This past month has been quite eventful for individuals who once called home a particular area in downtown Cincinnati – a group stricken by homelessness.
The downtown area that a group called home was under a cluster of overpasses at Third and Plum Streets. The group – comprised of around 50 individuals – set up a tent encampment under the overpass where they had slept for months, or maybe even years. The area, which is close to several parking lots used by people working downtown, housed the tent camp; hundreds of individuals passed by and through the area every day to get to and from work.
Everything changed the week of July 23. Downtown workers could no longer walk under the overpass at Third and Plum, and the individuals who resided there no longer had a place to sleep. After months of complaints from downtown businesspeople and residents, Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas Judge Robert Ruehlman issued a temporary restraining order against homeless individuals. The order essentially banned outdoor tent camps in downtown Cincinnati – from Central Parkway south to the Ohio River, and between I-71 and I-75. All homeless individuals were ordered to leave the area by July 25, or they could be arrested.
The order came after the Mayor of Cincinnati asked Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters for help in dealing with the homeless camps. In the suit, the City claimed that it: (1) had a compelling interest to keep Cincinnati streets clean and to protect public safety; and (2) that homeless camps were a danger to the community and a danger to the individuals living in them. The initial order, however, was modified twice. The first modification expanded the banned area to cover almost a quarter of Hamilton County, while the second banned homeless camps in all of Hamilton County.
(The city filing a lawsuit against people experiencing homelessness? How could the city file a lawsuit against individuals who were homeless? Now, perhaps the grounds on which the suit was filed were legitimate. But I am struggling to agree with their legitimacy. Was the city really that concerned with keeping the streets clean? Was the public really that unsafe? Did the city really care about the danger homeless individuals living in the camps faced?)
At this point, the city was responding to downtown businessowners’ wishes; and the city may have been offering a quick fix to a problem that has progressively worsened overtime.
My knowledge about the homelessness issue increased when I attended a court hearing. The hearing was quite enlightening. In the hearing, Kevin Finn, representative for Strategies to End Homelessness, testified that his organization provides extra sleeping space on mattresses on the floor for individuals when there is no space in his shelter. Another representative testified that her organization has provided hotel vouchers when her shelter is over capacity.
“So why do homeless people still sleep on the streets?,” I asked myself. My question was answered by Mr. Finn. He stated that rates of mental illness and substance abuse is higher in homeless individuals living outside as opposed to those living in homeless shelters. Furthermore, Finn said that many people choose to sleep outside to facilitate substance abuse, as drug and alcohol use is prohibited in homeless shelters. In fact, the city presented evidence about needles, feces, and bottles of urine being discovered after the initial camp, under the I-71/I-75 overpass, was cleared out.
No doubt, this evidence proved that the camps were unsanitary, and activity taking place in the camps may not have always been legal. But were those the sole reasons why homeless camps were banned?
After the initial ban on homeless camps, a handful of individuals received permanent housing vouchers. A few others entered drug rehabilitation programs. Additionally, City Council has formed a group focused on finding a long-term solution for the homelessness problem within 60 days. These developments are all good for the city, and necessary for the resolution of its homelessness issue. But why did it take all of this publicization and outrage for something to happen?
(Money should never be valued over the lives of fellow citizens. That’s why we as a society must do a better job at dealing with our social ills. We need better social services – proper funding for quality drug rehabilitation programs, effective mental health treatment and better job skills training, to name a few. We need more affordable housing for the less advantaged. We need more jobs paying respectable wages, even for individuals with little or no education. I’m no expert in solving social problems, but I’m a firm believer that America’s priorities need some realigning. If we can take some of the emphasis off of making money and invest that money into people, then maybe the return on the investment will outweigh any profit that a corporation could ever make. Maybe, then, cities like Cincinnati will become stronger as a whole, leaving behind no one.)