Just south of the historical marker placed at Seminary Park, near College Avenue, a campsite persists this week.
That’s after people and their belongings were removed from the park two weeks ago by a combination of Bloomington police officers, the department’s social worker, and other nonprofit street outreach staff who work with those experiencing homelessness.
The Wednesday night removal two weeks ago was based on a violation of park rules, which prohibit overnight camping.
The dozen tents now pitched near the park look like they’re at least partly in the public right-of-way, based on the parcel boundaries from Monroe County’s online property lookup system.
Camping in the public right-of-way is also not something the city has to allow.
On Jan. 11, the city won’t be allowing it any longer, according to Bloomington’s director of public engagement, Mary Catherine Carmichael.
Carmichael told The Square Beacon, “We’ve asked funders and providers to transition folks overnighting in the Seminary Park area to alternative shelter/housing or camping by Jan. 11.” She added that the city of Bloomington will continue its efforts to point park area campers to other resources.
Carmichael added that an initial deadline of Jan. 8 had been set, but after more discussion, was shifted to three days later.
The roughly three weeks that remain before the next potential removal action by the city of Bloomington will give the city and local organizations some time to sort out possible alternatives.
[Updated Dec. 24, 2020 at 5:24 p.m. Bloomington’s police department issued a press release late Thursday afternoon announcing the death of one of the Seminary Park campers. The news release states: “There were no signs of foul play or injuries to the man.”]
Continued use of the city parks to provide accommodations for those experiencing homelessness is an option advocated by some.
Speaking at last week’s meeting of Bloomington’s city council, councilmember Isabel Piedmont-Smith offered sharp criticism of the administration’s decision to remove the people and their belongings from the park, saying she opposed it on humanitarian grounds. Piedmont-Smith also cited the Centers for Disease Control guidelines, which say that encampments should not be moved, during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Piedmont-Smith said she had not received a positive response to her request of Bloomington’s mayor, John Hamilton, or parks director, Paula McDevitt, to provide in Seminary Park basic facilities—like portable toilets and hand washing stations. “I will keep pushing for that,” she said.
Piedmont-Smith added that she thinks it’s “the bare minimum we need to do.”
Piedmont-Smith’s request echoed the “bare minimum” described in a statement issued by the executive committee of the Monroe Democratic Party the previous Sunday. (Piedmont-Smith, like all current Bloomington elected officials, is a Democrat.)
The statement from the Dems criticized the city’s action to remove people and property from the park, and called on local electeds “to work together in conjunction with local social service organizations, activists, and those that are experiencing homelessness to build a coalition and work together on a long-term solution.”
Another statement critical of the city of Bloomington’s Seminary Park removal action came from the Monroe County Trustees Association in a resolution dated last Friday (Dec. 18).
The statement from the township trustees “urges the Mayor of Bloomington to collaborate with other governmental units and related service providers to decriminalize homelessness, and to develop policy that is a positive approach to ending homelessness in this community.”
Carmichael told the B Square Beacon (BSB) that last Friday, a Zoom video-conference call with over 40 people—funders and providers, as well as government officials from the city, the county, and townships—took place to discuss the situation in Seminary Park.
Funders include many of the same organizations that contributed financial support to the Stride crisis diversion center, which opened earlier this fall, Carmichael said—Cook Medical, Bloomington Health Foundation, Community Foundation of Bloomington and Monroe County, United Way, Centerstone, and governments of Monroe County, Bloomington, and townships.
Providers include Beacon, Inc. (Friend’s Place shelter), Wheeler Mission, Centerstone, and Hotels for Homeless, among others.
Carmichael said the Friday Zoom call did not come as a reaction to either of the two formal statements by the Dems or the trustees. The conversations with relevant people and organizations were ongoing, she said.
Perry Township trustee Dan Combs confirmed he had participated in the Friday call, along with Bloomington Township trustee Kim Alexander. (Seminary Park is located in Perry Township.) Combs also said he and Alexander had participated in a group call for funders the previous Wednesday. “Both calls were low in high-caliber information,” Combs said.
About last Friday’s video-conference, Alexander described it as a good chance for everyone to talk, but said it did not correspond to the kind of collaboration with other governmental units called for in the trustees’ resolution.
Alexander said she thinks part of that collaboration would preclude clearing out encampments in and near the park.
On Thursday night (Dec. 17)—before the Friday Zoom video-conference—the city of Bloomington again conducted what Combs described in a Facebook post as “policing activity,” to move people and tents around the park. On the account given by Combs—confirmed by Beacon, Inc. executive director Forrest Gilmore—just two of the tents wound up getting moved, from inside the park boundary to the public right-of-way along College Avenue.
Gilmore said the initial indication was that everything would have to be removed. “The police arrived on the scene and said that all the tents would be removed,” he said. But eventually it was determined that tents would not be removed from the public right-of-way. Gilmore said, “So it was quite an intense couple of hours there last Thursday.”
Asked by the BSB about the legal foundation for potential future action next year, Carmichael said the city will be relying on a couple of state statutes, if it’s necessary to clear the public right-of-way on Jan. 11. One of them allows for “removal of any structure in a street, alley, or public place.” [IC 36-9-6-3] [IC 36-9-6-15]
In addition to the general safety concern about people living outdoors in cold weather, Carmichael said closeness of the campsite to College Avenue, a high-traffic corridor, prompted an additional worry about safety.
One of the criticisms leveled against Bloomington mayor John Hamilton about the action two weeks ago was that the city had provided no notice to the park campers that the city would be enforcing the park rules.
Complaints about the lack of notice were amplified, because the expectation had been that the rule on overnight camping would not be enforced. That expectation was based on a 1–3 vote by the board of park commissioners the day before, on a resolution to extend the overnight rule to cover daytime hours.
This time around, about three weeks notice is being given for possible removal. For park area campers, that notice will include signage that will be placed in and around Seminary Park, according to Carmichael.
The signage will include phone numbers and directions to other resources as alternatives to camping in the park, Carmichael said.
Centerstone’s administrative director Greg May told the BSB that the city’s approach of clearing out campers does not factor in the reality that shelters are not options for everyone at the park. “They’re not options for everybody. They are options for kind of mainstream, heteronormative, non-mentally-ill, non-substance abusing people.” May added, “And when you think about the people who are camping, that’s not that group of people.”
On Tuesday, a Seminary Park camper, who did not want to be named, told the BSB that he’d been “kicked out” of Friend’s Place, which is Beacon, Inc.’s shelter. Friend’s Place has requirement that shelter guests not be under the influence of alcohol or illegal drugs.
He said he might try Wheeler Mission that night, where he’d been taken in previously. The previous night, he did not stay at the park. He had found instead what he described as a “little hallway” to get out of the wind.
“I mean, it’s just so hard to find somewhere to go. Yeah, it sucks,” he said.