Judge orders city of Cincinnati to clear out Downtown homeless camps

CINCINNATI -- A judge on Monday ordered the city of Cincinnati to clear out homeless camps in the Downtown area, saying they're a public nuisance because of felony drug crimes happening there.

Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters filed the civil nuisance action against the city after an unsuccessful effort late last week to remove a camp along Third Street. City employees cleaned out the camp and power-washed the area, only to have people set up their tents again immediately afterward.

That's when Mayor John Cranley asked for Deters' help. At the prosecutor's request, Common Pleas Judge Robert P. Ruehlman issued a temporary restraining order; it requires the city to immediately clean up the camps.

The order applies to any encampment south of a line drawn from roughly the Mill Creek to Mount Adams, and would include a camp that popped up recently near the Lytle Tunnel.

Julie Wilson, a spokeswoman for Deters' office, said the cleanup would start at 8 a.m. Tuesday.

Anyone violating the order will be subject to arrest, Deters said, and anyone trying to subvert the order could be the targeted for obstruction of justice.

A full hearing on the issue is scheduled for Aug. 20.

Ruehlman's order requires the city to clear camps south of the black line to the Ohio River.

Cranley has called the camp a health issue for the people living there and others. Last Tuesday, the city gave people 72 hours to leave.

"It is unacceptable that individuals and activists continue to illegally camp with tents in the right-of-way," he said in a statement Friday.

The Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition filed a lawsuit Friday and asked for a temporary order to block the city from kicking them out. However, Judge Timothy Black denied that request hours after it was filed, according to Josh Spring, CEO of the Coalition.

That decision allowed the city to clear out and clean up the area.

 

People staying there packed up their belongings ahead of Friday afternoon's deadline, but some of them just moved around the corner and set up on Walnut between Third and Second while city workers removed trash and cleaned the sidewalk.

The Homeless Coalition's lawsuit, which is still in court, alleges the city is violating residents' constitutional rights.

"What our ongoing lawsuit is challenging is the constitutionality of using Ohio's criminal trespass law to remove people who have stayed in public spaces," said Bennett Allen, the attorney for the Homeless Coalition.

Sidewalks are traditionally public forums, and the people living along Third Street or anywhere open to the public are "engaged in symbolic political speech calling attention to the City's affordable housing crisis," the suit says.

The suit alleges removing people from the Third Street camp violates their "First Amendment right to speak in a traditionally public forum." Removing people from the camp due to health risks "is not a compelling government interest" without any evidence of a public health threat, the lawsuit says.

A recent survey of Downtown residents and business owners showed concern for the city's image due to the camp. Now the Downtown Residents Council is asking the city to be included in the discussions moving forward that involve the camps.

"The trouble is, we keep hearing about 'taskforce,' and that's been going on a couple years and that seems to evaporate," said Sue Byrom with the Downtown Residents Council. "So we want a solution."

The homeless advocacy group Maslow's Army has been looking for solutions for the people living in these camps. They've been involved as the city cleared people out from an earlier camp under the Third and Plum overpass and continued to offer what they can during the cleanup Friday, setting up at the corner of Fifth and Main streets.

Maslow's Army works to provide people experiencing homelessness with food, clothes and other essential items and connect them to resources that other groups offer to help get people off the streets. Samuel Landis, the organization's president and co-founder, said he wasn't surprised that Deters took action Monday.

Organizations working to reduce homelessness in Cincinnati and Hamilton County don't support anything that encourages people to continue to live on the streets, said Kevin Finn, the CEO of Strategies to End Homelessness.

But the court order could result in criminalizing homelessness, something that communities across the nation have worked to avoid in recent years.

When Strategies to End Homelessness applies for federal funding next month, the organization will have to disclose on its application that the community has criminalized homelessness through Monday's action, Finn said, adding that he doesn't know what, if any, impact that will have on how much money the community receives.

"People staying on the street is not an answer to homelessness. Litigation is not an answer to homelessness," he said. "Homes are the answer to homelessness."

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