Let's face it: downtown Bloomington has a safety problem.

Note: not all people who hang out in Peoples Park are experiencing homelessness. However, since recent attention has been placed on that category of people, I speak to that in this essay.

TL;DR after the jump


Early this fall, out-of-state IU student Joseph DiBenedetto published an online petition requesting that Mayor Hamilton “put an end to the homeless people in Peoples Park in Bloomington." [1] The petition drew nearly 700 supporters, many of whom left public comments expressing concern about the safety of college students who pass the park late at night as they travel to and from Kilroy's and other bars.

A couple weeks ago, IUSA Congress passed a resolution articulating its members' intent to "work closely with the City of Bloomington in order to address the rising concerns of aggressive panhandling in and surrounding the Indiana University campus." Echoing rhetoric from Bloomington's Safe and Civil City Program, the resolution cites a handful of "arrests of people without permanent address" during a three-week period in September and recognizes "concerns of safety and civility." [2]

Both documents promote the notion that our city government ought to relocate folks from the park to some as-yet-unspecified elsewhere. [3] Maybe that sounds to you like a reasonable initiative; maybe you, too, find yourself feeling uneasy around Peoples Park.

Have you asked yourself why?


While various factors make it difficult to collect good data on crime and homelessness, existing research suggests that people experiencing homelessness are indeed more likely than housed people to commit non-violent and non-destructive crimes—that is, infractions such as public intoxication, possession of marijuana, disorderly conduct, trespass, loitering, and public nuisance.

Research also suggests that people experiencing homelessness are actually less likely than their domiciled counterparts to commit violent crimesoffenses such as battery, sexual assault, and homicide. In fact, people perceived as homeless are themselves highly likely to become victims of violent crime. Furthermore, the preponderance of violent crimes against homeless people are perpetrated by men under the age of 30. According to one expert, these criminals are "typically, young male 'thrill offenders' acting on stereotypes, seeking excitement and peer validation.” [4]

So we know that people experiencing homelessness (i.e. many of the folks in Peoples Park) are likelier than the average person to get arrested for a victimless offense such as, for example, squeezing through a gap in a fence to sleep on someone else's lawn. And we know that young, stereotype-driven men hoping to impress their peers (i.e. roughly 50% of the KOK demographic) are likelier than the average person to violently attack a person who appears to be experiencing homelessness. In light of these facts, one might imagine that DiBenedetto, Schommer, and their peers—self-styled crusaders for a safe downtown—would be advocating the immediate shutdown of Kilroy’s and other downtown bars where potential violent offenders congregatebut they're doing just the oppositeSo what gives?

...honestly having [homeless people] there always makes me uncomfortable because I want to go eat on Kirkwood but they are always asking for my food so it makes me not want to go
— Ashley Owens, Caldwell, NJ

"Safety" resonates, and deeply: on some level, we all want to feel safe, want to be safe. (Only a misanthrope would oppose a campaign that promises increased safety, right?) So it's an apt term for people with social and political capital to utilize in pushing their agenda of social cleansing (à la Nixon's—and now Trump's—"law and order") without acknowledging what it is that they're truly up to. Members of their in-group, having been raised speaking this language, intuit the coded message: this safety is not freedom from acts of violence but rather freedom from having to acknowledge the existence of poverty, mental illness, and addiction in one's otherwise-comfortable college town. The actualization of this "safety" would mean that a coed could take his girlfriend out for a beer, a burger, and Biz fries without being forced to think about something as wholly unappetizing as poverty, and that he could walk her home without worrying that an unsavory character in the park might look the wrong way at her spandex-clad young body.

Its called peoples park not homeless park.
— Armin Muminovic, KOK & Big Cheeze employee
...I fear for people’s safety and the homeless, too.
— Monica Robinson, Evansville, IN

And then there are the "people" themselves, those whose safety (er, "safety") is centered in this conversation.

To some in our community, it seems that individuals experiencing homelessness don’t quite qualify as people. It's patently clear from the language they use that the majority of student supporters of the DiBenedetto petition see themselves as superior to those whom they patronizingly label "the homeless." But even folks who pride themselves on being compassionate and civic-minded tend to linguistically relegate those experiencing homelessness to Otherness, to non-personhood, their word choice belying their true beliefs. Here "people" simply means "people like us."

One might argue that our would-be student activists are not biased but simply uninformed, their supporters enthusiastic but ignorant. But even if that's the case, how much toxic ignorance will we tolerate? Will it take an incident like the killing of George Lowery, the young perpetrators emboldened and inspired by growing anti-homeless bias in our Safe and Civil City, before we acknowledge this growing safety problem in our city? We cannot excuse these young men, ostensibly among tomorrow’s leaders [5], for cherry-picking facts to support their biased worldview. We cannot excuse them for willfully perpetuating rhetoric that is baseless and damaging. We cannot excuse them for aggressively promoting a plan to sanitize downtown Bloomington, a city where they themselves are naught but guests.

Let us not mince words. DiBenedetto, Schommer, and their respective supporters are interested not in true safety for all people; rather, they are calling for social cleansing in an area of town that they—and others who look, think, and act like them—want for their exclusive playground.

So, yes: I, too, am concerned for the safety of people in downtown Bloomington. But my concern is reserved not for intoxicated IU students encountering a homeless bogeyman in the dark. I fear instead for the vulnerable Hoosiers whom those students, under the influence of a dangerous cocktail of alcohol and anti-homeless bias, may encounter while partying their way through extended adolescence. The truth of the matter is that the patrons of these bars—the very people whose safety is invoked time and again in pleas to remove a certain class of people from Peoples Park—are far more likely to instigate violence against a homeless person than to suffer it at that person’s hands.

I feel scared walking past this park at night, and with as much tuition as I am paying (out of state) I deserve to feel safe
— Janet Peterson, Chicago, IL

With a shiny new apartment complex, its eastern face made entirely of windows overlooking the park, slated to be built in time for students’ fall-2017 move-in; with anti-panhandling signs up (again) in 28 locations downtown; and with Donald J. Trump rapidly appointing bigots to important posts in our country's administration, now is the time to stand in solidarity with the people who have been using Peoples Park since before today's undergrads were even born. We must refuse to cater to the whims of temporary Bloomington residents who imagine that their tuition dollars buy them not just an education but also preferred status and the right to scrub this town of anything (or anyone) offensive to their aesthetic sensibilities.

We can no longer afford to remain willfully ignorant of the class violence perpetrated daily in our town. Bloomington friends and neighbors (yes, even those of you who are here just for a few years while earning a degree), I urge you to consider whose "safety" is prioritized here, and why that might be. I encourage you to ask yourselves why victimless offenses have the particular effect of making people from upper- and upper-middle-class backgrounds uneasyI invite you to consider how you might push for real solutions to the large-scale systemic injustices that create a society in which one class of people is applauded for effectively criminalizing another's existence. I hope that some of you might even take a moment to meet some of the wonderful people whose community is rooted in Peoples ParkI'll happily introduce you.

To Joseph DiBenedetto; to Michael Schommer and Resolution 16-17-5's co-sponsor Martin Coyle; to the members of IUSA Congress who voted in favor of the resolution; to the young men whom I overheard laughing at two pandhandlers on Friday night, calling them "dogs"; to the hundreds of people who signed the DiBenedetto petition; and to the many others who surely hold similar opinions, I say: check your implicit biases; base your words and actions in facts, not fears; and consider challenging yourself and your peers to foster a Bloomington that truly takes into account the safety of its people—all its people.

Or at least be like this guy, and own up to your bigotry rather than dressing it in false niceties:

I really do not like homeless people
— James Dolan, Indianapolis, IN

NOTES

[1] He later changed the petition to be called "Help find better care for the homeless people that isn't Peoples Park in Bloomington"; the URL reflects the original title.

[2] To her credit, IUSA president Sara Zaheer vetoed the resolution, and the IUSA executive branch released a statement about the issue.

[3] Although the IUSA resolution does not state that as a formal goal, it devotes an entire "whereas clause" to the DiBenedetto petition, and the language of the full resolution clearly conveys this intent.

[4] The resolution was sponsored by Michael Schommer, an erstwhile Eagle Scout from the east coast who recently served as Risk Manager for Phi Gamma Delta, a.k.a. Fiji—a Greek house currently on official disciplinary probation for "alcohol and endangering others."

[5] See also: patriarchy, revolving door