a statement from the city. Items cannot be left along the sidewalks along South College Avenue and South Walnut Street, which border the park.
After Monday, Bloomington will return to continuously enforce the permit rule and not allow any items in the public rights-of-way, said Beverly Calender-Anderson, director of Bloomington’s Community and Family Resources Department. She said the city has to enforce this rule to maintain the park and keep people out of public rights-of-way.
“This is not punitive,” Calender-Anderson said. “These guidelines and these rules have always been in place, but it’s more a health and safety issue. It is not a safe space for people to be on the right-of-way.”
The COVID-19 pandemic caused shelters to reduce their capacity, forcing people out. The rules regarding Seminary Park and the sidewalks were suspended for a few months to prevent spread.
This past Wednesday, the positivity rate for COVID-19 testing in Indiana was 16.3%. It was 15.8% on Dec. 29. About 2,800 Hoosiers are currently hospitalized with COVID-19 and about 350 are admitted every day, according to Dr. Kristina Box, Indiana’s state health commissioner.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended against breaking up homeless camps to limit the spread of COVID-19. If individual housing options are not available, the CDC recommends allowing people who are unsheltered to stay where they are. Clearing encampments could cause people to disperse throughout the community and increase the potential spread of COVID-19.
Mary Catherine Carmichael, Bloomington’s director of public engagement, said the city decided to begin enforcing the rule in Seminary Park again because of the low number of cases recorded in the encampment and because of the dropping temperatures. There have only been five recorded cases in local shelters, and following a recent rapid test conducted by Beacon, none of the 23 people who were tested were positive, she said.
Carmichael said based on these numbers, people possibly freezing to death is more of a concern than people getting COVID-19.
“We feel that the threat of cold-related illness or injury is greater than the threat of coronavirus in this climate,” she said. “If we were in San Diego, it might be a different story, but we are in the middle of a Midwestern winter.”
Teller said the city shouldn’t force people out of the park because there aren’t enough places for them to go.
“When the city says that we have beds for these people, they have beds, but these people aren’t welcome to use them,” Teller said, referencing the different requirements some shelters have. “Not all of them.”
BHC created an online petition to ask Bloomington Mayor John Hamilton to not have BPD remove items and to allow those living in the park to stay for the duration of the pandemic. About 1,500 individuals had signed the petition as of Sunday.
BHC and other protesters also gathered Dec. 11 outside the courthouse to speak about their experiences and to ask for the cease of removals from Seminary Park.
Greg May, Centerstone administrative director of adult and family services, said this year there are more people experiencing homelessness who are camping outside. He said this could be because of the pandemic and also because communities do not have as many resources to give those experiencing homelessness.
While Monroe County organizations have enough beds for emergency shelter for people experiencing homelessness, May said there aren’t enough staff to support all of the beds, and some people don’t have access because of shelters’ barriers or requirements. Some of these requirements include sobriety or government-issued identification.
Wheeler Mission Ministries had to temporarily close its women’s emergency shelter in July due to lack of funds, director of advancement Chris-Michael Morrison said. The shelter, which has 40 beds, reopened mid-December and is now serving 10 women.
Morrison said there are enough beds for emergency shelter, but there are not enough long-term living situations available to people facing poverty in Bloomington.
The first time BPD returned to enforce the 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. permit rule and dismantled the homeless encampment in Seminary Park was on Dec. 9. It took place the day after the Board of Park Commissioners voted against a policy change that would have prohibited camps on any city structure or property during the day without a permit.
Carmichael said community service providers said they and the people in the park had not been given enough warning to vacate before Dec. 9. The city informed those doing community outreach they would return to enforcing the rules Dec. 21, 2020. They also passed out flyers with the date to downtown resource officers a few weeks ago and put up signs in the park Jan. 4.
If people don’t find shelter, people experiencing homelessness may disperse throughout the city. It will then be harder to find and distribute resources to them, May said.
“The advantage of being in Seminary or being in a group is you know where people are,” he said.
May said the Centerstone outreach team has been connecting people staying in Seminary Park with shelter information and resources and distributing supplies such as tents and food to help people survive outside. Wheeler Mission staff are also attempting to find people shelter before Monday, Morrison said.
Carmichael said the city hopes people find shelter by Monday because they don’t want anyone to have to stay outside in the cold. She said the city has been partnering with organizations that help provide services to the homeless community to help people experiencing homelessnes find housing.
“We think people deserve better than being in a tent in an Indiana winter, when we know that before long it’s going to be subzero temperatures,” she said.
The city recently partnered with Monroe County to help fund the Winter Contingency Shelter for Women. The city also partnered with Cornerstone to help them with their permanent housing project, which will offer 62 beds for people with substance use disorders and is set to open in early February. Calender-Anderson said about 12 people staying Seminary Park are expected to move into the Centerstone facility.
People living in the park are not happy, Teller said. He said some want to fight “the man,” some want to move on and others don’t know where to go.
“None of them feel like this city welcomes them,” Teller said. “They’re on the verge of just giving up on life because they’re just being dejected and thrown away, like a piece of trash.”