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Homeless In Bloomington, Part 2

Bloomington Police Chief Brendan Heffner says his officers have the difficult task of striking a balance between protecting the rights of homeless people while still responding to business owners’ complaints.

“When they see homeless people down there, they think it doesn’t look good and they call," Heffner told WGLT. "We remind them that unless they are breaking the law, there’s nothing that we can do. They can ask somebody for money and as long as they’re not jumping in front of a person and being intimidating, which would be disorderly conduct, generally we don’t have a problem.”

McLean County Assistant Public Defender Bryce Pierson said he believes the homeless are put "under a microscope."

"Simply because of their appearance and demeanor, they are judged by the community, by people who own establishments downtown, and maybe some law enforcement as trouble when they see them, whereas a college student frequenting the bars might not be placed under the same microscope," Pierson said.

And what happens when the homeless are victims of crime?

Some homeless advocates say they fear a different standard applies in those cases. They point to an incident in which a downtown bench was lathered in a greasy, black substance last April in an apparent effort to deter street people from sitting there.

Reverend Kelley Becker of First Christian Church downtown said she asked to discuss the bench incident with the police chief shortly after it occurred. She said she was surprised when Heffner responded by detailing the criminal record of Todd Ledbetter, one of the homeless men who often sat on the bench. 

Becker said she told Heffner she understood that Ledbetter  is "not a perfect person." She said "what the tar on this bench says is that clearly people who are homeless are not welcome at least in that corner of the world, and my experience is that they are not welcome in most of the downtown area.”

Torii More works downtown and said she sometimes provides food for Ledbetter. More said she phoned police headquarters a few days after the bench incident. She wanted to pass on the information that a downtown business had re-tarred its roof a few days before the bench was smeared with what police originally said was a tar-like substance.

More said she never received a call back from police. 

 “I did tell the police that information. Nothing came of that apparently," she added.

Heffner said her call might have fallen through the cracks.

“I haven’t heard you tell me she knows who did it," he told WGLT. "I would just tell you if a person has information you feel is relevant just call us and tell us."

Police, meanwhile, got scant information from business owners. Several were asked if they had surveillance video of the bench area. Most business owners said their cameras were not pointed in that direction.

One said his establishment’s surveillance equipment was not working the morning of the incident.

The Smoker’s Den tobacco shop did provide video. It showed a figure in a hooded sweatshirt, face obscured, carrying a bucket and smearing the bench.

The police department eventually released the video and asked for the public’s help in identifying the person seen defacing the bench, but only after repeated requests from WGLT -- and after police announced they had ended their investigation.

Heffner said the department had higher priorities at the time.

“We had armed robberies going on at that time, we had felony arrests we were affecting, when I start talking about deploying resources in things of that nature, that comes first over a bench being damaged,"Heffner said.

The suspect on the bench vandalism was captured on this outdoor surveillance video.
Credit Bloomington Police Department

Police eventually followed up on the tip about the business that had its roof re-tarred after receiving that information from WGLT. According to police reports, an investigator spoke with an employee of the business, but did not speak with anyone from the roofing company or the owner of the building, who hired the roofers.

Heffner said the fact that an apparent target of the vandalism was a homeless man who had run-ins with police had no bearing on the investigation.

“We went to nine businesses," Heffner said. "We did follow up on it, had we found someone who we had probable cause to arrest, we would have done that.”

 “We are seeing I think it would be fair to say a group of more aggressive people who have chosen or life has placed them on the streets," said Tricia Stiller, executive director of the Downtown Bloomington Association, which represents business owners. Many have become increasingly vocal about the presence of homeless and of Ledbetter in particular.

“Reports back to me are that he is just aggressive, out panhandling, that sort of thing. He is not a small person. His figure is imposing enough to evoke fear," Stiller said.

Some individual business owners that WGLT contacted declined to comment about the homeless, or refused to speak on tape. One who asked that his name not be used complained that homeless men sometimes drank alcohol on the bench. He said they frighten the female college students who like to drink in his bar.

Renee Warren, manager of the Crossroads Free Trade shop, said her store has not experienced problems with the homeless. Warren says she believes the downtown area should accommodate all of the city’s residents.

“People are losing their sense of civility anymore. So what did they do, they removed the bench so no one can use it, and what was the point of that?” Warren said.

City officials had said they would return the bench to its location at Main and Mulberry Streets once it had been repaired.  It has been cleaned, but not returned. That has added to the sense among some of the homeless, like Todd Ledbetter, that there is a double standard when they are victims of a crime. Ledbetter’s clothing was ruined when he sat on the greasy bench.

“You got 10 cameras literally pointing right here at  this corner, the cameras are pointing to all the alleys, but you can’t figure out who poured the tar all over the bench. You can’t figure that out?" Ledbetter said.

Pierson, the public defender, said arrests of homeless people seem to be increasing downtown. A review of bond hearing records by WGLT found that in a recent two- week period, seven people were arrested who gave their address as one of the homeless shelters.

The charges range from stealing nail polish, socks and other small items from the Dollar General to trespassing, breaking into cars and drug possession.

Heffner said there’s been no concerted effort on the part of police to respond to business owners’ concerns by stepping up arrests of street people.

“I don’t think anyone will tell you we’re around harassing homeless people. We respond when we are called,," Heffner said.

Ledbetter, the homeless man who used to sit on the defaced bench, was himself arrested recently for retail theft at a Thornton’s gas station. He was charged with stealing a $2.50 can of Four Loco Fruit Punch wine. A judge originally set his bond at $3,000, which meant he needed to post $335 to get out of jail.

McLean County State’s Attorney Jason Chambers said Ledbetter’s bond reflected his past criminal record, which includes felonies in other parts of the state dating back to 1983.

“The judge sets the bond," Chambers said. "Some of the things they consider are not just is this person going to show up, but are they going to re-offend, because we have people who contact us saying this person committed an offense three months ago and got out and then they committed another offense two months ago, and now they’ve just committed a new offense. What are you going to do about it?”

Ledbetter spent 32 days in jail for the theft, at a cost to taxpayers of between $60 and $75 a day. That’s without figuring in the cost for his public defender, the services of court personnel and jail staff.

Ledbetter ultimately pleaded guilty to stealing the can of wine, and to an earlier misdemeanor battery charge that was still pending.

“If I didn’t sign the piece of paper I would have had to stay in jail for the summer," Ledbetter told WGLT.

He now faces about $660 in court costs, fees automatically imposed by the state. He has a year to pay his court costs or a warrant can be issued for his arrest. Considering that he had just one dollar in his possession at the time of his arrest, according to court documents, it’s likely he will face  another arrest in the future for failing to pay the fees.

By contrast, the person who defaced the Bloomington bench, if apprehended, would face doing community service of no less than 30 hours and no more than 120 hour

Rev. Becker of First Christian Church, said the arrests might only be exacerbating an already complex problem.

“The answer may not be to repeatedly arrest people but to have a place for them to be, and also to talk to business owners about the way we can work together. I understand business owners are afraid and certainly they don’t want anything they do to chase away customers.”

State’s Attorney Chambers says the criminal justice system is not well-equipped to deal with defendants like Ledbetter, who have a myriad of social problems.

“The criminal justice system is not the best place to address mental health problems or homeless problems. We should be the line of last defense and more and more we are becoming that first line," he said.

Increasingly community leaders say it will take a multi-pronged approach to improve life for the homeless – while at the same time addressing the concerns of local business people.

“There is no one solution to this problem with homeless and semi homeless people picking up these offenses," said Pierson of the public defender's office. "There are problems with the criminal justice system, with the community, with mental health. It’s something that stems from quite a few issues and until we address them it’s going to continue.”

Becker said progress will require a concerted effort on the part of churches, social service agencies, law enforcement and business.

“My frustration with the situation is that we continue to demonize people who are homeless. We don’t want them here, here and here, but we don’t say here you can be. Until we have a 'here you can be spot,' we are going to have these problems.”

“There have been several conversations about what can we do to meet the needs of these individuals while protecting this amazing downtown," said Stiller of the Downtown Bloomington Association.

Stiller said the issue is currently a polarizing one, but she it will focus the community on solutions.

“People either want to get them out, -- them, not just Mr. Ledbetter -- or it’s 'please let’s do something, let’s help,'" Stiller added. "And both sides of that spectrum have valid points. What’s important is that we’re willing to navigate both sides of that spectrum because therein lies our answer.”

Stiller calls Bloomington “a city with a heart” and said she would like all citizens to consider the downtown area “the heart of Bloomington.”

Tomorrow: An interview with Rev. Charles Ahrens who is trying to renovate a former comedy club on Market Street in downtown Bloomington into a full service agency for the most difficult of homeless cases.

Watch outdoor surveillance video of bench incident below.

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