CINCINNATI >> Homeless people living along a busy downtown Cincinnati street left minutes before the city’s deadline today when crews tasked with sanitizing the area arrived in white, full-body suits and neon vests.
But they didn’t go far.
Most took tents and other belongings and relocated just around the corner. Some went even closer to the city’s entertainment district that includes stadiums and an arena that host pro sports and big-name concerts.
Advocates for the homeless said displaced individuals plan to return as soon as city crews leave area. Police said they had no immediate plans to keep them away.
A federal judge refused to block the city’s cleanup after homeless advocates filed a lawsuit today trying to stop it, saying constitutional rights were being violated.
City officials cited health and safety reasons when they began to issue notices to vacate downtown homeless encampments about two weeks ago. Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley has called the encampments an “unacceptable” public health hazard.
Police and public officials are sweeping homeless camps across the nation in response to pressure from residents and business owners who want to avoid visible poverty, said Megan Hustings, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. Hustings said complaints about cleanliness are valid, but removing individuals from public streets isn’t the answer.
“If dirtiness is the issue, focus on that,” she said. “Provide trash collection and portable restrooms.”
Those who sleep on the streets have begun to set up tents and take shelter in more visible spaces over the last few years because they think they’re safer in more open, trafficked locations, said Kevin Finn, president of Strategies to End Homelessness.
Billy Watson grills chicken wings on the sidewalk in front of his bar and restaurant Kitty’s, less than a block from the first encampment city officials shut down last week. He said he’s glad they’re doing something about it, because some customers told him they wouldn’t return until the tent city was dealt with.
Watson said he would be fine moving the encampment away from downtown tourist stops.
Homeless advocate Josh Spring said the homeless individuals have a right to be seen by both locals and tourists, and have a First Amendment right to protest — not with signs, but with their tents.
“Until we get serious about permanent solutions, we must not punish people for trying to live,” said Spring, of the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition.
Joseph Phillips, the homeless man named in the lawsuit against the city, said he decided to live on downtown sidewalks because the area is safe and well-lit. He added it’s close to food kitchens and shelters, and the location makes it easy for people to drop off donations.
Acting City Manager Patrick Duhaney said he plans to next target a camp that formed near a luxury riverfront apartment complex around the same time the first encampment was shut down.
Cities such as Seattle and San Diego have experimented with sanctioned encampments in designated areas.
The vast majority of the Cincinnati area’s homeless population lives in shelters, Finn said. But others prefer living on the streets. Some shy away from shelters because of paranoia or anxiety, or because of substance dependencies. Some couples without children who can’t stay together in shelters don’t want to be apart.
Over the last few weeks, homeless individuals weaved brown plastic bags into the metal fencing along a Cincinnati freeway overpass, spelling “Home is where the heart is.”