Vacant Bloomington lot turned homeless camp to soon be site of Panda Express

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BLOOMINGTON, Ill. (WMBD) — The City of Bloomington is looking to find a solution for a local homeless population as the lot they’re occupying will soon be developed.

The encampment is located off of Market Street and Interstate 55 in the westside of Bloomington. Formerly at the site was a gas station.

What might be an empty lot to some, is a place to call home for others, but plans to develop the lot into a fast food restaurant are leaving the community of homeless people concerned about what lies ahead.

The lot is currently home to tents, cars, and about 20 people with nowhere else to go. The group’s leader, Ronny Morris, said he’s lived on the lot in a tent since the winter of last year.

“We’re just trying to live like any other American. For me, I go to work every day [and] they make sure their families are safe,” Morris said.

But according to the city, there are plans to build a Panda Express on the lot, leaving Morris and the others questioning where they’re supposed to go.

“We have the right to live, and whether it be on another land, I just want to make sure they have a place where they can feel safe and feel like it’s a home to them. Even if it is another lot and living in a tent, [it’s] just [about] giving them a place to be able to live,” Morris said.

Public Information Officer with the Bloomington Police Department, John Fermon, said they’ve received many calls lately, checking on the camp’s well-being.

“A lot of people are starting to recognize that this is sort of an issue that’s becoming prevalent to them, even though we’ve known about it for a while,” Fermon said.

Fermon said when officers respond, there isn’t much that can be done because being homeless isn’t a crime.

“Our city is going to take it up with the property owners, especially with getting things cleaned up, but it’s not trespassing unless the owner actually calls and says they’d like somebody removed,” Fermon said.

Fermon said help has been offered, but many enjoy living by their own set of rules. Morris said the pandemic affected what help they can receive.

“These buildings have a capacity, and can only take in so much. Mathematically, you can only help so many people, so what happens to the rest of us that don’t get help?” Morris said.

Fermon said as for officers responding, there isn’t much crime to break up besides an occasional disagreement.

“Usually if we come out here, we come out with a smile, ask if everything’s okay,” Fermon said. “Most of the time people call and just want them checked on.”

Fermon said if construction starts on the Panda Express, officers will then remove people from the lot and offer to get them access to services or help relocated them. He said the last thing they want to do is arrest someone for trespassing.

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