Houseless advocates march from Seminary Park to People’s Park to protest clearance from public spaces

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The clearance of an encampment at Bloomington’s Seminary Park in early December and again last week prompted on Monday the second protest in as many nights.

Protesters want the Bloomington’s mayor, John Hamilton, to allow encampments of houseless people to persist in public parks. They point to Centers for Disease Control guidelines that call for allowing encampments to stay in place during the COVID-19 pandemic, if other individual housing options are not available.

Whether such options are available is a disputed point.

Monday’s action included as many as 80 people at its peak, which retraced the steps of around a dozen people the night before, from Seminary Park to Bloomington mayor John Hamilton’s house. He lives in the Elm Heights neighborhood, south of the Indiana University campus, about a three-quarter mile walk from Seminary Park.

On Monday, the group continued from the mayor’s house to People’s Park on Kirkwood Avenue, where a teach-in was held, featuring speakers from Indiana University’s Rainbow Coalition, a relatively new coalition of multicultural groups on campus.

The night wrapped up around 11:30 p.m. as two houseless men pitched a tent at People’s Park, and protesters lined the sidewalk to form a wall against possible police action.

Protesters left soon after that, and as of 8 a.m. on Tuesday, the tent was still there. Another second, larger one had been added.

During Monday’s march through the streets, which was marshalled by protest organizers on foot and with a vehicle, Bloomington police vehicles could be spotted at cross streets a block or two away. They appeared to be using the same strategy as during the summer protests of 2020. They idea was to stay in the wings, sometimes holding back traffic to reduce the chances of car-pedestrian conflict.

Back at Seminary Park, three new tents have been pitched on the Walnut Street side of the park.

The overnight low temperature from Monday to Tuesday was 30 F degrees. The night’s weather included an on-and-off light snowy mist.

On Monday, Hamilton did not emerge to reprise the kind of front-porch conversation he had with demonstrators the previous night. On Sunday, he had stood on his porch and talked with protesters who stood 10 yards away on the sidewalk.

On Tuesday, some of those who were cleared out of Seminary Park might be able to find a spot in a new low-barrier shelter with around 50 beds that is supposed to be opened by Beacon, Inc.

Alluding to the possibility that the number of extra shelter beds might not be enough was Nicole Johnson, who’s director of Pigeon Hill Pantry and serves on the residents council of a Bloomington Housing Authority unit. Speaking at People’s Park, Johnson said when the pandemic-related moratoriums on evictions end, that’s going to create additional demand.

Calling on the mayor to allocate space in a city park or another spot where people can camp, without fear of being cleared out, was activist Virginia Goodman. Speaking into a PA system set up in the street outside the mayor’s house, Goodman said, “I don’t care where [the mayor] chooses—People’s Park, Seminary Park, Dunn Meadow or the courthouse lawn. But it’s past time to give our unhoused citizens a place, where we don’t have to be afraid of your fucking sweeps anymore!”

On Monday night, she told the gathering at Seminary Park, before they headed off to the mayor’s house “I’ve spent more than one night out here with these guys. And they accepted me and made me feel more like family than anyone ever has.”

Also speaking at Seminary Park was Jennifer Crossley, who is chair of the Monroe County Democratic Party. “But before any titles, I’m a mom, I’m a human being,” she said. She continued, “What has happened to folks that occupied Seminary Park is wrong,” she said. “We need to be showing them compassion, and decency, to allow them to occupy this space,” Crossley said.

Crossley recounted her own experience, when she was six months pregnant and had been evicted, with her boyfriend, now husband. She said, “I had nowhere else to go. And I was embarrassed, I was hurt and I was ashamed. Because we had no idea what was gonna happen. When we were gonna have to be out in the street?”

Crossley told the crowd she would continue to talk about the issue: “And I don’t care what kind of hell or flak that I get from being here tonight. I will continue to be here. I will continue to give my voice. People will not silence or shut us up. Because what we are doing is right,” she said.

Monday was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.  Crossley took the occasion  to talk about doing more than quoting King. “People love to quote Martin Luther King,” she said. “What would he say and do, if he were here right now, and looking at all of these things that are going on?”

Crossley was critical of those who quote King but don’t back it up with action: “If you are out on the stage, continuing to quote Dr. King and then turn around the next day, and throw shade on the same people…, please go sit down, because Dr. King would not allow that at all.”

Alluding to the most recent park clearance, which included a city of Bloomington garbage truck deployed to Seminary Park, Crossley said, “Give them their dignity, instead of showing up with a trash truck, and acting like folks here are trash. That is not OK.”

Also drawing on the significance of MLK Day, was Trevor Richardson, who’s with the Bloomington Homeless Coalition. In his remarks at the mayor’s house, Richardson said, “Discrimination can be in all forms, not just because of the color of your skin.” He continued: “They want to say that the homeless are criminals. Well, then prosecute them, put them in jail. But don’t be doing a different branch of government’s work for the homeless.”

Richardson called on the mayor to “give them the help they need or let them exist as people, when they’re not hurting anybody.”

Richardson added, “Living is not always pretty. But living is up to the person living that life.”