Proposed law on protections for Bloomington’s houseless population prompts question: What are a city’s core services?

For about five hours on Wednesday, Bloomington’s city council considered a proposed law that would prevent the displacement of houseless people from their encampments in city parks, unless certain conditions are met.

Late Wednesday afternoon (Feb. 24, 2021), a couple of tents were set up on the Walnut Street side of Seminary Park. (Dave Askins/Square Beacon)

One of the alternatives provided in the proposed law is for the city to designate locations on public property with access to bathrooms and within a mile of distribution points for prepared meals.

If the city designated such locations, with adequate space for those experiencing homelessness, then encampments could be displaced from city parks without meeting the conditions.

Bloomington mayor John Hamilton’s administration is opposed to the ordinance.

The ordinance is a response to a decision by Hamilton, to clear a Seminary Park encampment in early December and again in mid-January.

During the meeting, a key question was drawn out by back-and-forth between councilmembers and city department heads: What are a city’s core services?

An ordinance co-sponsor, Isabel Piedmont-Smith, asked the city staff who were present on the Zoom video conference: “Where can people experiencing homelessness sleep, when no shelter is available to them?”

It was deputy mayor Mick Renneisen who fielded the question. He began by saying, “The city has some core services that we are responsible for, just as the county does, the state does and the federal government does.”

He added, “At the moment, we partner with agencies who are well situated and manage the challenges of people experiencing homelessness better than we do. We don’t have a department or set of staff that do this.”

Renneisen wrapped up by saying, “I just know that we are not situated to answer that question and don’t believe it’s one of our core service areas to deliver that as one of the services we deliver—a place for people without homes to sleep.”

Renneisen’s response was criticized by some of the 49 public commenters who offered remarks at the meeting.

Bloomington area resident Dave Warren pointed to Bloomington’s golf course and farmers market as examples of non-core functions of government: “Golf course? Not a core function of government. Farmers market? Not a core function of government. Those things would exist anyway.”

Warren continued, “Protecting the health, safety and opportunities for those in our community with the least political and economic power and ensuring equal justice for them under the law? That is absolutely a core function of government.”

Public comment at the meeting was predominantly in favor of the ordinance.

On Wednesday, the council, which was meeting in the guise of its committee of the whole, did not vote on a recommendation. Instead, the council voted unanimously just to report to itself that the proposed ordinance had been discussed.

That means next Wednesday (March 3), the council could take a vote on enactment of the ordinance.

Sentiments expressed by councilmembers at Wednesday’s meeting indicate that Steve Volan would likely join the three sponsors—Piedmont-Smith, Matt Flaherty, and Kate Rosenbarger—in support of the ordinance. Volan is not eager to see the issue decided as early as next week.

Volan said, “Those who are opposing this are not advancing an affirmative alternative to the open statement that it is illegal to sleep unhoused in the city limits, even though we know there are inadequate shelter beds available. If we have more work to do, why would we decide this as quickly as next week?”

Based on their remarks at Wednesday’s meeting, the needed fifth vote won’t likely come from Ron Smith, Dave Rollo or Susan Sandberg.

Smith said, “I’ve heard from a lot of people in the community. And it has been overwhelmingly opposed to the ordinance.” Smith continued, “And people really do care about the homeless in his community. They just don’t think that having camping in the parks is the solution. So let’s let’s pull together and try to get a better solution. It seems like camping in a park is just not really a solution at all.”

Rollo was skeptical of Flaherty’s assessment that the fiscal impact of the ordinance would be “fairly minimal.” Rollo said, “This is very serious, and it places a burden on a number of departments. So they’ve expressed concerns about the time, the resources, the expense.”

Rollo continued, “Clearly there’s a large disparity in the approximation of what this is likely to entail. I tend to think that it’s going to require a large commitment. We don’t know what that commitment is in terms of resources.”

Rollo said, “I will probably…I’m not going to support this.” He added, “But I’m open to learning more in the next week.”

Sandberg said, “A reason for why I will likely be opposing this is the lack of due respect that was paid to our city staff who will be tasked for executing this plan.”

Sandberg said she’d heard from constituents who are not inclined to speak during public commentary: “They don’t want to come into these meetings, because they don’t want to be blamed and shamed and ridiculed and mocked for having concerns about allowing our public parks to be ceded to this kind of activity.”

Sandberg added, “I frankly think [the proposed ordinance is] flawed on many levels, not the least of which is the fiscal impact that has not been successfully studied and presented to us.”

Sue Sgambelluri did not express an explicit sentiment on her potential support of the ordinance. She echoed concerns about fiscal impact, phrasing them in terms of trade-offs. “Even the most basic reading of this ordinance leads me to ask questions about what kind of staffing is going to be needed. What kind of oversight is needed? How much is storage space going to cost? How much are storage materials? How much staff time will be taken?”

Sgambelluri added, “I have concluded for myself that there are resources there that haven’t been reflected in our discussion that we’re going to have to come up with. And that means those are resources that can’t be spent on something else. So I think we have an obligation to understand what trade-offs we’re making here.”

In his remarks, Flaherty reviewed how the back-and-forth during the meeting between councilmembers and city staff had established that someone could be arrested for trespassing, if they were sleeping in a public park past the time they’re closed. It had settled a point of debate: Is it fair to say that Bloomington criminalizes sleeping in public parks?

Flaherty continued, “When asked if they could commit to not arresting an unhoused person sleeping in public space, who is otherwise behaving lawfully, the administration declined to do so.”

Flaherty returned to the question that Piedmont-Smith had posed: If an unhoused person is unable to go to a shelter, where are they legally allowed to sleep?

Flaherty said that the discussion that night had in some sense answered the question: “We clarified that the current answer is: Nowhere.”

Flaherty characterized the city administration’s response as: “This is not a central function or obligation of government.” Flaherty added, “And I think this is where we very strongly disagree. I believe that government does have an obligation to secure the basic rights, dignity and security of all residents, including our unhoused residents.”

Council president Jim Sims was not able to attend Wednesday’s meeting.

On March 3, the council could take a vote on enactment. The council could also decide that night to delay a vote using at least a couple different procedures—by postponing to a future council meeting or by making another referral to a committee.

One thought on “Proposed law on protections for Bloomington’s houseless population prompts question: What are a city’s core services?

  1. Tents in parks don’t solve homelessness. The ordinance is just a feel good measure to provide the appearance that something positive is being done. “See look we let homeless people sleep in a tent in the cold, see how good we are!” The people making this kind of proposal are completely unwilling to actually work on solving this problem. There is not a lack of places for the homeless. A primary problem is the lack of a system to help these people find the right place for shelter. These people simply need help and the city has no system in place to provide that help. An example of a functioning help system can be found in Bakersfield CA, not in the sidewalk tents of Los Angeles. See https://www.fastcompany.com/90591154/this-california-city-just-ended-chronic-homelessness

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