Seminary Park encampment not yet cleared, chance comes up for 50 more shelter beds

Reduced in number but remaining in place on Monday night, was Bloomington’s Seminary Park encampment of people who are experiencing homelessness.

The enforcement action, which Bloomington’s city administration had warned would come “on or about Jan. 11” looks like it might be taken about Jan. 11, not exactly on the date.

As of around 1 a.m. no action had been taken by the Bloomington police department (BPD) to remove anyone from the park.

The apparent lack of enforcement action at Seminary Park came after the late afternoon news of possibly 50 additional shelter beds that might become available.

Beacon, Inc. executive director Forrest Gilmore said on Facebook that he’d walked the city’s fire chief, Jason Moore, through a warehouse space that Gilmore described as looking like a viable low barrier winter shelter.

Monday night at Seminary Park, Gilmore told The Square Beacon that the fire department has not yet signed off on the space and there are still significant issues to be worked out, like staffing and funding. But he’s optimistic.

In his Facebook post, Gilmore was critical of the mayor in connection with the announcement about the 50 additional shelter beds: “The mayor is aware of this opportunity but seems still to be determined to move forward on the park evictions. We once again call upon the mayor to slow down and stop the evictions…”

No enforcement

Whether or not the mayor was heeding the call to slow down, it did not appear that a removal of people and possessions from the park happened Monday night.

Around 11 p.m., a BPD detective in an unmarked car cruised through the parking lot at the USPS building next to the park and stopped to chat with nonprofit volunteers and other grassroots organizers. He said it is just his normal routine to drive through and check on the park—he’d been given no direction either way about possible enforcement action.

A little after midnight, the unmarked car came through again. The mayor directs the chief of police and the chief of police directs officers, he said. And he’d been given no direction that night to remove anyone from the park.

Towards 1 a.m. the same account was delivered by an officer in a marked squad car—at that point there was no order to remove anyone from the park.

Morning letter, afternoon response

That made for a quiet conclusion to a day that began with a clarion call from several people and organizations. They called on Bloomington’s mayor, John Hamilton, to relent on his plan, starting on Monday, to again enforce park rules against camping in the park.

The park has already been cleared once this season, on Dec. 9. The deadline for renewed enforcement was announced about three weeks ago.

The call came in the form of an open letter to the mayor, signed by, Beacon, Inc., which operates one of the shelters in the city, and several other groups and individuals. The letter called on Hamilton to stop the planned clearance of the encampment at Seminary Park, which the city had set for on or about that day.

In a statement late Monday afternoon, which was a response to the open letter, the mayor’s office re-stated its position: “We encourage everyone currently in the Seminary Park area to find safe shelter/housing alternatives immediately.”

But by 1 a.m. that re-stated position did not translate into police action in the park.

Census of street homeless, number of shelter beds

The reduced numbers of people camping in the park by late Monday stemmed in part from placement of some people in shelters in the days leading up to the deadline. It stemmed in part from campers finding other spots to set up. And some accepted offers of shelter as late as Monday night.

On Monday night, three people accepted rides in Wheeler Mission’s van from the park to its shelter, according to program director Dana Jones, who was at the park on Monday night. That was three out of 10 people they’d talked to, which meant at least seven people stayed in Seminary Park through the night.

Wheeler Mission has beds for 90–94 people in its low-barrier emergency shelter for men, Jones told The Square Beacon previously. The low-barrier women’s shelter has 35–40 beds available, Jones said.

The three who took shelter at Wheeler Mission on Monday night meant 76 beds were occupied at men’s shelter and 12 at women’s shelter, Jones said.

That works out to 14–18 available beds in the men’s shelter and 23-28 available beds at the women’s shelter, or a total of 37–46 beds.

The census of people sleeping outside and the count of available beds in shelters is a disputed point between the city of Bloomington and Beacon, Inc.’s executive director, Forrest Gilmore.

The availability of shelter beds, compared to the census of people who need shelter, is a crucial data point. That’s because Centers for Disease Control guidelines say encampments should be allowed to remain “if individual housing options are not available.”

Beacon, Inc.’s open letter that started off the day reported numbers like this: “[A] recent survey by Beacon’s street outreach team found 38 people sleeping in the public right-of-way near Seminary Park and estimate another 20-25 sleeping in camps elsewhere.”

The city’s statement issued later in the afternoon described the census of homeless people in the city this way: “A census taken at Seminary Park recorded that 15-20 individuals overnighted in the area last night.” The city’s statement put the number of shelter beds available at more than 60: “Over 30 at the Wheeler Mission men’s shelter and around 35 at the Winter Contingency Shelter for Women, which is also operated by Wheeler.”

If the additional 50-bed facility for a winter shelter, described by Gilmore late Monday afternoon, can be secured, it would go a long way towards bridging whatever gap exists between the number of available beds and number of people who have no warm place to sleep.

Around 1 a.m. on Monday night, the National Weather Service reported the temperature in Bloomington as 24 F degrees.

Open letter: Who signed?

The open letter drew out a point of common ground between those who signed and the city’s administration—that it is not safe for people to sleep in the park, given the freezing temperatures. The letter says, “[W]e in no way see sleeping outside as a safe experience.”

It’s a basic point that mayor Hamilton has made in defense of the city’s position. At last Friday’s press weekly press conference, Hamilton said, “If there are indoor beds, they’re far safer for our population.”

Gilmore sees enforcement of park rules and removal of people from the park as making an unsafe situation even less safe. The open letter says it “will do even further harm.”

Elected officials who are signatories include four township trustees: Kim Alexander (Bloomington), Rita Barrow (Van Buren), Michelle Bright (Benton), and Dan Combs (Perry).

Other electeds who signed the letter include city clerk Nicole Bolden, county councilor Geoff McKim, and four current Bloomington city councilmembers: Isabel Piedmont-Smith, Kate Rosenbarger, Steve Volan, and Matt Flaherty.

The three Monroe County commissioners signed as an elected body (Julie Thomas, Lee Jones, and Penny Githens).

Former Bloomington city councilmembers Marty Spechler and Dorothy Granger also signed, as did recent city council candidates Vauhxx Booker and Jean Capler.

The chair, vice-chair and secretary of the Monroe County Democratic Party also signed: Jennifer Crossley, Gavin Everett, and Sofia McDowell.

[Updated on Jan. 12, 2021 at 7:51 a.m. Through the night there did.not appear to be any enforcement action by the city of Bloomington.]

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