The Bloomington Parks and Recreation board voted via Zoom meeting against a special use policy for public parks, which would have prohibited tents being set up without a permit during daytime hours. The rule would have directly affected Bloomington community members experiencing homelessness.
The lone board member in favor of the ban was Les Coyne, who is stepping down from his position on the board by the end of the year.
A sense of quiet fell across Seminary Park Tuesday in the hours leading up to the vote during a meeting that began at 4 p.m., and went for over 2 hours as many community members able to attend the virtual meeting expressed their outrage that the policy change was being considered during the pandemic.
Members of the Bloomington Homeless Coalition arrived in the park after 3 p.m., and Heather Lake gathered up several who wanted to speak on the matter but had a single cell phone with a speaker to listen to the meeting and offer people experiencing homelessness a chance to speak. By the time the board began taking questions from the community, many in the park had gone to tents or faded away into the cold night.
Lake had planned to use wipes to sanitize the phone, and give everybody interested a chance to talk, but instead, express frustration that the pandemic, and the lack of in person meetings during the pandemic has contributed to a digital divide between those able to attend from the comfort of homes, and those living in tents who may not even have a cell phone, or data plan to attend virtually.
“They’re at home making judgements,” said Lake. “I’d like for them to spend a couple weeks out here, and then we’ll talk about it.”
Lake said there also isn’t a winter shelter this year since most churches in the city have been closed by the pandemic. (Editor’s note, the Wheeler Mission is offering shelter this winter, and the Bloomingtonian is trying to find out more details. The Bloomingtonian may have a separate article in the coming days about resources for community members experiencing homelessness this winter.)
A man who said he’s experiencing homelessness expressed his frustration with trying to get back on his feet during the pandemic. He said he lost his job over 2-months ago, and didn’t qualify for unemployment due to being fired.
“There’s nobody here to help anybody,” he said. He expressed frustration that he was doing the things he was told to do, but the pandemic is making access to services difficult.
He said he’s also applied for jobs but isn’t able to get hired.
Mary Jane Hoene said she grew up in Bloomington, and sees people regularly she’s known all her life, but she’s ready to give up on life.
“I’m not homeless by choice, it just kind of happened,” said Hoene.
Hoene said she moved out of housing with bad management a year ago, and has been unable to find housing since then, and five months ago she became homeless. Hoene said she was ok living on the streets through the summer, but now that winter is arriving, she’s worried.
When she tried to get housing a couple felonies prevented her from receiving housing, and she was also denied public housing due to an unpaid bill.
“I can’t get no help,” said Hoene.
A man experiencing homelessness who said he’d like to be called, “Aries,” said he’s been living on the streets for over 10 years.
“I don’t even have a tent,” he said as he sat in the entrance to a friend’s tent. “I have nowhere to go. What evers gonna happen is gonna happen.”
Aries said he used to hang out at People’s Park, but a few years ago the police showed up every day 24 hours per day, 7 days per week, and that’s when he and others began going to Seminary Park. He said college kids don’t even use the park, but mosaics had been put on the ground in the park to make sleeping there on the ground uncomfortable.
“You get tired of being woken up,” he said. Aries said he’d heard a rumor that the police were going to throw everybody out of the park Monday, and he had slept near a Starbucks overnight instead.
“We’ll put a tent somewhere that isn’t a park,” he said in response to a question about what he’d do if the rules on tents were changed by Parks and Recreation.
In a press release sent to the media Tuesday the city said, “
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
December 8, 2020
City Recommends Park Board Approve Update to Special Use Policy
Bloomington, Ind. – This afternoon, the City’s Parks and Recreation Department, with the support of the administration, will recommend that the City’s Board of Park Commissioners amend the Park and Facility Policy (#13040) to prohibit “camping upon or otherwise inhabiting any property, structure, or facility of the department, at any time without a permit.” Currently, the policy requires that a special use permit be obtained for certain activities in and uses of the park, including, among other uses, “camping on lands of the department or inhabiting any structure or facility overnight without a permit.”
The recommendation to amend the special use permit policy is being made in response to an increasing presence of tents and other makeshift structures in several City park properties overnight (in violation of the existing special use policy) and throughout the day. Quasi-permanent installations in park properties–on lawns, in wooded areas and underneath park shelters–can limit and/or discourage access to these areas by a broad range of users. Parks are publicly owned properties acquired, developed, and maintained for the positive development and well-being of everyone in the community, and protecting full access for all residents is fundamental to their capacity to enhance health and quality of life for all.
Together with nonprofit partners in the social services, the City has allocated resources and personnel to support and engage with people who are spending the most time in downtown parks, including many who have created encampments there. From mid-September through late November, the Parks Department led a ten-week “Public Health in Parks” (PHIP) partnership with the Monroe County Health Department, IU Health, and Centerstone to place representatives from the City and the partnering groups in Seminary Park throughout the day to build relationships with people who use the park, and provide assistance, including PPE, water and snacks, warm hats, gloves and socks, as well as HIV and HCV testing and connections with other providers. The Bloomington Police Department’s Downtown Resource Officers, Neighborhood Resource Specialists, and social workers have also actively engaged recently with regular parks users to identify needs and help connect them to appropriate programs or services. Parks specialists stationed at Seminary Park as part of the PHIP partnership and BPD officers report that numerous park users have indicated that they are not generally using parks and park structures as residences or emergency shelters, but rather as social gathering places.
In anticipation of today’s decision, City staff has coordinated with area shelter directors and other partners to help prepare frequent park users for a possible change in the way the park may be used and connect them with options for daytime resources and overnight shelter, if needed. Area shelters currently report availability of overnight accommodations and daytime resources (at Beacon’s Shalom Center and Wheeler Mission), with the Winter Contingency Shelter for Women, funded through a partnership between the City of Bloomington and Monroe County Government, set to open shortly. Those without a home with COVID-19 symptoms or a positive test result may isolate at the Monroe County Safe Recovery Site.
The City supports and partners with multiple social service agencies offering assistance to residents confronting homelessness through its Jack Hopkins Social Service Grants program, which has distributed $400,000 in 2020, and through dedicated funds administered by the BPD (to be administered by the City’s Community and Family Resources Department in 2021). ”