Two people experiencing homelessness in Bloomington died within two days of each other in late December. Community members say the city’s anti-homeless policies contributed to at least one of the deaths.
Iva Chatten, 49, died Dec. 23 in IU Health Bloomington Hospital after she was hit by a car Dec. 21. JT, 51, died Dec. 24 in Seminary Park. Several people who regularly stay in the park said they believed JT froze to death.
Marc Teller, a Bloomington Homeless Coalition board member, said he holds the city responsible for JT’s death because he had a tent before the Bloomington police officers and non-sworn personnel cleared out the homeless encampment in Seminary park on Dec. 9.
The Board of Park Commissioners had voted Dec. 8 against a policy change that would have prohibited camps on any city structure or property any time of the day without a permit. However, encampments standing from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. still require a permit, according to a statement from the city. BPD removed people’s belongings from Seminary Park the day after the policy failed to pass.
Beverly Calender-Anderson, director of Bloomington’s Community and Family Resources Department, said she didn’t know whether JT had a tent before the camp was cleared. She also said she has a record of BPD downtown resource officers and a community member attempting to help JT on Dec. 24 and documentation of other members of the homeless community offering to let him stay in their tent that night.
Calender-Anderson called JT’s death a tragic loss for the community.
Tammie Clark-Meek, a Bloomington Homeless Coalition board member, said she had also heard JT had refused help from police and turned down offers to sleep in other people’s tents. However, she said she wishes the police had done more to help.
Beacon executive director Forrest Gilmore, said it is not normal for two people in the Bloomington homeless community to die so closely together. Beacon is an organization that oversees programs such as the Shalom Community Center to provide resources to people facing poverty in Monroe County.
Gilmore, who has worked at Beacon for almost 11 years, said he believes these deaths happening so close together made them even more painful for those in the community.
“Every death of someone who is close strikes people particularly hard,” he said. “But having two at once is a particularly overwhelming experience of loss.”
Gilmore said both Chatten and JT had experienced long-term homelessness and were well-known in Bloomington’s homeless community. Chatten had just moved into housing, and JT was weeks away from moving into housing, Gilmore said.
Gilmore said he and the staff at Beacon were extremely saddened by the loss of two people they had worked to help for years.
“I think it’s particularly painful when you support people for so long and they are finally close to getting a better life and unfortunately tragedy strikes,” he said.
Teller said morale in the homeless community decreased following these deaths.
“They’re devastated, and they’re scared that they’re the next ones,” Teller said. “They know what could happen. They’ve seen it. It’s right there in front of them and it’s fresh.”
When he found out about JT, Teller and other members of the Bloomington Homeless Coalition worked with Hotels for Homeless to help put some of the man’s friends into hotels at least for the night. Hotels for Homeless helped more than 150 unhoused people into 105 hotel rooms on Dec. 24, according to a post on its Facebook page.
Teller said since the deaths, the Bloomington Homeless Coalition has seen an increase in volunteers and donations.
Calender-Anderson said the city has been working tirelessly to address the issue of homelessness. She said the city is looking into sources of homelessness, such as health issues or loss of a job, to find short-term and long-term solutions.
Teller said many people experiencing homelessness had belongings damaged when Bloomington police officers cleared the homeless camp and moved the items to a parks and recreation building. While they were able to reclaim their belongings, they had to call to schedule a time to pick them up, which Teller said was difficult because many didn’t have cell phones. It took about 24 hours for everyone to retrieve the items that weren’t broken, he said.
Many of their tents were damaged beyond repair and needed to be replaced, Teller said. Tents are especially important to unhoused people during the winter because they provide shelter from the cold temperatures, which can be dangerously low at night.
BPD is set to remove belongings from Seminary Park again on Jan. 11. Gilmore said Beacon is calling for a moratorium, or a suspension, on the overnight rule in the parks to prevent it. If the city follows through with the removal of the people in the park, they will just move to other areas of the city and become more spread out, he said. This would make it harder for organizations such as Beacon to help them.
Gilmore said it’s important that the city help address the core issue, which is a lack of affordable housing available for those experiencing poverty. While resources are being allocated now to address certain smaller issues regarding homelessness, he said nothing can truly be solved until more affordable housing is provided.