Mayor John Hamilton enforced rules that require encampments to have a permit after 11 p.m. on Thursday night, leading the Bloomington Police Department to dismantle an encampment in Seminary Park. The city had previously paused enforcement of this rule, but it was implemented again in early December 2020.
At 7 p.m. Thursday, four hours before the enforcement, the City Council Public Safety Committee meeting was met with anger from dozens of Bloomington residents who voiced their displeasure with Mayor Hamilton’s plan to remove people experiencing homelessness from Seminary Park. About two hours after the meeting concluded, BPD removed items and belongings from Seminary Park.
“These people are my friends,” Heather Lake, a member of the Bloomington Homeless Coalition, said. “They call me the coffee lady. I know things about them. I don’t know what’s going to happen to them. I don’t know where they’re going to go.”
In multiple press conferences over the last few weeks and in a statement released earlier this week, Hamilton encouraged unhoused people to go to the Wheeler Mission shelter in Bloomington. During the public comment section of the meeting, many Bloomington residents expressed concern with that directive.
“We hear over and over that people don’t want to go there,” Bloomington resident Kate Dunning said. “Shelters are inherently unsafe during this pandemic, just like any other space where people are crammed together. That is not an alternative.”
Attendees had additional concerns with the shelter.
"I went to Wheeler," Tyler, who is currently living unhoused, said. "It was really unsanitary in there. They had like a plastic tarp separating the beds. People were coughing. People not wearing their masks, not social distancing. I didn’t feel comfortable breathing. If somebody doesn't feel comfortable breathing, there's something wrong.”
Some Bloomington residents who work with individuals experiencing homelessness said many people would rather stay in Seminary Park than go to a shelter, as many unhoused individuals believe it is safer and more convenient.
Jean Capler, a social worker in Bloomington, said she noticed this preference in December, when the city last evicted residents from Seminary Park. Capler said only a few people actually went to a shelter after that eviction.
“Everybody else just found somewhere else to camp. I’m wondering why the city might expect why this time would be different,” she said.
Starting around 11 p.m. Thursday, BPD removed tents and large items from Seminary Park and instructed people to leave the premises. They permitted one person experiencing homelessness to stay at the park with two community members who were allowed to stay for safety reasons.
Dozens of Bloomington residents voiced their concerns with Hamilton’s order to find alternate shelter options.
“It was quite disgusting that the garbage truck that came to haul away these people’s items actually had an American flag on it,” Bloomington resident Renee Miller said during public comment. “We have to ask ourselves: Whose America is this? Just the rich? The housed? Why the American flag if it does not fly for us all?”
Hamilton and his staff were not invited to Thursday’s discussion, according to Council President Jim Sims. He said that step was taken to maximize the time for public comment, but he may reconsider that decision for the future.
“This past year has shown us that the mayor has way too much power,” Bloomington resident Molly Stewart said. “He is actively making it harder for us to keep people alive.”
The city defended its actions in a press release Friday afternoon and said there are safe, indoor options in Bloomington for those in Seminary Park.
“Availability varies from night to night among all of these options, but consistently is far in excess of the dozen or so individuals who lately were camping in the Seminary Park area,” the city said in the press release.