Bloomington police officers and other city employees dismantled a Seminary Park encampment established by people experiencing homelessness in the middle of a freezing night on Dec. 9. Prohibiting overnight tent use in public parks is within the Parks and Recreation Department’s power, but enforcement of the rule was rare early in the COVID-19 pandemic. Just days before, a proposed Parks and Recreation special use policy banning tents from daytime public park use spurred community outrage.
Even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines advise cities to keep encampments where they are because “clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers. This increases the potential for infectious disease spread.”
Despite this recommendation, Mayor John Hamilton and the city of Bloomington still gave the order to dismantle tents at Seminary Park. While shelter was offered, the options provided aren’t suitable for all people experiencing homelessness, especially those dealing with addiction issues. Elected officials face difficult decisions every day, but compromising on one’s core values should not be tolerated. There is no good reason, politically or morally, to completely dismantle someone’s winter shelter while knowing they could freeze to death or contract the potentially fatal COVID-19 virus.
Hamilton’s actions that night were a grotesque display of power over the homeless community. Despite being hailed as a progressive oasis in a red state, Bloomington and its elected officials have forgotten the basic principle of compassion.
One-party control in local and state governments can lead to elected officials compromising on their values which is then furthered by a lack of accountability and general voter apathy.
In Bloomington and Monroe County, Democrats control the Mayor’s office, City Council, County Council and the County Commissioners office. While the threat of losing one’s seat exists during primary and general elections, it’s difficult to oust any incumbent, especially as the minority party. Bloomington municipal elections are not until 2023, giving the public plenty of time to forget about this transgression.
This — coupled with a general lack of civic engagement — leads to the lack of accountability and voter apathy seen in politics today. The unilateral power of a Democratic mayor in a liberal city is partially to blame for the mistreatment of people experiencing homelessness.
The lack of accountability in one-party dominated areas is not exclusive to Bloomington or a single political party. South Bend, a city with a Democratic mayor and an all-Democrat Common Council, has continued to dismantle homeless encampments throughout the pandemic. In August, the South Bend Tribune reported one encampment had been removed at least four times this year.
If the city of Bloomington and Hamilton truly want to live up to progressive ideals, they should further prioritize Housing First policies, adhere to CDC guidelines on COVID-19 and take care of all community members — not just the ones who provide an electoral benefit. Elected officials should take direction from organizations such as Beacon who work with people experiencing homelessness every day.
Housing First focuses on providing permanent housing for those experiencing homelessness, rather than any punitive punishment. By addressing housing needs first, community members can concentrate on other needs, such as health care, education and job security. Indianapolis has embraced this approach throughout the COVID-19 pandemic by establishing a temporary hotel housing program and investing in rapid-rehousing programs.
The path toward a better Bloomington starts with moving legislation away from criminalization of the poor and toward rehabilitation. Using police officers to dismantle tents rather than increasing funding for permanent housing is only one example. While no one person or political party can be blamed for the complex issue of homelessness, it is necessary for Democratic elected officials to stand by all constituents.
Those who are homeless are still people who deserve kindness and compassion. At the end of the day, all politics are local and even a so-called progressive oasis can harm marginalized communities. Bloomington’s recent actions against people experiencing homelessness are just another reminder to engage elected officials regularly and to speak up on inequity.
Vote for actions, not words or political parties.
Alessia Modjarrad (she/her) is a junior studying Economic Consulting and Law and Public Policy. She is the President of the College Democrats of Indiana and works as a political operative on various Democratic campaigns.