Bloomington’s Seminary Park action spurs “Hands off Homeless” rally, call for funding of grassroots efforts

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On Friday evening, about 200 people gathered on the southeast corner of the Monroe County courthouse square to respond to the city of Bloomington’s action on Wednesday night, to remove a group of a dozen and half tents and people from Seminary Park.

One demand that was read aloud by Marc Teller, who’s with the Bloomington Homeless Coalition, is to set up a place for the unhoused to camp that is more centrally located with better access to services.

Another demand read aloud by Teller is for the government money that was allocated to Wheeler Mission—to re-open the women’s shelter, which had closed over the summer—to be transferred to Hotels for Homeless. Teller reported that on Wednesday night, 17 Seminary Park campers had been taken in by Hotels for Homeless.

Advocate for the homeless Janna Arthur, who was a write-in candidate for Monroe County council this year, said, “No one was left behind—because of Hotels of Homeless.”

The grassroots organization, founded over the summer, has become eligible for city of Bloomington social services funding (Jack Hopkins) through fiscal sponsorship by New Leaf-New Life.

At Friday’s rally, local activist Vauhxx Booker used his time addressing the crowd to encourage people to donate directly to the group through its PayPal link.

The city’s position is that in terms of Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines for the COVID-19 pandemic the camping activity in Seminary Park did not count as an “encampment.”

According to remarks from Bloomington’s mayor John Hamilton and an official statement from the city posted on the Bloomington’s Facebook page, “Both the Parks specialists…and BPD officers report that park users are not generally using parks and park structures as residences or emergency shelters, but rather as social gathering places.”

On Friday night, when Bloomington Homeless Coalition member Marc Teller read the statement aloud to the courthouse gathering, it drew a chorus in response: “Bullshit!

Executive director of Beacon, Inc. Forrest Gilmore, who attended Friday’s rally, said on Thursday about the city’s position on the situation in Seminary Park, “People are sleeping in the parks, all over the city. The idea that they are not is silly. Of course they’re sleeping in the parks.”

An action like the one taken by the city on Wednesday night at Seminary Park would not be possible without a 15-day public notice, under the Houseless Bill of Rights that Booker wants the Bloomington city council to enact.

The bill of rights proposed by Booker would require that the public notice of eviction be given to the people living in the camp, as well as nonprofit institutions like “Beacon, Inc., Wheeler Mission, Middleway House or similar organizations designated by the city.”

Many of the remarks and testimonials given by speakers on Friday night conveyed mistrust of established institutional resources, not just the city of Bloomington’s mayor, John Hamilton. Wheeler Mission describes itself as, “a non-denominational, Christian, social services organization, which provides critically needed goods and services to the homeless, poor, and needy of central Indiana without regard to race, color, sexual orientation, creed, national origin, or religion.”

Teller said, “Personally, I would never step foot in Wheeler Mission. Just because I’m Jewish.” Pointing to another rally attendee, Teller said, “They don’t let you in there, because you’re gay.”

Wheeler Mission’s women’s shelter closed over the summer and has not yet re-opened, reportedly due to staffing difficulties. Bloomington city council’s year end appropriation ordinance, approved on Dec. 2, allowed for $54,000 of funding to help re-open the Wheeler Mission women’s shelter. Another $54,000 for the Wheeler Mission women’s shelter was approved by the Monroe County commissioners on Nov. 18.

Among the testimonials given on Friday was one from Harry Collins with the Bloomington Homeless Coalition. He said, “I have been homeless off-and-on for 25 years. The latest is this last year. I do not blame the town for it. I do blame the government, because of the fact that they’re raising prices in this town for an apartment that normal people cannot afford.”

Collins chalked up the high rents to the market that is driven by college students who have enough money to pay for it. Collins said he knows that people walking towards him will cross over to the other side of the street to avoid him: “No, that’s fine. That’s their opinion, but it still hurts.”

John Pritchett told the crowd on Friday, “I can’t believe how this town treats the homeless people. Evansville treats their homeless better than Bloomington.”

When he delivered remarks on Tuesday to the board of park commissioners, Pritchett had elaborated a bit about his experience in Evansville working for a rescue shelter. Pritchett had joined a few dozen others in calling for the park commissioners not to approve a change to a park policy that would prohibit daytime camping, in addition to the already prohibited overnight camping.

Park commissioners voted down the policy change, which had been proposed by parks staff. The vote led many to conclude that the city would allow the community in Seminary Park to remain.

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