Bloomington human rights commission waits for specific wording before voting to support possible protections for park encampments

At their Monday meeting, Bloomington’s human rights commissioners seemed supportive of a possible new law that would protect homeless encampments in city parks.

Screen shot of the Jan. 25, 2021 Bloomington human rights commission meeting.

The proposed new law comes after a decision by Bloomington’s mayor, John Hamilton, to clear a Seminary Park encampment in early December  and again in mid-January.

The proposed new Bloomington law is modeled on an Indianapolis ordinance.

But city human rights commissioners wanted to see the specific wording of Bloomington’s ordinance before voting to support it.

As commissioner Carolyn Calloway-Thomas put it, “I will have to lay eyes on the language that’s constituted now, because there might be some differences stylistically and otherwise, during the translation from Indianapolis to Bloomington.” Calloway-Thomas is a professor African American and African diaspora studies at Indiana University.

The new law, which got some discussion at a city council work session last Friday (Jan. 22) is co-authored by councilmembers Matt Flaherty and Kate Rosenbarger.

City councilmembers did not attend the human rights commission meeting on Monday.

Speaking in support of the proposed new ordinance on Monday was Monroe County county human rights commissioner Vauhxx Booker, who provided the impetus for the new legislation.

Last December, just after the first clearance of the Seminary Park encampment, Booker circulated a proposed “Houseless Bill of Rights” that he asked the city council to enact.

The “Houseless Bill of Rights” is broader than the ordinance that Flaherty and Rosenbarger are working on, which is confined to protections against removal of park encampments.

The broader “Houseless Bill of Rights” includes rights to medical care, non-discrimination in seeking employment, and reasonable expectations of privacy, among other elements.

Booker described his approach as “asking for the most that you can get and letting that be whittled down.” Booker told commissioners that some councilmembers were concerned that, in a relatively urgent timeframe,  a consensus could not be gained from a majority on the nine-member council for the full “Houseless Bill of Rights.”

What’s being considered instead is the part of Booker’s proposal that deals specifically with protections for encampments, modeled on an ordinance from Indianapolis.

Chair of the city’s human rights commission, Ryne Shadday, said at Monday’s meeting that he’d received an email message from Flaherty, 45 minutes before the meeting started, saying that if commissioners supported the Indianapolis ordinance it would be “substantially the same” as supporting the ordinance that Flaherty was working on for Bloomington.

Highlights of the proposed new law include a requirement of 15-day notice by the city to a homeless person living in a city park encampment, before they and their belongings can be removed from the park.

Another requirement of the proposed law is that the city catalog and store for at least 60 days the belongings of a person who is removed from a park encampment. The amount of belongings the city must store is described in the draft as fitting “entirely within one 96-gallon container per displaced person.”

Under the proposed new law in its draft form, the city wouldn’t be able to close down a park encampment unless there is “sufficient available housing”—except in the case of an emergency.

After giving the required 15-day notice, the city would, under the proposed new law, have to work with service providers, faith-based organizations, street ministries, or volunteers ensure that those in the encampment are offered alternative housing and wraparound services.

At last Friday’s city council work session, Flaherty described a couple of differences between the Indianapolis ordinance and the proposed Bloomington ordinance.

One of those differences is the scope of public space to which it applies. The Indianapolis law describes a protected camp in part as “a place on public property.” Flaherty said the Bloomington ordinance is confined to parks.

Flaherty said the definition of “homelessness” used in the ordinance is taken from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

The Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) lists definitions of homelessness in three places: Section 91.5, Section 582.5 and Section 583.5

Echoing the concern of Calloway-Thomas about wanting to see the specific wording of Bloomington’s ordinance, before voting to support, it was Valeri Haughton, who’s a Monroe County circuit court judge: “I know that I need to read it and know the exact wording, before I could to sign off on anything one way or the other.”

The possible timeline that Flaherty has floated for the council to act on the legislation calls for a Feb. 3 first reading. It won’t get any discussion by councilmembers on that date. That’s because under local code, no discussion of an ordinance by the city council is allowed at a first reading.

One way the council could handle the proposed homeless protections ordinance would be to refer the legislation to a committee for closer scrutiny. That committee meeting would take place on Feb. 10. Enactment could come on Feb. 17.

The next regular meeting of the city’s human rights commission is set for Feb. 22. Booker pointed out that commissioners could still call a special meeting to consider the new law and vote to support it as a commission. They also have the option to support it as individuals, Booker said. Booker told them, “I would love for you all as a group to consider it.” He added, “But I would also greatly appreciate it if you all, as powerful and influential individuals, also spoke to your councilmembers.”

City human rights commissioner Byron Bangert, who also didn’t want to vote on anything without having the text in front of him, asked Booker about anticipated objections from other councilmembers.

Booker said he thought the concern would be: If the parks department has responsibility for providing resources to a homeless encampment, then the department needs to have the budgetary capacity to meet that responsibility. “If we’re going to have folks there for a moment, we need to make sure they have facilities that are adequate. And that they’re receiving all the services that they can,” Booker said.

The exact nature of possible city staff objections to the proposed legislation were not aired publicly at Friday’s city council work session. Exchanging emails with staff, confining staff commentary to a committee meeting or a regular council meeting, was Flaherty’s preference, supported by council president Jim Sims, who chaired Friday’s work session.

Bangert said if there are three council members already supporting the proposed ordinance, “That’s a pretty strong indication of support, I would think.”

Besides the co-authors Flaherty and Rosenbarger, the third almost certain vote in support would come from Isabel-Piedmont Smith, who has been providing input to the pair. Councilmember Steve Volan, along with those three, signed an open letter critical of mayor John Hamilton’s decision to clear Seminary Park.

At Friday’s work session councilmember Susan Sandberg did not sound eager to pursue the ordinance, at least not on the proposed timeline. She said it was being “fast-tracked.”

At Friday’s work session, councilmember Sue Sgambelluri requested that when the ordinance is presented to the council that differences be highlighted between the proposed ordinance and other protections that are already given to local residents by Bloomington’s human rights ordinance.