Proposed ordinance giving protections to houseless encampments gets a look from Bloomington human rights group

A proposed ordinance on encampments of houseless people in city parks got some scrutiny from Bloomington’s human rights commission at the group’s regular meeting on Monday.

The commissioners voted 3–0 with two abstentions to endorse the proposed ordinance, with some caveats.

The proposed law is set for deliberations on Wednesday by the city council’s committee of the whole. No vote on enactment will be taken at the committee meeting.

The law was proposed by city council sponsors Matt Flaherty, Kate Rosenbarger, and Isabel Piedmont-Smith, after a decision by Bloomington’s mayor, John Hamilton, to clear a Seminary Park encampment in early December and again in mid-January.

Highlights of the proposed new law include a requirement of 15-day notice before a camp displacement.

Also under the proposed ordinance, the city could not displace a camp unless there is sufficient available “permanent housing” or “transitional housing” as defined by federal HUD regulations. Emergency shelters would not count towards available housing.

On Monday, commissioners dug a bit into the proposed new law.

Human rights commissioner Byron Bangert had a concern about the wording of the section that describes the city’s obligations to a person who is displaced from a park encampment. The part that caught Bangert’s eye says that the city “must, to the extent reasonable, maintain and catalogue their nonperishable personal items, including but not limited to…medical supplies, identification documents, birth certificates, and other personal documents and effects.”

Bangert said, “If I were homeless, I would not want the city to be required to maintain my identification documents, birth certificates and other personal items, documents and effects.”

Bangert added, “I don’t know that that’s the intent of the ordinance. But that’s the way it’s worded. And that bothers me. I would want to keep those myself.”

Bangert said he had two concerns—one about the practicality of storing personal belongings, and the other about potential violation of an individual’s rights. He saw a potential for a rights violation, if someone had to give up their documents in order to have their belongings stored.

Commissioner Carolyn Calloway-Thomas echoed Bangert’s concern: “Who has the jurisdiction over those very important significant items there that are listed? Identification documents? Birth certificates?”

Assistant city attorney Barbara McKinney said she thought the intent of the ordinance wording was to obligate the city to store items that people left behind, not to take people’s belonging’s from them.

Commissioners entertained some discussion about the significance of a vote by the Bloomington human rights commission on the ordinance. Newly-appointed commissioner Erin McAlister asked, “So if we didn’t endorse it—so we’re not saying that we don’t agree with it—but we’re not endorsing it. Does that make a statement in and of itself that we haven’t endorsed it?”

McAlister wondered how city councilmembers might interpret a lack of endorsement: “Might that give them pause to say, ‘Hmm, the human rights commission hasn’t endorsed it?’”

Ryne Shadday responded to McAlister by saying, “I don’t think that any action we do or don’t take on this today is going to affect what the common council does.”

Bangert pushed back a bit on Shadday’s assessment: “Are you sure of that? I mean, if that’s the case, then what we do is effectively moot, unless we’re doing it for our own self image. My only reason for wanting to endorse it would be if it encourages, and makes positive action by the council more likely.” Bangert wrapped up by saying, “If it’s not going to have any effect, then I would just as soon we let it drop.”

Human rights commissioners did not let it drop. They briefly weighed the possibility of waiting until after this Wednesday’s city council deliberations and then calling a special meeting to consider endorsement. In the end, they decided to take a vote at their Monday meeting.

After around 15 minutes of discussion, three of the five commissioners who were able to stay at the meeting voted to endorse the ordinance—with a caveat about the personal belongings of displaced campers. The other two abstained.

Voting to endorse the ordinance were Bangert, Ryne Shadday, and Latosha Williams. Abstaining were Valeri Haughton and  McAlister.

Haughton, who serves as a Monroe County circuit court judge, told The Square Beacon that she did not want to create a potential conflict of interest if a related issue came in front of the court. Because it’s a unified bench any conflict might require appointment of a special judge. It was more prudent to abstain, Haughton said.

Calloway-Thomas had to leave before the vote, but said before departing she would have abstained, because she had not had time to review the ordinance in detail.

Whether the three votes in favor were enough to count as an endorsement by the seven-member human rights commission was subjected to brief discussion. Assistant city attorney Barbara McKinney said at Monday’s meeting she was persuaded by the idea that three is a majority of the five who voted.

Bloomington’s ordinance establishing its human rights commission does not describe the specific number that makes up a majority. It describes majorities required for specific kinds of action, including the adoption of new rules, regulations, and guidelines, which requires a “a majority vote of the commission.”

[Added at 12:21 p.m. on Feb. 23: McKinney has provided as the relevant citation the general provisions for all boards and commissions in Bloomington’s municipal code that define a majority as “a majority of the members of a board, commission or council who are present and voting.”]

The human rights commission had been asked by city council ordinance sponsors to consider endorsing the ordinance at its January meeting. In January, commissioners declined, because they had not been given a draft ordinance to review. Bloomington’s ordinance is modeled on one adopted by Indianapolis in 2016.

At the time, commission chair Ryne Shadday, said he’d received an email message from Flaherty, 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.

At Monday’s meeting, Shadday reviewed some of the history of the proposed law’s origin.

Part of the historical context includes a “Houseless Bill of Rights” that had been circulated by activist Vauhxx Booker just after the first clearance of Seminary Park in early December. One point of overlap between the proposed new ordinance and the “Houseless Bill of Rights” is the requirement of a 15-day notice before people are removed.

Booker pointed city councilmembers to the Indianapolis ordinance on which Bloomington’s law is modeled.