Voted down on Wednesday by Bloomington’s city council, with just two votes in favor, was an ordinance that would have explicitly prohibited camping, storing personal property, or blocking the public right-of-way, among other things.
Supporting the ordinance were Sue Sgambelluri and Susan Sandberg. Abstaining was Dave Rollo. The other five councilmembers who were present all voted against it. Ron Smith was absent.
Rollo said he was inclined to bring a motion to table the ordinance. Councilmember Jim Sims said he was inclined to put off a vote, but if it came down to a vote that night, he would vote no.
A basic concern for those who opposed the ordinance was that it punishes the unhoused population, without offering a solution for storing their belongings in a place other than the public right-of-way.
Councilmember Matt Flaherty’s sentiments reflected the views of others, when he said that crafting a better ordinance “will take months of community engagement and outreach and collaboration between the executive and legislative branch and the whole community to arrive at a solution.”
Flaherty added, “So I don’t think this is honestly well suited for just tabling or postponing and bringing back with a few clarifications, in a few weeks time.” Rollo said it was clear that there would not be majority support for tabling, so he did not make that motion.
It was city attorney Mike Rouker, who presented the ordinance to the council on behalf of Bloomington mayor John Hamilton’s administration. It’s modeled on a section in a chapter of Indianapolis city code called “Protections for the Homeless.”
A big concern identified by Flaherty and other councilmembers was the disconnect between the professed concern by Rouker for the accessibility of the public right-of-way, and the way the administration has actually dealt with issues like trash carts and shared electric scooters blocking sidewalks or ADA ramps.
Rouker recounted the one situation he was aware of—someone blocking East Kirkwood Avenue’s right-of-way and refusing to move their possessions—that had prompted the administration to put the ordinance in front of the council.
In that situation, the administration “discovered” that from a legal point of view, the city did not have the authority to remove the blockage. “We simply had to live with the obstruction,” Rouker said.
Rouker said, “When we discover something like that, when it’s related to a core mission, like maintaining the public right of way—that’s a situation where we immediately look to examine why we don’t have the mechanisms in place.”
Flaherty later quoted parts of Rouker’s statement. About Rouker’s claims said, “That’s just not the case. And it’s obvious that that’s not the case.”
Flaherty continued, “So it strikes me as very disingenuous that this entire thing is framed as an accessibility issue…” If the administration were concerned about accessibility, Flaherty said, “We’d be tackling the accessibility issues that are known and manifest daily and weekly on our streets.”
Commentary from the public mic in council chambers was uniformly against the ordinance, which was criticized as a way to criminalize the experience of a person who is homeless with no place to put their belongings.
Councilmember Jim Sims addressed the contention that the purpose of the ordinance was to give Bloomington police a way to harass homeless people. “I’m pretty darn sure that this was not an intention for Bloomington police department to have a mechanism to harass or otherwise criminalize our unhoused population.”
Sims continued, “I know a lot of these officers. …I think it’s wrong to say that.” But Sims continued, “I also think that this ordinance would give us a mechanism to do that.” He added, “I don’t think they will, but it will allow that.”
Speaking in council chambers against the ordinance were several members of the mutual aid group called Help Ourselves, which provides regular meals and support people who spend their days in Seminary Park.
Christopher Emge, who is the director of advocacy for the Greater Bloomington Chamber of Commerce said that the ordinance should be tabled. “We need to come together with some solutions that I think are going to work for all parties.” Emge added, “I just don’t think after hearing the discourse tonight that we’re there yet.”
Speaking from the public mic on the Zoom video conferencing platform in support of the ordinance were Talisha Coppock, who is executive director of Downtown Bloomington, Inc. and Jennifer Pearl, who is president of the Bloomington Economic Development Corporation.
Pearl said that safety of the public rights-of-way is important. “At the same time, this should be in addition to other resources that we support in our community for individuals that are facing challenges, whether they’re unhoused, or have mental health or substance abuse challenges.”
City attorney Mike Rouker pointed out that the definition of “obstructed” in the ordinance is meant to put limits on the kind of situations where the city could act to remove someone’s belongings. Here’s the definition:
A sidewalk, street, or other public right-of-way is considered obstructed if:
(1) more than half of its width is blocked at any point;
(2) the normal flow of pedestrians or vehicles is disrupted;
(3) pedestrians are compelled to step onto the street or otherwise expose themselves to danger in order to pass around the blockage; or
(4) it is rendered inaccessible to those protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or other local, state, and federal laws.
Getting some discussion on Wednesday was the idea that eventually the kinds of protections that are implicit in the definition of “obstructed” should be incorporated into a broader ordinance.
The broader legislation would be conceived along the same lines as one on protections of encampments in public parks, which was considered by the council in 2021. The ordinance led to a bitter split on the council that resulted in a 9-hour council meeting.
It was an encampment in Seminary Park that prompted the council’s consideration of the 2021 ordinance. It involved a situation where the board of park commissioners had declined the administration’s effort to have the board enact a policy prohibiting camping in public parks during the day. That meant while parks were open, campers were not in violation of parks policy. But when the parks closed at 11 p.m. the campers were in violation of the policy.
At one point, some campers moved to the public right-of-way along College Avenue, outside Seminary Park. But in the early afternoon of Jan. 14, 2021, Bloomington police officers told campers they could not occupy the public right-of-way. So they moved into the park, which gave them refuge until the park closed. They were later removed from the park, after it closed.
Councilmember Kate Rosenbarger questioned city attorney Mike Rouker about the city’s action at that time, to move campers out of the right-of-way, given that the city now believes it cannot legally move obstructions out of the right-of-way—without enactment of a new ordinance.
About the city’s action at that time, Rosenbarger asked Rouker: “Was it illegal?” Rouker replied, “I’m certainly not in any position to comment on that, based on the information at my disposal.”
Rosenbarger advocated for establishing “safe spaces” for unhoused people—including parking spaces for people living out of their cars and places for people to set up tents, with 24-hour surveillance, trash pickup and bathrooms. “Before we take away another space for our unhoused neighbors, we have a lot of questions to answer and solutions that need to be found there,” Rosenbarger said.
Councilmember Piedmont-Smith at one point challenged Rouker’s contention that under the city’s current policy, people would not be moved from an encampment on public property, if there were not enough shelter beds available. She cited the general police order on the topic, which was released in August 2021.
The police order just says that before closing an encampment, the city “will confirm the number of available shelter beds for individuals in the encampment who do not have other overnight shelter options, and will offer a shelter bed to as many individuals as possible.”
Rouker responded to Piedmont-Smith, saying that he would compare that to the current version of the city’s policy to see if any changes had been made.