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Bloomington Herald-Times

August 13, 2012

Bloomington is a haven for the homeless, but at what cost?
By Jon Blau and Victoria Ison
August 12, 2012, last update: 8/12 @ 12:14 am

Anthony Sykes is slurring slightly. It's a sunny June day, the wind moving the shadows of tree branches over Seminary Park. Sykes stands in the grass, shirtless, his black-and-red boxers puffing out above his jeans.

"Bloomington is the place to come," he says, his silver crucifix glinting in the sun. "It's the spot."

Sykes, once homeless, has received a city's hand.

Residents' goodwill isn't in doubt. Shelters and food pantries offer services to homeless individuals, more than in surrounding counties. But a growing population of drifters, arriving from beyond the Monroe County line, has brought with it a surge in crimes by people who are homeless. Bloomington's inviting mindset has brought grace into question.

The number of people booked into the Monroe County Jail in 2011 who were identified as homeless, living at a shelter or with no permanent address was more than double 2007's figures. A study of bookings in January, June and October of those years showed 45 homeless individuals jailed in 2007, climbing to 111 by 2011. January and June of 2012 produced 87 total arrests.

The Rev. Forrest Gilmore, director of the Shalom Community Center, said he believes increased crime by homeless individuals is a byproduct of a growing client base. Police walking the beat certify the reality.

"Bloomington clearly has seen an increase in the number of homeless," Bloomington Police Chief Mike Diekhoff said in an email. "Our officers frequently encounter people not from this area -- or even the state of Indiana -- who tell them they came here because they heard about all that is provided here."

Both victims and perpetrators, homeless men and women have been involved in offenses ranging from stealing alcohol from Kroger, panhandling on busy sidewalks or running methamphetamine labs along the B-Line Trail. On July 22, a homeless man was stabbed in the back on Kirkwood Avenue for items in his grocery cart. Recent incidents erode sympathies within Bloomington, a town often seen as a safe haven by the homeless.

Lounging near Sykes is a man who goes by "Big Rick." He's been a wanderer, without a permanent home, in such states as Alabama and California.

There, he said, he couldn't wear a backpack without being a target for anti-vagrancy laws. In Bloomington, he sprawls out on the grass, a Bud Lite hat blocking the sun, his tattooed limbs popping out of a cut-off red T-shirt and black gym shorts. He sips from a fast food cup.

"If someone goes sick in Bloomington, if they go hungry in Bloomington," Big Rick says, "it's their own damn fault."

Around the park, small groups gather, reclining on picnic blankets or benches. Sykes' son, 2-year-old Anthony Jr., crouches in the dirt a few feet away from his father. He digs at the base of a tree, dressed only in a diaper and scuffed blue sandals.

A tale of two parks

Bring up Peoples Park, and both Sykes and Big Rick react. Seminary Park is filled with "law-abiding citizens," Big Rick says. That other park? It just proves there are "good ones and bad ones."

A half-mile away, people idle on benches at Peoples Park. It has been months since tents from the Occupy movement were removed, but Gregg Rago, co-owner of Nick's English Hut, says problems remain.

He doesn't have the heart to call police for every minor offense, saying he has "better things to do." Unless someone is sleeping in his dumpster or defecating in the alley, there is little Rago and fellow business owners around the park can do but fold their arms and wonder how a group of hardened loiterers has arrived at their corner.

"Bloomington is a very friendly place, very giving, very accepting, very diverse. But we're also easy pickings for people who panhandle," Rago said. "They come to Bloomington for a reason. They don't go to Bedford. They don't go to Columbus. They don't go to Spencer."

Arriving for work at the Bicycle Garage Inc., Fred Rose said he sees panhandlers dropped off in vans by their "pimps."

When homeless people are not gathered at local shelters, they disperse to parks, the B-Line Trail or to store aisles, including the Kroger at 528 S. College Ave. Loss prevention staff at the store report 60 percent of those caught trying to shoplift are homeless, up from around 50 percent last year.

Jeff Matthews, store manager at the Kroger, is as reluctant as most residents to point out an upward trend in crimes committed by people who are homeless. They appreciate the struggle. They admire the efforts of area shelters, such as the Shalom Center, which moved nearby to 620 S. Walnut St. in August 2010.

But he's seeing more negatives.

"I am just noticing it more, when they give an address to the officers, it's the Shalom Center," Matthews said. "I have lived here eight or nine years, and I have noticed an increase, not necessarily in aggressiveness, but a more hardened edge to them."

Bloomington police and ambulance services received 252 calls to Seminary Park and the nearby Kroger in 2007. In 2011, the year after the Shalom Center moved to its new facility, dispatchers received 575 calls to the area, a jump from 354 in 2009.

Gilmore abhors crime as much as he does the circumstances of homelessness. He's heard public concerns, which often seep onto online comment boards, recycling stereotypes about homeless. He has met with local business owners, while clients' court mail comes to his center.

He, too, wants change.

"Shalom actively wants to develop a community response with all of the players," Gilmore said. "Businesses, community leaders, government, citizens -- we want to have a public dialogue about how to alleviate these issues."

On Kirkwood Avenue, sightings of drug and alcohol abuse wither compassion. In parking lots, bags are exchanged for dollars. It becomes hard to convince Rose, peeking out his door, seeing inebriates urinating on a wall or passed out on a bench, that charities are winning in their mission.

Rose said he sees a crime committed every day.

"That's not hyperbole," Rose said. "People don't even pretend to care anymore. It's like having your own open-air theater at the Ricki Lake show."

Employees at Hartzell's Ice Cream said customers must ask for a key to the bathroom, a form of screening to ban those who would use it for drug activity. At the Bloomington Bagel Co., sinks have been used for bathing and bathroom walls as toilet paper.

Rather than posting a sign outside BBC's door, and closing the restroom to out-of-towners a short walk from Indiana University's Sample Gates, manager Dawn Keough sorts through a flock of new homeless faces. Dorothy, a longtime customer who lives on the street, stops by daily. She pays for a muffin and Keough gives her a free drink. She's a "sweetheart," Keough said. They'll hold the door for her to push her cart into the store.

Across the street, men with rotted teeth wait for Keough to leave the store. Her teenage employees remain. These homeless individuals try to stick bottled beverages in their pockets. They raid samples and yell for more.

"Some are really nice," BBC employee Jessica Moro said, "and there are some who are really rude. I try to tell them we donate our extra bagels to the shelter. I had one guy come in the other day and tell me I was going to get arrested for murder because he was going to die of starvation."

Village Deli's Bob Costello, a former president of Shelter Inc., hesitates to implicate all homeless people in his complaints. Still, his customers cringe at foul language from Peoples Park and his employees are taunted by less-than-polite members of the homeless community. He must question if Bloomington has done enough to draw a line between engaging a large client base of shelter-goers and enabling homeless who don't seek self-reliance.

"This is not a condemnation of homeless people in general, but I'm not seeing any of them reaching for help, either," Costello said. "They are asking for my bathroom, but they never ask me for an application."

Chicken and egg

Big Rick, in his pleas for help, has never been turned down by a local church group. Gleeful, he whips out a TracFone from the Shalom Center. Nevertheless, Bloomington's resources can't save everyone, he says.

"They are homeless because they want to be," Big Rick said, noting the story of his previous companion, a woman nicknamed "Nike," who lived in the woods behind Rev. Ernest D. Butler Park.

"We're no longer together," he said, raising his 20-ounce cup, "because as much as I like to drink, she likes to that much more."

City to city, a large percentage of homeless people remain on the streets because of addiction or mental health issues. But before Indianapolis homeless counts, talking to a classroom full of students, IUPUI professor Laura Littlepage reminds her group not to stereotype: "You wouldn't say all homed people are X, would you?"

"You can't say all homeless people are X, either."

The story of one man comes to mind for Littlepage when defining the random events that doom some to the streets. Teaching in a center for the illiterate, she met a man in his 40s who made a living as a laborer. One day, he injured his back, but he didn't qualify for disability. Nor did he qualify for assisted housing.

Without family or friends to support him, he became destitute. Bringing homelessness and crime into perspective, Littlepage looks through the lens of the "chicken and the egg."

"You could have been homeless first and then been forced into a life of crime," Littlepage said. "Or you could have been a criminal, and then, because of that, you couldn't find a job and became homeless."

David Reingold, executive associate dean of the IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs, found in his research that physical and mental health issues were the predominant factors in determining why homelessness occurred in family groups. Many of the unattractive behaviors that bother Bloomington residents are linked to underlying conditions.

Why homeless people migrate to a particular city is a murkier question. Sure, urban environments offer anonymity. Homeless can "stick out like a sore thumb" in smaller communities, Littlepage said, drawing the ire of law enforcement.

While there is the "Greyhound technique," a practice where small-town police officers corner unwanted individuals with the prospect of jail or a departing bus ticket, homeless advocates prefer counseling over arrests. Increasing the number of anti-vagrancy laws, Reingold said, does not lead to lower levels of homelessness.

Resources aren't always a welcome mat, either. Reingold has found no correlation between increases in homeless populations in cities with more beds available.

He did concede his studies have not looked at the attraction of charities, such as the Shalom Center, which offer food but not overnight shelter.

Gilmore himself would not draw a connection between the increasing homeless population in Bloomington and his services. What Reingold, Littlepage and Gilmore echo is homeless people need permanent shelter that leads them to mental health services. Reingold, specifically, said those avenues are often limited for Bloomington's homeless population.

"The problem, at the intersection of crime and homelessness, is we have turned jails into the new mental hospital," Reingold said. "When they're in trouble, they end up in jail."

A chance

Big Rick says he is a pipe fitter by trade, rounding up friends at the Shalom Center for labor. Sykes, on the other hand, speaks highly of a man who gave him a chance, Bloomington contractor Dan Miller.

The two had a working history before Miller noticed Sykes pushing a stroller down the street a couple months ago, begging for money. Miller, who specializes in remodeling services, had hired Sykes two years ago, as a favor to a friend. They didn't get off to a great start.

Helping to re-glaze 38 tubs for Indiana University, Sykes wasn't reliable. Once the job was finished, Miller lined up another gig; he had to cancel because Sykes turned him down.

Nevertheless, Miller set aside first impressions.

"While some guys are hurting or out of work, I've been blessed to have people that refer me," Miller said. "I thought maybe I could give him a shot, spread some of this goodwill around.

"But that came back to burn me."

Miller picked Sykes up from his apartment. He bought him lunch. Sometimes, Sykes would call Miller, drunk, asking about work in the morning.

It didn't matter if Sykes was hung over or not. He could still stain a deck. At the house they were remodeling, the owners knew Sykes' situation.

One morning, Miller went to pick up Sykes and he never came down. Miller said Sykes' girlfriend told him he had left the apartment by a different exit -- to elude Miller while he waited in his car.

"I left it at that," Miller said. "I'm not a counselor by any means, but I tried to do right by at least giving somebody an opportunity to get back on his feet. I probably could have seen it coming but I thought, maybe I can -- not change the world -- but at least a little bitty part of it.

"He let me down."

Sykes, who has been arrested for public intoxication and theft, has had bouts with failure. Working with the homeless, Gilmore has seen the public stigma that failure develops. Behind insults directed at the homeless, he sees a veil of hatred, part of what he believes is the "last acceptable public prejudice."

He can't justify crime. If someone breaks the law, he says they should serve time. But after the fall, when a man or a woman arrives standing at his door, with nowhere else to go, he will not turn them away.

They deserve a chance, Gilmore says. He can only hope Bloomington agrees.

"I believe that all of us are called to love people in their most desperate circumstances," he said. "We've seen an enormous amount of people who have navigated their way out of their troubles, and we see a tremendous amount of people experiencing compassion nowhere else.

"They deserve our compassion. They deserve our response."