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Tent dwellers near Bloomington shelter seek other options after the city forces them to move

Lydia Nelson and fiancé Dennis Sullivan pose in front of a tent they have been ordered to vacate by Thursday.
Eric Stock
Lydia Nelson and fiancé Dennis Sullivan pose in front of a tent they have been ordered to vacate by Thursday.
Updated: March 30, 2023 at 12:06 PM CDT
Bloomington Police say the tent dwellers lined up along Constitution Trail are violating city policy by being on park property at night. Officer Brandt Parsley said police asked the six people to move after some trail users complained.

Justin Larson says he has lived on and off the streets since he was 9 years old. That was 30 years ago. He's lived in nearly a dozen states as he tried to get his life on track.

Larson said he left Florida for Illinois because a friend told him he could get better medical treatment for back and spine ailments that have kept him from working. He said he could not afford health coverage for medical marijuana in Florida. In Illinois, recreational marijuana is legal, but it kept him from getting into the Home Sweet Home shelter in Bloomington.

“I was like, 'Excuse me ma'am, I came up here because medicinally I can’t get that down in Florida because I could never come up with $400 to pay for a medical card,'" Larson said.

Home Sweet Home does not allow marijuana because many residents are in addiction recovery. Larson has camped in a tent next to the shelter southeast of downtown Bloomington for the last few months. He may not be there much longer.

On Monday, Bloomington Police came to the encampment and told several people staying there they must leave. According to the shelter, police gave them 24 hours. They later changed it to 72 hours.

Most people defined as homeless in Bloomington-Normal stay in shelters or temporary emergency housing. You don't actually see much of them on the streets. Advocates for the unhoused say that masks the lack of affordable housing and resources for the housing insecure in the community.

The homeless encampment near a busy intersection for cars, walkers and bikers has put the issue in plain sight.

“It’s just been a huge disruptor for them,” said Matt Burgess, chief executive officer for Home Sweet Home Ministries, the faith-based shelter nearby.

Burgess said police told them the tent dwellers are in a public right of way. The four tents sit in a row along Constitution Trail next to Oakland Avenue and Gridley Street. Six people sleep there. Burgess said police told them they have received complaints about the tents, but did not offer specifics.

Bloomington Police say the tent dwellers lined up along Constitution Trail are violating city policy by being on park property at night. Officer Brandt Parsley said police asked the six people to move after some trail users complained.

"There are ordinances that do now allow anyone in the park after dark, so we can't allow people to essentially live in the park, and then what drew our attention to that was we received numerous complaints from citizens," Parsley said, adding those complaints alleged the people in tents were asking for money or otherwise trying to talk to passersby.

Parsley said the department does not have a definitive date or time when it would issue citations to the any tent dwellers who don't leave, but said they could get an ordinance violation or face arrest for trespassing.

"When we get called in a situation like that, we unfortunately do have to come up with some kind of remedy," Parsley said. "For us, the ideal outcome is find some services for these people so they are not stuck living in a tent."

Burgess said the Home Sweet Home shelter, and the Salvation Army shelter west of downtown, don’t have available beds even for people who are living on the street.

“Typically, people in that circumstance would rank high on our waiting list, and it’s just a testament to how busy we are and how long that list is, they are having to wait weeks to be able to come into the shelter,” Burgess said.

Burgess said the ministry is exploring options for the residents. He said the shelter's rapid rehousing program can help get a roof over their heads and the shelter may offer financial assistance. But he said that can't be done in 72 hours.

Tent visibility

This is not Bloomington's first homeless encampment.

Tent dwellers have quietly lived for years in wooded areas off West Market Street. Some had to leave when a Panda Express restaurant was built.

Burgess said those homeless residents were generally left alone. He wonders why these residents near the shelter are a problem.

“This is a very visible encampment,” Burgess said. “This is something that has obviously caught a lot of people’s attention just because of how visible the tents are from the street.

“I don’t know where they expect folks to go, quite frankly. There isn’t an option.”

Burgess said even if the shelter doesn't have beds available, it wants them close by because the ministry can feed them and offer services such as job placement.

Charlie Fox said he got laid off from his job as a construction worker last winter. Now he says he can't work because he has to tend to his ailing wife. She's mostly confined to a wheelchair.

Charlie Fox and his wife Tina pose in front of the tent they have been ordered to move by Thursday.
Eric Stock
Charlie Fox and his wife Tina pose in front of the tent they have been ordered to move by Thursday.

Fox has been in and out of the homeless shelter so many times he can't get back in. They have been living in a tent for the last month.

Burgess said the shelter tries to break the cycle of homelessness helping its residents develop a sustainable plan for work and housing. After so many tries, they are cut off until they show progress in breaking that cycle.

Fox said he's on good terms with the shelter. His beef is with the City of Bloomington for forcing them to leave.

“I guess we are going to have to fight the city, but I’m not going to be alone,” Fox said. “I’m going to let everybody in my power know what people are doing. You don’t treat another person like that because they look different.”

Fox, 57, said he's tried to be a good neighbor, picking up trash and being respectful of others. He said he's not sure where he will be able to take his ailing wife if they have to leave.

Disruptive behavior also can get you kicked out of a homeless shelter. Justin Larson said that's what happened to him once Home Sweet Home eventually let him in. He said he "bumped heads" with staff, and alluded to several confrontations with employees.

These are just a few examples of the complicated lives the homeless population lead. There are no simple solutions. There are other examples.

Lydia Nelson also has been unable to get into the Home Sweet Home shelter. She said she got kicked out of the Salvation Army Safe Harbor Shelter. Nelson said she was bullied there. She said she suffers from anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder from an abusive childhood and she's autistic. Those conditions can make it difficult to live in a group setting.

“They don’t understand me and they’d rather bully me than understand me,” Nelson said as she fought back tears. Nelson said she couldn't take it when police ordered them out of the tent. “I almost went into seizures and I still can’t cope. I’m on the verge of running away and playing in the street because I can’t take this anymore,” she said.

Nelson said she recently moved to Bloomington from Mississippi. She met a man online and they are now engaged. Nelson uses a wheelchair and said she can't work because of her ailments. She said she's living off Social Security survivor benefits, but it's not enough to afford an apartment.

Home Sweet Home's Matt Burgess said he contacted Bloomington's mayor and the city council member whose ward includes the shelter to see what they can do. Ward 1 council member Grant Walch said he passed along the shelter's concerns to city administration “to see what we can do to help the less fortunate in our community."

“I think that the city manager and the police department are handling it in the proper way,” Walch said.

City manager Tim Gleason said the city has tried to help the displaced residents relocate. “I think that they are trying to seek a new location on their own and have rejected what we have offered them as far as a location to be out of the elements,” Gleason said.

Burgess said he talked to shelter staff and the residents and they said police did not make other options available to them when they ordered them to leave on Monday.

Burgess feels the clock is ticking.

“We’re not panicked by it. The folks in the tents, our neighbors in the tents, they are fairly anxious and dealing with panic with not knowing where they are going to be able to be,” he said.

The shelter will try to make room for four of the displaced residents, he said, even though it over extends staff. He's not sure it will work. There are reasons these residents have not been able to stay in the past. He said keeping them in the shelter gives the residents access to food and services.

Burgess said one of the tent dwellers is trying to get into an apartment where they used to live. Another plans to stay in his tent and see what police do when they come back on Thursday.

Burgess said he hopes this situation will bring the problem of homelessness in Bloomington-Normal out of the shadows.

“I think the level of community awareness about the issue of homeless needs to grow. We need to be more aware of, and more committed to doing something about this intractable issue that quite frankly that Home Sweet Home has been involved with for over 100 years,” he said.

For now, all the shelter can do is reassure the displaced residents that someone cares about them, said Burgess.

WGLT correspondent Michele Steinbacher contributed to this report.

Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.