A proposal that would make it illegal to sit or lie on the ground during most of the day in downtown Indianapolis will be introduced this month to the Indianapolis City-County Council by local Republicans.
Proponents say the proposal would curb panhandling, but critics say it would unfairly target the city’s most destitute population by criminalizing homelessness.
Council Minority Leader Mike McQuillen and fellow Republican Susie Cordi will introduce the proposal at the council’s Sept. 24 meeting. It is not expected to have the support of Democrats, who control the council by a margin of 14-11.
McQuillen said in a statement that the proposal, which would forbid sitting or lying in a public-right-of-way between the hours of 6 a.m. and midnight within the downtown Mile Square unless in certain circumstances, is meant to deter panhandling.
“The council has a responsibility to promote public safety and commerce in our city,” McQuillen wrote. “It is important that we distinguish between panhandlers and the homeless, however. This proposal is our way of working toward that goal and finding a bipartisan solution."
Cordi added: “Monument Circle and the Mile Square need to be enjoyable places for residents and visitors to walk, do business and see the city. The panhandling problems we are seeing downtown do not promote safety or commerce.”
Scott Armstrong, executive director of Partners in Housing, which offers low-barrier housing to the needy, said he finds the proposal "pretty ridiculous."
"The heartbreaking thing is if this were to pass, it does absolutely nothing except take a tiny little step to protect anybody not experiencing homelessness from having to see someone who is," Armstrong said. "It's gross, frankly."
Democrat Joe Simpson said he was against the proposal and was confident Democrats would stand with him. He said the council should be working to “address the root causes of homelessness.”
“Until we as Americans wake up and realize we’ve got real mental health problems, it’s always going to be like that,” Simpson said. “It’s being inconsiderate. These people have mental health problems. We need to be a city that accepts all and does everything we can for all.”
The Coalition for Homelessness Intervention and Prevention, which is against the proposal, found that on Jan. 24 — the night of the last count of the city's unsheltered residents — there were 1,682 people in Indianapolis experiencing homelessness — a 101-person decrease from last year’s count of 1,783.
CHIP's interim executive director Caleb Sutton told the Indianapolis Business Journal that "the proposed ordinance does not offer any solutions to the root cause of homelessness or ways to address housing," which he said was the actual need.
McQuillen said the council “must continue to provide opportunities to assist our homeless neighbors and get them to shelters and other places where they can get on the road to recovery.”
The proposal, among other carve-outs, exempts the homeless from the ban only when shelter space is unavailable.
The proposal is being “vetted” by the Indy Chamber among other groups, according to the release.
Chamber chief policy officer Mark Fisher said in a statement that the proposal “elevates an important issue that demands a bipartisan solution, given our shared interest in keeping the Mile Square a safe, walkable and appealing place to live, work and invest.”
“We urge continued progress toward a policy that’s effective, enforceable, but also compassionate towards all of our citizens,” Fisher said in the release.
The proposal contains other exceptions to the rule against sitting or lying down, including the following: medical emergencies; using a wheelchair, walker or similar device; operating or patronizing a commercial establishment; participating in or attending a parade, festival, performance, rally or demonstration; sitting on a fixed chair or bench designed for the purpose of sitting; sitting in line for goods or services; sitting within a bus stop zone while waiting for public transportation; sitting in a child stroller; or engaging in constitutionally protected expressive activities.
Council member Jared Evans, a Democrat, said he wouldn’t vote “yes” on the proposal as currently formulated, but he said panhandling and street harassment by individuals who appear to be homeless is an important issue for the entire city to tackle in the coming months. Evans said he was “looking forward to working with [McQuillen] and other councilors on how we could improve this.”
“We have a problem and we don’t have an answer,” Evans said. “We’re just beginning to have some serious conversations about homelessness in our city. You can’t just push them out. You can’t. We’ve got to get them services.”
Mayor Joe Hogsett spokeswoman Taylor Schaffer said in a statement that the city’s legal counsel will be reviewing the language, and the mayor’s office plans to sit down with McQuillen to discuss the proposal in the coming weeks. Schaffer did not address whether the mayor was for or against the proposal.
“The success of our city is directly tied to the success of our downtown, and we are always willing to work with public leaders and private partners to explore thoughtful policies that could improve the vibrancy of our downtown,” Schaffer said in an email. “It is our hope that through community conversation and collaboration we can develop solutions that address legitimate public safety concerns while ensuring downtown Indianapolis continues to be a place that welcomes all.”