Special Project – Part 2: How safe is Bloomington, really? – By Steve Higgs

Forrest Gilmore – Photo by Steve Higgs
Video

GILMORE: RISING CRIME, SYNTHETIC DRUGS VICTIMIZE THE HOMELESS, SUPPORTIVE HOUSING REDUCES LOW-LEVEL CRIME

Editor’s note: This is the second of a three-part investigative series on rising crime in The Bloomingtonian called How Safe Is Bloomington, Really?

Part 1: COMBS: HARD DRUGS, GANGS, PROLIFERATION DRIVE SPIKES IN GUN CRIME, featured Perry Township Trustee Dan Combs.

For Part 3, The Bloomingtonian has asked to interview Bloomington Police Chief Mike Diekhoff.

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How safe is Bloomington, really?

GILMORE: RISING CRIME, SYNTHETIC DRUGS VICTIMIZE THE HOMELESS, SUPPORTIVE HOUSING REDUCES LOW-LEVEL CRIME

By Steven Higgs

Rising violent crime in Bloomington is particularly dangerous for Bloomington’s homeless community, according to Rev. Forrest Gilmore, executive director at Beacon Inc., which provides support services to citizens experiencing extreme poverty.

While many in the community feel threatened by the homeless, they are in fact the most vulnerable to increasing crime rates documented in annual Bloomington State of Public Safety Reports over the past two decades, Gilmore added.

“Most of the folks who are street homeless are incredibly disabled,” he said, adding they really aren’t capable of committing advanced or dangerous crimes.

And that makes them targets for a variety of crimes, such as physical violence, sexual violence and theft, Gilmore said. Sometimes the perpetrators are other homeless individuals; sometimes they’re not.

Most citizens experiencing homelessness aren’t involved in crime at all, he said. And those who are involved contributed little to the 64% increase in violent crime between 2020 and 2023 detailed in the 2023 State of Public Safety Report.

Rather, illegal acts committed by the homeless are mostly what Gilmore calls “nuisance crimes” – low-level offenses, such as trespassing, public intoxication, disorderly conduct, petty theft – which are smaller, minor crimes that are not serious threats to the broader community.

“It’s pretty dangerous for them,” he said. “But rarely does that danger spread out beyond the homeless community.”

Synthetic drugs ravage the homeless community

State of Public Safety Reports do not include data on drug crimes in Bloomington, but Gilmore noted that the arrival of synthetic opioids and stimulants coincided with the city’s increase in violent crime.

The rate of violent crime involving weapons jumped 43% between 2015 and 2021 – from 368 to 647, according to the 2023 report.

And that’s when synthetic drugs like fentanyl, spice and meth hit the Bloomington streets and devastated the homeless population, Gilmore said.

“2016-2017 is when we started seeing that,” he said. “So, six or seven years ago when we started to see that really change, drastically, in terms of availability and use.”

Prior to that, alcohol abuse was the dominant substance issue affecting the homeless population, Gilmore said. And the synthetic drugs are altogether different from even the traditional drugs like speed and heroin. They are far more toxic.

“Opioids, specifically fentanyl, can kill you so much quicker than more traditional heroin or opioids do because it’s so potent,” he said, noting that nearly one Beacon client died each week in 2022. “… That number has increased pretty substantially since opioids have taken over.”

Meth is a stimulant that, with serious abuse, can lead to drug-induced mental illness, hallucinations and psychosis.

“That’s what makes them so dangerous,” he said, “in addition to how addictive they are.”

New manufacturing processes also led to dramatic increases in drug availability, as cartels ramped up production and established distribution networks that stretch from Mexico through major metro areas to Bloomington, Gilmore said.

“They’re cheap, really cheap, and that’s why they’re so prevalent now,” he said. “Both fentanyl and meth are so overproduced that they’re incredibly inexpensive.”

Gilmore didn’t have numbers on how many homeless Bloomington citizens have severe substance abuse disorder, but he said the figure is around 30% nationally.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s pretty similar,” he said of Bloomington.

Homeless challenges compounded by crime-ridden and insufficient housing

Violent crime impacts the lives of those who find themselves homeless beyond the daily dangers of street living, Gilmore said.

In addition to daily services, Beacon provides housing options to its clients. And much of the city’s violent crime occurs in subsidized housing areas, which are the primary places where they can afford to live.

“Some of the people we are housing are those people who are afraid,” he said. “They don’t want to move into places that feel dangerous to them.”

And there simply isn’t enough housing in that range, Gilmore said. A recent study of housing availability found the city has more than is needed in the $400-$800 income-based, monthly rental range.

“We had not nearly enough in $0-$400 range,” he said. “And for people experiencing extreme poverty, that’s where they sit.”

Generally speaking, the city has enough emergency shelter space, Gilmore said.

“That doesn’t mean there aren’t people who are street homeless,” he said. “We do have a small percentage of people experiencing homelessness who live on the streets. So that’s a real thing.”

But most of the existing $0-400 rental housing is available through federally subsidized Section 8 public housing, Gilmore said, which is woefully underfunded.

“We know that for every 10 people who qualify for a Section 8 voucher, there are only two vouchers available,” he said.

The bottleneck is not getting people off the streets and into shelters, Gilmore said.

“It’s exiting out of shelter,” he said. “We need to be able to help people exit shelter more quickly.”

Supportive housing solution to homeless crime    

While the homeless are not involved in gun and other violent crimes that dominate the State of Public Safety statistics, the nuisance crimes they do commit can be awful, Gilmore said.

And a remedy for the homeless-based crime not only exists, it has been demonstrated in Bloomington, he added.

“That … is housing with supports,” he said, “what we call permanent supportive housing. Sometimes we talk about it as ‘housing first.’”

One example is the Crawford Apartments, which opened in 2013 and provides permanent housing and on-site support for individuals and families who experience chronic homelessness and disabilities, Gilmore said. The number of nuisance crimes ascribed to the homeless dropped as much as 90% in one year following Crawford’s creation.

“I don’t know a program on the planet that has a more effective crime reduction impact than that,” he said. “So, in terms of the nuisance-based stuff that we’re talking about, there are some pretty clear solutions.”

Permanent supportive housing doesn’t eliminate the nuisance crimes, he said. But it dramatically reduces them, thereby helping social service programs, emergency health care programs and the criminal justice system.

“And that’s to the benefit of the people who are housed and now have a safe place to stay,” he said, “but also to the benefit of the community.”

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Steven Higgs is a retired Bloomington journalist, photographer, author and IU journalism lecturer who occasionally still produces.

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