Rights of the Unhoused Restricted in Bloomington as New Laws Ban Sidewalk Sleeping and Tents in Parks

Staff report

Bloomington, Ind. – August 18, 2023

The rights of the unhoused population in Bloomington, Indiana took a hit this week as city officials passed stringent laws aimed at making the city more “accessible.” Sleeping on sidewalks and pitching tents in public parks have been deemed unlawful under the new regulations.

The City of Bloomington Parks Commissioners, in a session held on Wednesday, approved a policy prohibiting the use of tents and enclosed structures in city parks. Effective August 23, 2023, it will be illegal to set up a tent in a city park during daylight hours.

This move comes after the city already prohibited overnight camping in public parks back in December 2020. However, at that time, the Bloomington Parks and Recreation Board rejected a daytime tent ban in public parks.

James “JT” Vanderburg, who had been relying on a tent for shelter, froze to death on a Seminary Park sidewalk on Christmas Eve of 2020. His tent encampment at the park had been dismantled just days before. Vanderburg’s death occurred while he and another individual were sleeping exposed to the elements along the park’s perimeter and on a public sidewalk.

Eric Spoonmore, representing the Bloomington Chamber of Commerce, voiced support for the new laws, citing a need for “equity and accessibility.” Spoonmore emphasized that the changes were intended to ensure the city’s accessibility while acknowledging business owners’ concerns about people camping in public spaces.

The ban on sidewalk sleeping and daytime tent usage was met with mixed reactions from the unhoused community. In Seminary Park, two individuals shared their perspectives on camera. One woman expressed, off camera, that the ban wouldn’t prevent those without homes from doing what they needed to survive.

Wilfred Dana Shasteen, a tent user who is currently without a permanent residence, criticized the ban as an infringement on park rights. He pointed out that the rulebook only allows for bans on tents if they obstruct access, making the new regulation unjust. Shasteen spoke about the challenges of being homeless, including recent incidents of theft and his struggle to find a dry spot during rainy weather.

BLOOMINGTON, INDIANA – AUGUST 17: Wilfred Dana Shasteen sits outside a tent in Seminary Park on August 17, 2023, in Bloomington, Indiana. Shasteen said he has nowhere else to go, and the tent shelters him from rainstorms. (Photo by Jeremy Hogan/The Bloomingtonian)

Ronnie, a 53-year-old who has experienced homelessness for over two years, also weighed in on the situation. He noted that the lack of a stable shelter forced many unhoused individuals to set up tents in parks. Ronnie suggested a compromise where cleanliness could be maintained in exchange for permitting tents in the parks.

BLOOMINGTON, INDIANA – AUGUST 17: Ronnie, who said he is now clean and sober, but still unhoused, sits in Seminary Park on August 17, 2023, in Bloomington, Indiana. Ronnie said after the shelters close every day at 7 a.m., he has nowhere to go but the streets until the shelter reopens in the evening. (Photo by Jeremy Hogan/The Bloomingtonian)

Amidst these changes, Ronnie lamented the imminent closure of Wheeler Mission’s women’s shelter in September 2023. He emphasized that the unhoused population needed more viable shelter options to effectively adhere to the new regulations.

This report includes edited and condensed quotes from interviews conducted with unhoused individuals. Longer quotes from those affected are put in another post.

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