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Bloomington reviews Supreme Court decision on homelessness

A staff member from Home Sweet Home Ministries shelter in Bloomington tags a tent in the homeless encampment that's developed in the nearby parking lot
Melissa Ellin
/
WGLT
The homeless encampment in an overflow parking lot near downtown Bloomington.

Homeless people may need to start paying more attention to where they sleep at night since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Friday that municipalities can craft their own policies surrounding the issue.

In Bloomington, that means the current zoning code — which penalizes sleeping on public property or private property without permission — is constitutional. When the city enforces the code, fines range between $3 and $25 per instance.

The city said it’s aware of the court’s decision and reviewing it to determine local impact.

“We are committed to ensuring that our policies and actions are in compliance with the law while also upholding our values of compassion and support for vulnerable populations,” reads Bloomington’s statement — which a spokesperson sent to WGLT over email. “Our primary concern remains the health, safety, and well-being of all Bloomington residents, including those experiencing homelessness.”

The plan, Bloomington said, is to consult “legal experts, community leaders and relevant stakeholders” before making any potential policy changes. It did not say whether any are expected.

“We appreciate the community's patience and understanding as we navigate this complex issue,” the statement said. “Further updates will be provided as we continue to assess the situation and formulate our response.”

Encampments around town

Bloomington Police Department [BPD] did not respond to WGLT's request for comment about how many fines have been issued relevant to the zoning code, but the department appears to be allowing multiple encampments on both public and private property.

The last time police disbanded an encampment publicly was in the spring 2023. Police were set to disband an encampment located on a private overflow parking lot owned by Eastview Christian Church in December but reversed court last minute, saying people could stay indefinitely. No action has been taken since.

Home Sweet Home Ministries [HSHM] shelter near downtown has been providing services to people in a parking lot next to its property since late 2023, and a housing coalition of public safety officials — including police — government officials and other community stakeholders have been working to find a solution for people who are living on the streets.

Local expert weighs in

HSHM Chief Executive Officer [CEO] Matt Burgess said the shelter has started a street outreach program to continue engaging people unsheltered across Bloomington-Normal. He added that there are around 20 tents up on the Constitution Trail — city-owned property impacted by the SCOTUS ruling — next to Home Sweet Home.

He’s not sure how the city might change policy, but he’s been encouraged by the continued collaboration Bloomington has shown in wanting to be part of the solution to ending homelessness in McLean County. He added that he doesn’t see the Supreme Court’s decision affecting that progress.

“In some ways, the ruling by the Supreme Court may not have much effect on us locally, at least, I hope it doesn't have much effect on us locally,” he said. “I hope it doesn't result in, you know, this kind of whiplash effect of, ‘OK, well now we're going to make it illegal in ways that don't already exist.’ I hope the energy continues to stay focused, and I believe the energy will continue to stay focused on finding… solutions.”

Burgess added that Home Sweet Home and other homeless services agencies see decisions to penalize those who sleep outside as reductive.

“Homelessness is a community problem, and so we need as a community to commit to solving the problem, not to criminalizing the problem, not to pushing it off on somebody else to come up with a solution,” he said. “We here in Bloomington-Normal, need to solve the problem of homelessness here in Bloomington Normal.”

Regardless of how the SCOTUS decision trickles down to the area, Burges said HSHM’s vision remains the same.

The shelter has always offered free meals to people throughout the community. It also helps people obtain IDs and find jobs. And staff are always on a mission to get people sheltered.

“We're going to continue with those efforts to try and engage people in services, to bring them inside and move people towards housing,” Burgess said. “That's not going to change. It wouldn't have changed no matter which way the Supreme Court ruled.”

Melissa Ellin is a reporter at WGLT and a Report for America corps member, focused on mental health coverage.