Bloomington boards act on tents, belongings in parks, public right-of-way

Board of public works

Board of park commissioners

On Tuesday, Bloomington’s board of public works passed a resolution asking that the city council enact an ordinance that will keep the public right-of-way clear of tents or belongings.

It’s not clear when or if the city council will follow the board’s recommendation.

The following day, the board of park commissioners took action, to enact a new policy that essentially prohibits tents in parks. The new policy takes effect on Aug. 23—that’s next Wednesday.

Action by the two boards on successive days is part of a general effort by Bloomington mayor John Hamilton’s administration, to regulate the way Bloomington’s unhoused population is able to use public space.

Director of public works Adam Wason described to the three-member board of public how the draft ordinance would make clear that the police have the legal authority, to immediately clear the right-of-way of someone’s belongings, if they do not respond to a request to move.

Parks and recreation director Paula McDevitt told the board that the intent of the new policy against tents and other makeshift enclosures is to ensure that parks areas can be used and enjoyed “by the whole community.” The way tents are now used in parts has created serious public health and safety risks, due in part to illegal activity, McDevitt said.

McDevitt said the policy does not prohibit unenclosed shade structures, if they don’t shield from public view what is happening under them.

At both meetings, commentary from the public mic in favor of the administration’s position came from business owners, and business advocacy groups—the Greater Bloomington Chamber of Commerce, and Downtown Bloomington, Inc.

Public comment against the administration’s approach came from social service workers, members of mutual aid groups like Help Ourselves, and other advocates for the unhoused.

At Wednesday night’s city council meeting, which took place right after the board of park commissioners meeting, Bloomington Chamber president and CEO Eric Spoonmore offered praise for the action of both city boards.

Spoonmore encouraged the city council to follow the recommendation of the board of public works, to enact the ordinance prohibiting obstruction of the right-of-way.

Spoonmore was also critical of the approach taken by some who spoke at the board of park commissioners meeting, in opposition to the administration’s position. Spoonmore said he was “deeply troubled” by remarks from some, which he described as “inflammatory.” Spoonmore said, “I really am concerned by the poor decorum and the discourse that unfolded there.”

Spoonmore said about the meetings of appointed boards, “We want all of our members of the public to be participating in civil engagement, and working to engage our government. We need to make these welcoming spaces.” He continued saying, “We cannot allow the most vulgar forms of profanity to be directed towards public officials. We cannot allow threats to be directed towards public officials.”

Board of park commissioners

Some of the public comment that Spoonmore found objectionable had come in response to remarks from the Bloomington Chamber’s director of advocacy, Christopher Emge, which he gave at the board of park commissioners meeting.

Emge said, “It comes down to both a public health issue and an aesthetics issue, both the public health with regards to illicit drug use, other illegal activities within those [enclosures], and aesthetics of just looking at tents and not feeling safe within the public grounds area that we hold so dear here in an award-winning parks department.”

Emge said, “When you see those tents, there’s a worry that goes about you, or you look away.” Emge said that the Bloomington Chamber gets calls from its 170 members, many of which are small businesses with complaints about the trash and the syringes that they have to pick up.

Emge indicated that tents and enclosures in parks help create an atmosphere for illicit activity. He called the new parks policy a “good first step” towards making sure the city’s parks “can be enjoyed by the entire community.”

Preceding Emge at the public mic was Talisha Coppock, who is executive director of Downtown Bloomington, Inc. Coppock talked in part about the cost of cleaning up, after people abandon their possessions.

Responding to Emge and Coppock was Kyle Halvorsen, who told the group he works with the Indiana Recovery Alliance.

Halvorsen led off by saying, “I work with the unhoused population in this town—and honestly, the first two people that just came up here sort of made me want to fucking puke.”

Halvorsen continued, “I hear about aesthetics in this town. I hear about what’s good for business. We’re talking about people. We’re talking about people—who live outside year-round in this town.” He noted that Bloomington is led by Democrats, but said they “don’t give a shit about the people in this unhoused population.”

Halvorsen said, “I’m shaking right now, I’m so mad. The idea that someone can’t look at people that are in a public park? They can’t look at them?! I’m sorry—that’s fucking insane. Like, that’s absolutely insane.”

Halvorsen continued, “These are human beings. These are human…beings. They’re a part of this community, whether you like it or not. They don’t have anywhere to go.”

Halvorsen continued, “We don’t have enough housing. We don’t have enough affordable housing. Because everybody in this town wants to keep kissing the ass of the people who bring the money into this town.”

I don’t understand it,” Halvorsen said, “We have a giant population of unhoused community, and there’s so little resources for them.”

As described by McDevitt, part of the purpose of the new policy against tents is to ensure that none of the activity in the park is shielded from public view.

From the public mic, taking up the question of what should be in public view was Nick Angelos, who described himself as a recent Indiana University graduate. He said he works with a group called Help Ourselves that serves meals at Seminary Park three times a week.

Angelos invited the park commissioners to consider a question: “Do you like being watched while you sleep? Is that something that you enjoy doing, or think people should have to experience?”

Angelos continued by noting sleep is a human right. Angelos then described the connection between sleep and the need to have enclosed structures available during the day. “If people have their possessions on them, they are constantly afraid of them being stolen by other people—whether they’re unhoused or not.” That means an unhoused person might have to stay up all night, he said.

“So if they do not have structures where they can sleep in peace during the day, there’s going to be consequences—there’s going to be consequences, because of their mental health.”

Angelos wrapped up with a foreboding statement: “If this gets passed, there’s going to be consequences—because I organize them. Is that clear?”

A number of people weighed in to support the new policy. Among them was Jerry Hays, who cautioned against confusion about the nature of the problem. “We need to address the unhoused population by providing services—mental health services, addiction services.” But the issue in front of the board was not about the unhoused, per se, he said. “It’s about public safety, public health issues,” Hays said, “so let’s just keep focused on the real issue.”

The vote on the four-member board of park commissioners was unanimously in favor of the new policy. Serving on the board are Jim Whitlach (who participated by Zoom), Kathleen Mills, Israel Herrera, and Ellen Rodkey.

After the meeting, McDevitt responded to a B Square question by saying that parks staff will start reaching out to people who set up tents in parks, before the new policy goes into effect next Wednesday. The idea is to let them know that their tents will not be allowed starting next week.

Even after the new policy takes effect on Aug. 23, the city’s first approach won’t be to remove people’s tents, she said. “We’re going to have a conversation. We want to work with people.” McDevitt said parks staff would tell people, “Hey, you know what, these aren’t allowed anymore, so for next time, I come back, you can’t have them anymore.”

The policy is enforceable by Bloomington’s police department.

Board of public works

As for the ordinance recommended to the city council by the board of public works, it’s not clear what the timetable will be for consideration by the nine-member legislative branch of city government. The resolution with the attached draft ordinance is supposed to be transmitted to the city council, which could, on its own, take up the ordinance.

But the administration could also initiate the ordinance.

Responding to a question from The B Square at the public mic on Tuesday, public works director Adam Wason said the timing of the draft ordinance is supposed to be sorted out by the administration, in concert with the council’s leadership.

If consideration of the ordinance on occupancy of the right-of-way does not come until 2024, there is at least one vote it will almost certainly not get—that of Sydney Zulich, who is the Democratic Party’s nominee for the District 6 seat, and who is unopposed on the Nov. 7 ballot.

Zulich spoke at both of the board meetings. At the board of public works meeting, Zulich said, “Homeless people have stuff, we all have stuff.” She continued, saying, “The only difference between them and people who do have homes or apartments, or rent anything, is that they don’t have a place to put their stuff.”

Zulich called on the board not to vilify unhoused people for having possessions. “Instead of demonizing them for having stuff, like the rest of us do, I really encourage you to look for solutions that give them a place to put their stuff, instead of just kind of taking it.”

Zulich said, “I really think we should be focused on legislation that helps instead of hurts. And in three and a half months, I would love to work with you all and develop a solution that is maybe a little more helpful and a little less hurtful.”

Responding to Zulich, Wason rejected the idea that the proposed ordinance demonizes homelessness: “By no means is this any intent to demonize homelessness, as was suggested.”

Wason continued, “This is to keep public rights-of-way free and clear for those traveling.”

The types of situations that had prompted the administration to draft the ordinance included sidewalks that Wason described as “completely inaccessible to anyone walking, using a wheelchair, or any type of travel on that sidewalk.” Wason repeated the point: “This isn’t about demonizing homelessness—this is about us trying to keep public rights-of-way clear.”

Wason indicated that the idea of offering lockers where people could stow their belongings is “absolutely legitimate.”

The three-member board of public works voted unanimously in favor of the resolution asking the city council to enact the ordinance on right-of-way occupancy. Serving on the board are: Kyla Cox Deckard; Jennifer Lloyd; and Elizabeth Karon.

24 thoughts on “Bloomington boards act on tents, belongings in parks, public right-of-way

  1. Eric Spoonmore is a little off the rails. Yes, the public commenters opposed to the measures did not engage in genteel speech. So what? They were angry, and their use of expletives expressed that clearly. Sorry, Eric, sometimes that is appropriate, esp. when people are denying what the real issues are, the main one being that homeless people are damned inconvenient. And threats? I was not there but the closest thing to a threat I read was “there will be consequences.” As a former community organizer, I sure hope there will be consequences. That could and should be picketing or pitching tents outside John Hamilton’s comfortable home & Kerry Thomson’s as well if she does not speak out on this issue one way or the other now. And more creative actions a la Code Pink which I wish I could imagine, but someone should. If that is a “threat,” then I endorse such threats! What the real issue is that “these people” want to treat “those people” as individual failures when in fact they are symptomatic of our society’s disinterest or even antagonism towards those who cannot succeed in the system we accept as the “natural” order of things. I have had “personal responsibility” up to “here,” and I can imagine some prime bodily real estate where it should be shoved. . . . If people think the problem in society these days is that folks are not genteel enough, than all I can say is they are too damned comfortable! –Disgusted

    1. I hear what your saying and agree, residents need to take a creative approach and personal responsibility with dignity, respect and civility. I think a major problem in our local society lack of courage to stand up to bullying antics saying “No! Thats not how we treat people here!”

      And, some of us dont know how to use our legal system for Justice’s sake nor which public agency to complain too. Is there even a non biased public compliance officer able and willing to investigate disparate treatment or impact violations?

      Valid federal compliance complaints or investigations aren’t threats, nor consequences so is it a reasonable option? I don’t have all the facts but hasnt the city received funding to address homeless within our community? Cant we ask that some of the public land be used to temporarily setup camp?

      Somewhere out of public right of away and out of sight of a person’s fearful imagination and aesthetic taste?

      Seriously, there’s got to people in our community-outside the one percentors, able to work to pull resources together, attend meetings and address the city council and board members. –Disappointed

      1. There is a lot of work being done by many people. Check out Heading Home

      2. Thanks, Sue! I assumed earlier comments about ‘em was nothing more than a marketing pitch.

  2. Let’s adopt a series of rules that allow the LEO to help monitor the different levels of property damage. This will be a different approach from the past. The first time that they cause $500 in damages they are entered into a daily log. The second time is when they do $1k in damages they are banned from the business or the property. The next time they are caught doing $2k they must enter a rehab center and monitored on a daily basis for their compliance. The prosecutors are the ones who are responsible. The next level is $5k and then they are sent to the judicial system for their repeat criminal to go to prison or leave our safe and civil community. This will allow our nonprofit groups to help the people who need it the most.

    1. How many more crimes have been reported since the encampment began and what fines were imposed? Would sweat equity used to repair damages be possible? What about those who have no addiction issues, or no money to pay fines? I

  3. Spoonmore whining for more decorum during public meetings about a deeply personal, emotional, justice issue is so fucking tone-deaf. Give me a break.

    The Bloomington Chamber of Commerce really played all their cards last night in admitting that this issue is about optics and $$ for them. Sad to see the Board of Park Commissioners join them in this sentiment.

    I think it was Renee Miller who brought up a great point in that this issue always comes up around IU welcome week. Hmmm, wonder why that is?

    1. My guess is they want to not only sweep their own issues under the rug and look good, they lack integrity and the skills to address civil rights maturely?

  4. A Bloomington cop told me there have been laws on the books for years against loitering, soliciting money and camping in parks without a permit. The cop told me HAMILTON told the police chief not to enforce those laws. So what they are doing is ending the HAMILTON policy of ignoring crime Ask any young mother how she feels about taking her children down B line trail. They are scared to death to use that trail. I am as sympathetic to the problems of homeless people. I drawn the line where it makes people afraid and the city less safe.

    1. As a mother who lives off the b-line and walks it with her kids, I’ll say I’m neither “scared to death” nor really scared at all. Sometimes I feel a deep sadness that our society has plummeted to such apathy that we are willing to look the other way when so many people are suffering.

  5. So do the restaurants taking up space on the downtown sidewalks get a pass because they belong to the Donor Class, or will the cops confiscate their stuff too?

    1. Little-known fact – each restaurant is paying between $550 and $3,550 per year for those spaces

      1. So, you’re allowed to take up public space, block sidewalks and streets, and drink alcohol, as long as you have money?

  6. Angelos wrapped up with a foreboding statement: “If this gets passed, there’s going to be consequences—because I organize them. Is that clear?” or, as Trump put it Aug.4:
    “If you go after me, I’m coming after you!”

    1. Yep, profanity is verbal violence. Physical violence is the next step and is implied, sometimes vaguely, sometimes explicitly.

      Little chance that Spoonmore will get his wish when the city council appoints a board member who engages is in such behavior and then defends his right to do so when challenged.

  7. Did i read Angelos’ comment correctly? Did he just THREATEN organized violence if he does not get his way? Does he imagine that to be effective persuasion? I was on the fence, but im completely swayed now that the board is on the right path. Lets not “San Francisco” Bloomington.

  8. Good for Spoonmoore on shedding light to the white privilege of the angry men shouting profanities and demonstrating threatening behavior. Women and people of color need allies in all spaces — especially in government.

  9. Why the city can’t find a place for the tents of the homeless is beyond me. There are numerous empty lots around. Somehow there is always space for another market rate apartment complex, but never space for the down and out.

  10. If Bloomington would stop building all these high rise high priced Apts and build some tiny homes . Elderly people are just on sickness away from homeless . Then tents are ugly but if that’s what you have you use it . Sometimes looking beyond what IU and big money folks in this town want would go a long way . We don’t need more trails the ones we have are dangerous. People please think beyond the largest check book . Everyone deserves at the very least a tiny , no frills , safe & warm home .

    1. Who will build it? Where? How ?

      Check out Heading Home. Working to make Homelessness rare and non recurring

  11. How much would it cost the city public treasury to fit Seminary Squire as a refuge for those devastated by the vicious neoliberal government policies, national and local, since the 1980s? $350k can come from the needless conversion to a greenway of a heretofore safe and peaceful Hawthorne Drive.

Comments are closed.