A proposal to ban people from sitting and lying down in downtown's Mile Square failed to get support in an Indianapolis City-County Council committee meeting Tuesday night following a lively public hearing. The proposition will still move on to the full council for a vote, but even its sponsor believes the plan will be formally rejected.
The proposal, which would restrict sitting or lying in a public right of way from 6 a.m. to midnight within the Mile Square except in certain circumstances, mostly brought out opponents who said the plan would criminalize homelessness and amounted to “class warfare”—an example of some city officials caring more about “suits” than homeless residents.
The vote took place on same day Mayor Joe Hogsett announced a plan to dedicate $500,000 annually to address the issue of homelessness and downtown safety. Hogsett did not take a position on the proposed ordinance.
Council Minority Leader Mike McQuillen, the proposal’s sponsor and the only person who voted in favor of it in Tuesday's rules committee meeting, said the plan was intended to curb panhandling and increase the sense of safety downtown. His statement that was met with jeers from the crowd.
“People feel less safe in the downtown,” McQuillen said. “The purpose is not to hurt homeless, but in fact to help homeless.”
But Maria Robles, a primary care physician at Eskanazi Hospital, among other speakers, questioned who the proposal was intended to serve.
“Who is this for? Who doesn’t feel safe?” Robles said. “The people who are panhandling, do they feel safe? Are we that worried that someone asks you for a dollar? They don’t have a house. They don’t have a home. Can we think about them for a second?
Elder Coleman, an Indianapolis resident, said “anyone who is more concerned about profits and tourism than they are about the citizens who live in this city, they ought to be ashamed of themselves.”
People who spoke in favor of the proposal were frequently derided by audience members. Proponents said the city must find a way to keep the downtown appealing to businesses, workers and tourists.
Bill French, executive director for real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield, said panhandling is getting more frequent and more aggressive in downtown Indianapolis.
“My assistant is looking for a job in the suburbs,” French said. “This is not the city I grew up in.”
Greg Schmoll, who operates Schmoll Industrial Park, said he feels “compassion” for the homeless, but called the sight of people camping out on sidewalks "unattractive and disgraceful on many levels.”
“This is devaluing our city,” Schmoll said. “My wife and I were traveling and went to Philadelphia. There was homelessness and trash.”
But, he clarified, “I’m not saying the homeless are trash.”
Dana Black, deputy chairwoman for engagement for the Indiana Democratic Party, criticized those sentiments, as well as McQuillen for writing the proposal.
“What you are saying to the people is unless your money is long and your voice is loud, I will write an ordinance that you have been deemed unnecessary in our space,” Black said.
The proposed ordinance failed by a 6-1 vote on the motion to send it to the full council with a "do-pass" recommendation. But it will still technically move forward after a 5-2 vote to send it to the full council with a “do not pass” recommendation. That likely happened because a proposal cannot technically be considered dead until the full council votes against it, or if it languishes for enough time after a committee fails to move it forward.
McQuillen said that move was designed by his Democratic colleagues to “add insult to injury."
Under the mayor's $500,000 annual plan, half of the funds would be “allocated to partner organizations for permanent housing solutions and direct services for the city’s downtown homeless population.” The funds would come from parking meter revenue.
The mayor's office said the funds could help 500 homeless people find housing each year.
The other half of the money would go toward “heightened law enforcement efforts in areas of downtown that have seen aggressive panhandling.”
“The increased public safety presence will target high-trafficked areas of downtown and will focus on enforcement of the city’s existing aggressive panhandling ordinances,” the city said in a statement.
But some speakers at Tuesday's council meeting were also critical of the proposal.
Noah Leininger, an Indianapolis resident and musician, said he is often on Monument Circle attending Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra performances. He said he was not scared of homeless people, but instead feared “dodging drunk frat boys zooming down the sidewalk on scooters.”
He criticized the plan to spend $250,000 on an increased police presence downtown.
“How is that going to make people feel safe downtown?” Leininger said.