(Michigan City, IN) - All park benches in Michigan City’s Uptown Arts District have been removed to try and thin out a sharp increase in the presence of homeless people using them to sit and sleep.
According to business owners, the homeless people targeted are not simply down on their luck, allegedly having mental health and drug addiction issues. Store owners, employees and customers have been threatened with harm by some of the people inside and outside the businesses.
A lot of the homeless people also engaged in panhandling.
“I don’t know if removing the benches was necessarily the right thing to do but I can tell you that something definitely needs to be done,” notes Renee Fennell, owner of Paris House of Bridal and Prom at 728 Franklin Street.
Jessi Cundiff, owner of the Hoity Toity resale shop at 703 Franklin Street, said hosing down feces, urine and vomit from the sidewalk in front of his store became almost a daily routine. A number of times, he has purportedly locked up his store with his customers inside as a safety precaution, due to homeless people fist-fighting each other.
“Some of them are really aggressive. Some of them will confront you if you don’t give them any money. It’s unfortunate but it’s running off customers,” he said.
On July 28th, Mayor Duane Parry ordered the park benches and tables at the grounds of the nearby Farmers Market to be removed in order to deter the homeless from congregating. Cundiff and representatives from other businesses have reported seeing few, if any, homeless people ever since.
Parry said he issued the order after being unsuccessful with a group he asked to get involved in the issue in a different matter.
“It was a decision I made because nothing was happening,” he said.
The mayor feels the problem and timing had reached such a point for something to be done, considering business owners and especially the 14th annual Great Lakes Grand Prix, which features powerboats racing along the Lake Michigan shoreline at Washington Park. More than 200,000 people have come in the past for the races and related events in the days leading up to the main event, including the boat parade and Taste of Michigan City both held in the Uptown Arts District.
This year, the events kicked off this past Wednesday and run through Sunday.
Before the benches were taken away, Cundiff and Fennell noted it was not unusual for homeless people to be sitting or sleeping on every one of them in the six blocks making up the arts district on Franklin Street.
Cundiff said there’s always been a homeless issue downtown since he opened his store 10-years ago, but the people on the streets then were more friendly and stable in their behavior. Now, he says the make-up of the homeless population downtown over the past two years has changed drastically, and so have their numbers.
“It’s a whole different crowd,” he said.
“We’ve always had some homeless people but we’ve never had the dangerous issues that we’re having,” Fennell said.
Anatasia Gumms of Michigan City said she was upset about the mayor’s decision, calling it “short sighted.” She says removing the benches will only push them to other parts of the city, while doing nothing to solve the cause of their homelessness.
Gumms also said the people, regardless of their situation, are human beings and benches allow them to at least take the weight off their feet.
“It’s definitely an issue. I just think there’s a way you can be proactive versus reactive,” she said.
Gumms is a reference librarian at the Michigan City Public Library, which is on the northern edge of the Uptown Arts District at 4th and Franklin streets.
She spoke of how homeless people come in daily to use the restroom, drink from water fountains and enjoy the air conditioning. Gumms said they’re welcome to come in, and efforts are also made to interact with the individuals who are offered resources to help them get off the streets.
“We’ve got a pretty steady population here."
There’s a belief the problem stems from an increase in homelessness locally and police being unable to enforce local laws against loitering and panhandling.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled more than 20-years ago that criminalizing loitering was unconstitutional.
A new state law cracking down on panhandling went into effect in 2020 but was later overturned by a federal judge ruling the practice as a form of protected speech. As a result, some people feel homeless individuals started migrating to the Uptown Arts District from other parts of the city to have more people to solicit without fear of being arrested.
Jim Musial, executive director of Citizens Concerned for the Homeless, said he does not believe there’s been an increase in homelessness locally, judging from data like yearly estimated head counts.
Musial said the shelters run by his organization are housing more people, though, blaming that on the higher cost of rent and people having to stay longer until they can find afforable housing.
“We have an affordable housing crisis,” he said.
Musial said people at his shelters are offered programs and other resources aimed at helping them become more self-sufficient.