Seminary Park encampment clearance still on course for “on or about” Jan. 11

Jan. 11 is still the date when Bloomington is planning to clear an encampment from the area around Seminary Park at 2nd Street and College Avenue, city officials say.

Estimates of the number of people who are staying there, reporting that they have no other place to go, vary from a dozen and a half up to more than 50, with additional numbers socializing there during the day.

Since the Dec. 9 clearance of the park by the city, the strip of public right-of-way along the road, and probably a little more, has been re-established as a place where people are sleeping, socializing and storing their warming accoutrements.

Early the week of Jan. 4, city staff planted signs on stakes in the area, giving notice of the clearance date. It is described on the signs as “on or about” Jan. 11. Some of the signs were immediately pushed over by park campers.

The signs include the text: “It is our hope that everyone currently in the Seminary Park area will find safe shelter/housing alternatives by January 11 by taking advantage of the opportunities available through the agencies that serve those experiencing homelessness.”

The suggested contact points listed out on the signs include: Beacon/Shalom Center, Friend’s Place, Wheeler Mission, New Hope Family Shelter, Amethyst House, Perry Township trustee’s office, and Middle Way House.

It was before Christmas when the city settled on the Jan. 11 date.

The more recent signage can be analyzed as a response to the criticism that the city gave no clear indication that enforcement action was imminent before its Dec. 9 park clearance. It came just after the board of park commissioners had declined the administration’s request to extend a nighttime prohibition of camping to daytime hours.

A key part of the city’s planned Jan. 11 operation will be how the sheltering and warming materials at the encampment are handled. In early December, some effort was made to catalogue and photograph tents and belongings, before they were transported to an offsite location. People were supposed to be able to retrieve their property by calling a phone number.

This time around the signage indicates that some items won’t be stored by the city. Food and anything that is wet are among the items that won’t be stored.

The city has not given a specific clock time when enforcement will start. The phrasing “on or about Jan. 11” on the signage gives some flexibility.

As the city’s Jan. 11 deadline approaches, the topic has received increased attention, in public commentary made at meetings of elected officials, by elected officials themselves, and from the nonprofit community.

Based on city and county sources, and Bloomington mayor John Hamilton’s remarks at a Friday press conference, Bloomington will not be altering course from the planned enforcement action on Jan. 11.

Alternate shelter: CDC  guidelines, court case

A point of contention—in the context of Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines, as well as the legal analysis—is whether alternate shelter is, in fact, available to those who are now using the park as a place to stay.

At the December board of park commissioners meeting, several public commenters cited CDC guidelines on how to treat encampments during the COVID-19 pandemic: “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.”

Immediately after the Dec. 9 enforcement action, Hamilton said that his understanding was that people were not actually overnighting in the park, which meant it was not an “encampment.”

By now it’s been established that some people are spending the night in Seminary Park. Given that the semantic question appears to be resolved, Hamilton was asked during Friday’s press conference how the city reconciled its planned action with CDC guidelines.

Hamilton said, “The CDC guidelines do not say anybody sleeping outdoors or any encampment should stay. They say: if there are no other options, if there is no place for people to go.”

Hamilton added, “But that’s very different if you’re in Phoenix, Arizona, and warm weather versus a cold climate like this.” Hamilton wrapped up the point, saying, “And if there are indoor beds, they’re far safer for our population.” Hamilton pointed to the Christmas Eve death of one of the Seminary Park campers as something no one wants to see repeated.

The idea of a lack of alternate shelter other than a public space is also key to a recent federal court case that addresses the right of someone who’s experiencing homelessness to occupy a public space. The opinion from the U.S. Court of Appeals Ninth Circuit in Martin vs. City of Boise says that “a municipality cannot criminalize [camping in public space] consistently with the Eighth Amendment when no sleeping space is practically available in any shelter.”

Alternate shelter: Capacity, eligibility

Given that both CDC guidelines and the legal precedent highlight the question of alternate shelter, some of the recent public conversation about possible enforcement action has focused on the number of shelter spaces available in Bloomington.

Raw numbers of open shelter spaces compared to the number of people who are sleeping outside are a starting point.

Beacon Inc.’s executive director Forrest Gilmore in a Facebook post Thursday night, put the total number of people sleeping outside, at Seminary Park and other locations, at more than 60. Gilmore wrote: “[O]ur street outreach staff has surveyed 43 people who are sleeping outside, most in Seminary Park. In addition to those 43, our team estimates there are another approximately 20 people sleeping in other camps in the city.”

Beacon, Inc.’s shelter (A Friend’s Place) requires that guests not be under the influence of alcohol or drugs. For some at Seminary Park, that would be a dealbreaker—if spaces were available. According to Gilmore, “Friend’s Place is currently full, although we are working to create some space for additional beds to at least help some people. We believe we can stretch and find space for another 10.”

The Wheeler Mission shelter, according to program director Dana Jones, can shelter 90–94 people in its low-barrier emergency shelter for men. Jones told The Square Beacon on Friday that the previous night, 70 of those beds were filled. In the low-barrier women’s shelter, there are 35–40 beds available, and 10 of those were filled the previous night, Jones said.

Wheeler Mission describes itself as, “a non-denominational, Christian, social services organization, which provides critically needed goods and services to the homeless, poor, and needy of central Indiana without regard to race, color, sexual orientation, creed, national origin, or religion.”

The fact that Wheeler is a faith-based organization is enough to dissuade some from staying at the shelter or from promoting Wheeler as an option. At a courthouse square rally on the Friday after the Tuesday parks board vote, Bloomington Homeless Coalition co-founder Marc Teller said, “Personally, I would never step foot in Wheeler Mission. Just because I’m Jewish.”

About a  quarter of the Seminary Park campers will be moving into Kinser Flats when it opens, according to Gilmore. According to Centerstone’s Greg May, it is still hoped that the Kinser Flats project will open on Feb. 1, but he could not say for certain. Ground was broken in late 2019 for Kinser Flats, which will be a 50-unit complex for people experiencing homelessness and with substance use disorders. Federal, state, and city of Bloomington money helped fund the project.

Critical response from elected officials, public

On the Sunday after the Wednesday park clearance, the Monroe County Democratic Party issued a statement criticizing the city’s action. The Dems called for the city to install temporary bathroom facilities and hand washing stations as the “bare minimum.”

At some city council meetings that followed, including last Wednesday’s (Jan. 6) meeting, councilmembers Matt Flaherty and Isabel Piedmont-Smith were critical of the park clearance and echoed the call of their party’s executive committee to install facilities to support basic hygiene in the park.

Flaherty said, “I think we as a city should be assiduously following CDC guidelines and recommendations with regard to homeless encampments. I think we could use sanitary stations and portable restrooms at Seminary Park in particular.” Flaherty continued, “And I worry that past actions taken by the city and actions that may be taken on January 11, or thereafter, are in violation of CDC guidelines, to my reading.”

Flaherty wrapped up his point saying, “I mean no disrespect to Mayor Hamilton or the board of parks commissioners in saying so. But I do encourage them to revisit and reconsider their policies and plans in light of those guidelines and the pandemic.”

Piedmont-Smith said, “I agree with councilmember Flaherty that in the short term, we should provide restroom facilities and hand washing stations in Seminary Park and in Switchyard Park, where homeless people gather. I also urge the mayor to reconsider the plan to clear seminary park on January 11.”

Piedmont-Smith added, “I’ve actually just signed a petition by community members to ask for the moratorium on clearing the encampment to be extended.”

Following their remarks, during public commentary time, military veteran Marshall Bailey gave the councilmembers a kind of rebuke. He said, “What I see right now is people aren’t really being heard, because city council hasn’t taken simple legislative steps to: (1) introduce something into the agenda, (2) hold a specific meeting on the topic, or (3) have a vote on a particular topic.”

Bailey added, “So, to say, ‘I think we should do something,’ or ‘I’m signing a petition,’ or ‘I feel that way,’ that’s what your citizens say. That’s not what a legislative body says.”

Earlier in the day, during public commentary time at the county commissioners meeting, David Henry, offered his perspective as someone with expertise in the area of emergency management. Henry teaches courses on emergency management at Indiana University’s school of public and environmental affairs.

Henry said, “As you all know, Indiana code empowers your level of government to manage disaster through emergency management. And that’s civilian-led, brings our whole community—public, private, nonprofit, formal and spontaneous volunteers—together to respond and recover from a disaster. It’s my belief that we’re witnessing in real time a disaster when it comes to encampment clearings.”

Henry gave an example of a situation in Minneapolis where a homeless encampment had been successfully treated as an emergency management situation.

Henry added, “I see a lot of resource mismanagement, folks dropping off stuff, tent supplies, harm reduction tools, that we know are going to end up being cleared in a few days. And that churning of resource mismanagement and mis-allocation and not knowing where all the resources are in the community, is what really drove me here to talk with y’all.”

Henry wrapped up his point by saying, “So it’s my belief that we can disrupt the cycle, through a state of emergency declaration to bring it up to the county level, where the whole community, township, city, spontaneous volunteers can address the compounded problem of homelessness during a pandemic, and COVID-19 response.”

At Friday’s press conference, Monroe County’s emergency management director Allison Moore responded to the idea of a disaster declaration. Moore said, “I’ve done a lot of research just this week on the possibility of declaring a disaster due to the encampment and the pandemic all tied together in one. In all honesty, other than the disaster declaration that had already been filed, due to the COVID pandemic, there is no necessary additional filing that needs to be handled.”

Moore described how her department is continuing to work with the task force of various community partners that are “working fearlessly to fix this problem and to assist where it’s needed.” If there were an action that needed to be taken, Moore said, “We would take the necessary steps and, of course, would work with our community partners to help in any situation that may deem necessary.”

Building a coalition

The Monroe County Democratic Party’s statement, issued three weeks ago, called on governmental entities and nonprofits to “build a coalition” to address the problem of homelessness. Another statement critical of the city of Bloomington’s Seminary Park removal action came from the Monroe County Trustees Association in a resolution dated 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.”

Based on remarks by president of the county board of commissioners, Julie Thomas at Friday’s press conference, and a Facebook post by the commissioners on Friday evening, some of the heavy lifting for organizing that coalition is being done by United Way of Monroe County and Community Foundation of Bloomington and Monroe County.

About the county commissioners, Thomas said at Friday’s press conference, “We are indeed part of this larger coalition of providers, including and with many thanks to the Community Foundation and United Way, rather than having a large number of people trying to attack the problem in different ways.”