Bloomington parks board votes 1–3 on policy change: Daytime camping still allowed

A proposed policy change that would have prohibited camping or otherwise inhabiting Bloomington’s parks at any time, not just overnight, got just one vote of support at Tuesday’s meeting of the board of park commissioners.

Dissenting on the vote was Les Coyne, who was congratulated at the start of the meeting on concluding his 44 years of service as a park commissioner.

The other three commissioners voted against the change to policy, despite a press release issued by the mayor’s office a couple of hours before the meeting started, in support of the policy change.

The press release said, “The recommendation to amend the special use permit policy is being made in response to an increasing presence of tents and other makeshift structures in several city park properties overnight.”

The press release described a Public Health in the Parks program that the city operated from September through November with nonprofit partners. “Together with nonprofit partners in the social services, the city has allocated resources and personnel to support and engage with people who are spending the most time in downtown parks, including many who have created encampments there.”

Public comment was uniformly against the policy change, with some of it coming from members of the Seminary Park community that has been using the park as a place to camp over the last several weeks. Their comments were made possible by Heather Lake, a certified recovery support specialist, who passed her phone to commenters. Lake herself said, “Until we have an adequate, alternate solution, I don’t think throwing people out is a good answer.”

Nearly 90 minutes into the public commentary on the proposal, Martin Law, a IU graduate student, said, “It’s become pretty clear from all the comments here, that updating the special use policy is not popular, and it makes no sense.” Law added, “And I can’t imagine at this point that the parks commission is going to approve it.”

The proposal nearly didn’t get put to a vote on Tuesday. After public comment, board chair Kathleen Mills said, “I don’t feel prepared to put this up to a vote, because I feel like the other board members and I just have a lot of other questions…”

Commissioner Ellen Rodkey echoed that sentiment, saying, “I’ve got a lot of notes here. And also feel, I would say, ill-prepared [to vote].”

It was commissioner Israel Herrera, who said he felt ready for a vote that night: “I have heard the comments from some of the citizens. And I am confident that I don’t need an extra meeting.” He added, “They will be in their tents tonight with the cold and everything, so if you ask me, I’m ready to vote today.”

When Mills took the mic again, she had shifted her position, pointing to the fact that a delay in voting would mean that the board could be shorthanded for a future decision. That’s because a replacement for Coyne has not yet been named. Mills said, “So in that case, I think I’m going to go ahead and call for the vote this evening, while we have a full board.”

In voting against the policy change, Mills echoed a lot of the public commentary, saying it’s not specifically the parks department’s job to house the homeless. “Helping people who are unhoused is a community issue. It shouldn’t just be something that is put up to the parks department,” Mills said.

Some public commenters suggested that the policy change should not have been to make restrictions tighter, but rather to make them looser, that is, to allow camping in the parks.

Among them was Law, who said, “We need to be thinking about what the next step is for the parks commissioners… The parks commission can actually approve uses of the park that lie outside of normal operation. And so one of the things the parks commission could do would actually be to explicitly allow camping in the park, in all city parks.”

During her turn at public commentary, social worker Donyel Byrd asked commissioners to vote no. She continued, “I encourage you to look at enabling camping overnight.” Byrd added, “There are a lot of reasons why people don’t go to day shelters or overnight shelters right now.—you can’t socially distance very well.”

Concern for sanitation at the park, in response to uReport and emailed reports about trash at parks, got several mentions during public comment time.

Katie Norris, who’s executive director of the Hotels for Homeless program said she agrees that there should not be tents set up at Seminary Park “with our most vulnerable people in our community residing there in the middle of winter during a pandemic.”

Norris continued, “I, however, do not agree that kicking them out tonight and not allowing them to set up during the day is the answer to this problem.” She said she’d visited the park on Monday and also that same day. Norris told the board, “Those who are living there have agreed to keep the park clean themselves, until we can come together as a community and find a better place for them to be.”

On Tuesday, two new deaths due to COVID-19 were reported in Monroe County, along with 104 confirmed positive cases.

Several public commenters cited CDC guidelines on how to treat encampments during the COVID-19 pandemic in calling for the board to reject the policy change on camping. Marc Teller, member of the Bloomington Homeless Coalition, quoted from CDC guidelines:

“If individual housing options are not available, allow people who are living unsheltered or in encampments to remain where they are.” The guidelines continue, “Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers. This increases the potential for infectious disease spread.”

Jennifer Crossley addressed the commissioners on the topic of empathy. She’s the chair of the Monroe County Democratic Party, but she didn’t introduce herself in that capacity. “I’m a mom, a wife and a community member. And most importantly, I’m a person that has empathy,” she said.

Crossley continued, “And it appears that our very own community has a lack of empathy right now. It is cold.” She added, “And I say that this definitely needs to be voted down.”

Crossley described her experience driving past the park with her children. “I drove past the park next to Rally’s the other day with my three kids in my car, and had to explain to them that these folks have nowhere else to go.” Crossley told commissioners: “And if my eight-year-old, my six-year-old, and my 13-year-old can have a sense and a slice of empathy, I want adults to have the same empathy as well.”

Beverly Calender-Anderson, director of the city’s community and family resources department (CFRD), weighed in during public commentary after a lot of the comments had been heard. She did not express opposition to the policy change, but her remarks could be understood as a general description of the approach that the city hopes to take.

Calender-Anderson said, “I wanted to say that I am really moved by the compassion that I’m hearing for our neighbors who are experiencing homelessness and are in the park.”

Calender-Anderson added, “I realize that this is a meeting about the change in the policy. But as so many of you have said, this is a much, much deeper issue. And it really goes outside of what park’s jurisdiction is.” She concluded, “We need to come together…as well as a community and figure out: How do we solve the underlying issues, so that people won’t need to be in the park?”

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