Jamie stands shirtless on a vacant lot on the west side of Bloomington. He is wearing jeans that his brother gave him. Behind him are flattened tents, blankets and clothing sprawled out on an asphalt, concrete and weed floor as the sun dries out these essentials after recent torrential rains.
The Indescribable Lot is what Jamie and about half a dozen other people call home. It will soon house a Panda Express restaurant. Bloomington City Council has approved plans to build the restaurant at the location along West Market Street.
The property runs along a busy highway not far from the highway. It is surrounded by gas stations, restaurants and other shops. It is not a residential area at all, with the exception of this tent city.
Some McLean County social service providers say tent towns have been a problem in Bloomington for decades. Advocates say the plight of the tent dwellers points to a bigger problem that has not been addressed.
As state and federal governments lift moratoriums on evictions related to the coronavirus pandemic, these residents will soon face their own type of eviction.
Jamie is 33 years old. He does not give his last name. He has lived in a tent in this vacant lot for almost three years.
Jamie’s brother checks him regularly and gives him clothes and a place to shower.
“He came over here and (said) ‘Jamie get in the car’, where are we going, Disneyland? ‘ Jamie asked. “No, we are going home. You’re going to get cleaned up.
Jamie said he was staying at the Salvation Army’s Safe Harbor shelter in Bloomington. He said he went to work in Texas and had to come back to Bloomington to help his brother. He said the Salvation Army would not take him back. Jamie has other people looking after him.
Her cousin Chris has been living in the camp for a few weeks. “I came here and found my cousin and I’m not going to leave him alone here,” Chris said.
Chris said he was worried about his cousin’s safety. He said he sent Jamie to the hospital three times due to seizures. Chris said there were always people looking for trouble there. Jamie said he had been doing drywall since he was 14 and believed he had a chance to return to work.
“I have my old boss’s number and he told me that once I got together and got my meds and stuff, he said he would put me back to work,” he said. Jamie said.
Jamie said he was taking medication for the seizures and for his mental health. Now he says his old boss no longer works for himself. Jamie is not optimistic, he will call back.
Jamie said he made do with his father’s monthly Social Security check and all the money he could get by begging. Jamie said he already won $ 80 in 20 minutes.
Bob is basically in the same situation as Jamie. Bob is 58 years old. He stands next to Jamie, sporting a graying beard, a face mask under his chin, and a vintage Chicago Cubs t-shirt. Bob said he had been living in the tent camp for a few years. He has done flooring for a living but cannot access the ground floor of the job market.
“Give me a rug, I can put it up,” beamed Bob, but said he couldn’t find a job either. He said shelters would not take him because of his criminal record. He said he received monthly disability checks. He said he needed a place to clean up for a job interview.
These services are available at Bloomington-Normal, including from a religious organization that feeds them. Bloomington’s Abundant Life Church delivers non-perishable food weekly to the homeless population of Bloomington-Normal. The church also maintains a pantry and clothing and serves hot lunches daily.
Pastor Roy Koonce said he’s worried about whether those living in Tent City will have a place to go.
“That’s a great question and I don’t have an answer for what they will do,” Koonce said. “I know that if they come here, we’ll do our best to help them.”
Koonce said the church had no shelter but would offer all possible help to anyone who came to its door. Koonce said the church has rules but will not permanently reject anyone.
“I’m 68 and for the first time in my life, I feel like I have my goal,” Koontz said. “I like to do what we do. I like helping people. I like the success rate.
“It breaks my heart when I see someone who can’t.”
Bloomington’s two homeless shelters, Safe Harbor and Home Sweet Home Ministries, have said they don’t reject anyone who needs a place to stay, unless their history or behavior suggests it is. a threat to staff or other residents. But both shelters have had limited capacity for much of the past year due to pandemic restrictions.
Roy Koonce of the Abundant Life Church has said he would like the city of Bloomington to do more to help its homeless residents. He said the police are generally trying to avoid the problem.
“A lot of wanderers and homeless people sleep in the parking lot because they all get some heat to keep the ground from freezing (in winter). The police, all they do is go through there and chase these guys away. They don’t stop them, ”Koonce said.
Koonce suggested that an arrest would help some homeless people begin a process to seek medical attention and other treatment.
Bloomington Acting Police Chief Greg Scott said officers can’t arrest anyone if homeless residents don’t commit a crime.
“What they’re doing there isn’t specifically illegal,” Scott explained. “The State of Illinois and even the Supreme Court of the United States have made decisions that have said it is their First Amendment right to do these things.”
Scott said homeowners must file a trespass report before police arrest anyone. In the case of the proposed restaurant, Scott said no one had filed a complaint. Scott said the homeless population needs social services, not police intervention.
“It really doesn’t help anything,” Scott said.
A Bloomington City Council member said he would agree that jail is not the solution for people with no roof over their heads. Jeff Crabill said the goal should be permanent housing. Crabill said he was not sure what the city could do to better facilitate this, other than calling attention to the problem and encouraging more landlords to rent to people through a rapid relocation program.
“They just don’t want to have someone in their apartment or their house who is homeless. There is a stigma to this. I think some owners want to avoid this if they can, ”Crabill said.
The PATH Crisis Center in Bloomington recently launched the relocation program. The association secured funding from the CARES Act to provide short-term housing for people during the pandemic to limit the risk of the spread of COVID-19.
Karen Zangerle recently retired as Executive Director of the nonprofit group. She said tent cities have been around in Bloomington for decades. Zangerle said that there is often a certain culture in these wanderer communities that can make relocation difficult.
“People who live in tent cities like it because they don’t have anyone to tell them what to do, they have no responsibility to follow,” Zangerle said. “It’s a bit like a big camping trip.
Zangerle said PATH has asked outreach workers to meet with tent dwellers and other homeless people to discuss their options for a permanent place to stay. She said some will welcome the aid and some will not.
“What ultimately happens is that a certain group of them will find a new place and they will leave,” Zangerle said, adding that a large part of the tent city’s population is moving to the south when the weather gets colder.
Where to go from here
Bob, a resident of Tent City, said he plans to move soon, regardless of the restaurant’s schedule. “When it’s cold we have to go somewhere,” he exclaimed, but added that he was not sure where he was planning to move.
Jamie said once the proposed restaurant moves in, it will likely end up across the street behind the McDonald’s where he lives.
“It’s the only other place we can go,” Jamie said.
Jamie and Bob both laugh at the feeling that they don’t want help.
“We’ve tried and tried and tried and tried and they avoided us,” Jamie said.
“We’ll get there one way or another,” Bob said.
Where and how they will do it remains an open question. These two tented city dwellers think they’ll have to rely on their experience and survival instinct when their home from the last few years is uprooted for a fast food franchise.
It is not known when Panda Express plans to take over the West Bloomington site to begin construction. The company did not return any messages seeking comment.