Anyone who routinely walks through the intersection of Meridian and Maryland streets in downtown Indianapolis is probably used to the sight of Fredie, a boisterous man with an arsenal of cardboard signs he pulls in and out of rotation. He uses one of his favorites — “Super Model Out Of Work” — to draw laughs from people as they pass by, all in hopes of getting some loose change or even a couple bucks.
Fredie, 58, has been homeless off and on for the past nine years. He spends most of his time with his back pressed against the brick wall of Cafe Rene, across the street from Hard Rock Cafe. But Fredie, who declined to use his last name because of the sensitivity of his situation, may not be able to stay posted at his usual spot for much longer.
A proposed “no sit, no lie” ordinance would prohibit anyone from sitting or lying on a city street or sidewalk in the Mile Square daily from 6 a.m. to midnight. Police could take those who ignore the ordinance to the nearest shelter, if they are homeless, or give them a ticket if they refuse to cooperate. The proposal, introduced by Republican Councilor Michael McQuillen, quickly polarized those who think the ordinance would promote safety and business downtown from others who advocate for the homeless.
McQuillen maintains that the proposed ordinance is “not targeted at homeless in any way, shape or form,” since it would apply to anyone in the Mile Square. However, homeless people would stand to be the ones most heavily affected by the ordinance, and most of the media coverage surrounding the ordinance has to do with the homeless. There are four references to homeless people in the proposal, but in each case it is to mention what would be done with and without available shelter space.
Under the proposed ordinance, a police officer would notify the person they are in violation of the ordinance and would give that person a “reasonable amount of time” to comply. A reasonable amount of time wasn’t specified. If they don’t comply, the officer would enforce the ordinance.
A small percentage of people experiencing homelessness are actually in Fredie’s position: primarily on the streets, visible to the public. The Coalition for Homelessness Intervention and Prevention (CHIP) conducts a once-per-year homeless count in Marion County. The 2018 count, done Jan. 24, found that 8 percent of the 1,682 homeless are “unsheltered.” That’s consistent with CHIP data dating back to 2013.
“We understand the scope of the issue is larger than what we’re discussing,” Caleb Sutton, CHIP interim executive director, said. “But it’s also important to understand that ordinances like this put undue hardships on people experiencing homelessness. And it doesn’t provide a solution to end homelessness.”
One of those solutions, according to Sutton, is providing housing. In a statement issued in September in response to the proposed ordinance, Sutton pointed to a court decision in Idaho that ruled it is a form of cruel and unusual punishment to prosecute homeless people when there is no shelter available. There is language in the proposal to prevent action against the homeless if there is no shelter space available.
Sutton also mentioned $5 million in federal funding for Marion County in homelessness aid that could get slashed if the ordinance passes, since the county would be “criminalizing homelessness.” According to Sutton, there is a specific question about how communities are treating the homeless, and the county would not be able to answer positively. McQuillen said he is familiar with the $5 million Sutton mentioned, and that he would “definitely take that into consideration before moving forward.”
For some, like 45-year-old Alfonzo Long, the prospect of being uprooted during what is already a vulnerable time in his life makes him feel uncertain about what the future holds.
“I’d sleep in the park, I guess,” Long said.
Long has been homeless for four years and spends most of his time during the day sitting at the corner of Meridian and Maryland streets, across the way from Fredie. He heard about the proposal on Fox 59, and though he said he does have some places to go to get off the streets — like the downtown Greyhound station — he spends all of his time inside the Mile Square.
Other unsheltered homeless aren’t that worried about the proposed ordinance.
“I don’t lay on the ground,” said David Rodes, 35, who’s been homeless for about a month. “I’ll make my money and then find me somewhere to stay.”
Rodes, who wasn’t aware of the proposal, plays saxophone alongside a two-bucket drummer at the corner of Illinois and Washington Streets under the Indianapolis Artsgarden. He said he can understand why some city leaders would support such an ordinance, since some homeless do block walking paths on sidewalks and crosswalks.
Then there are those who said they’ll remain defiant if the ordinance passes.
“I don’t care,” said Lonnie Edmond, 48, who has been homeless for about two months and didn’t know about the proposal. “I’ll just sit down. I feel for the ones who would be kicked off.”
If the ordinance passes and police enforced it tightly enough, Edmond said he would probably leave Indianapolis.
Of all the unsheltered homeless in the Mile Square area, perhaps none are as optimistic as Fredie, who usually sleeps at night by the tables outside Hard Rock Cafe.
“It ain’t gonna be illegal for me,” Fredie said. “Police officers know me. … When the police tell me to move, that’s when I’ll move. But I don’t think it’s gonna pass.”
The proposal goes to the Rules and Public Policy Committee for hearing at 5:30 p.m. Nov. 20. Public testimony is allowed at committee hearings. If it passes, the ordinance goes to the full council in December.