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Judge bans homeless camps in Hamilton County at prosecutor's request

One condition: Shelter space must be available
Posted at 3:14 PM, Aug 09, 2018
and last updated 2018-08-10 11:05:59-04

CINCINNATI -- After what appeared to be a week-long cat-and-mouse game, a judge banned outdoor homeless camps from public places throughout Hamilton County Thursday afternoon -- on one condition.

Judge Robert Ruehlman said his order can't be enforced unless there is enough room in local shelters.

That condition, however, could be a lot more complicated than it seems.

Shelterhouse, for example, operates the two largest emergency homeless shelters in Hamilton County -- the David and Rebecca Baron Center for Men in Queensgate and the Esther Marie Hatton Center for Women in Mount Auburn. Both facilities have been over capacity for many months, but both also accommodate people in "overflow" space so the shelters don't have to turn people away, said executive director Arlene Nolan.

The Barron Center is a 150-bed facility, Nolan said, but 196 men stayed there Wednesday night. The Hatton Center is a 60-bed shelter but had 80 women staying there Wednesday night, she said.

"And tonight will be a totally different number," Nolan said. "Everybody's looking for a fixed number. If a woman shows up in the middle of the night, we're not going to say, 'It's a 60-bed shelter; we're at 80.' We're going to say, 'You can sleep in a chair to make sure you're safe.'"

City Gospel Mission, a faith-based homeless service provider in Queensgate, does not serve people beyond its 74-bed capacity, said Kevin Rosebrook, the vice president of homeless services there. Still, the spaces available there can change daily, he said.

"Pretty much anybody can get in," Rosebrook said of the men's shelter operated by City Gospel Mission. "They can't come in intoxicated. They can't be a registered sex offender. Other than that, it's open to any male that's in need of shelter." 

Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters' request for the temporary restraining order arrived after dozens of people experiencing homelessness moved from one location to another in the past two weeks in response to city and court orders.

Deters alleged in his motion that drug use and drug sales related to homeless camps "cause immediate and irreparable harm to the surrounding community." He asked the judge to allow officials to seize any tent or other shelter on public property.

That filing came after two other TROs that pushed a homeless camp from Third Street Downtown to Central Parkway near JACK Casino, and then to a city-owned plot on Gilbert Avenue, across the street from WCPO. 

On Friday, a camp moved into a private lot at 13th and Republic Streets in Over-the-Rhine. The court order banning camps only applies to public spaces.

"They're gaming the system," Deters said, in hopes of winning a settlement from a lawsuit.

By midnight Thursday, police had dispersed the Gilbert Avenue camp and said the ruling was in full effect - - anyone caught camping on public property in Hamilton County would be relocated to a shelter or charged. 

Josh Spring, executive director of the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition, said officials were trying to push people out instead of dealing with the problems that contribute to homelessness.

"We're splitting neighborhoods up," he said. "Splitting families apart. We're chasing people across the city. The problem gets worse by the minute."

Deters said people experiencing homelessness could stay in shelters but refuse to do so.

"The people who are willing to comply by the rules, there is room for them in the shelters," Deters said.

Kevin Finn, the CEO of Strategies to End Homelessness, said that there are many reasons people experiencing homelessness choose to live in a tent city instead of a shelter. Some people have been barred from shelters for fighting, drinking or using drugs. Others live with severe mental illnesses or have experienced traumatic events that make it difficult to stay in a shelter.  

RELATED: Why don't Cincinnati homeless go to shelters?

Deters, however, said that only a small percentage of people who are homeless are ineligible to go to shelters.

One woman living in the camp near the casino said Thursday she and her husband didn't want to stay in shelters because most are single-sex facilities and they would be separated.

"We believe in family sticking together and closeness," she said. "We're in this together."

Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley asked for Deters' help after the city ordered tents off Third Street in order to clean the area, only to have the tents return when the work was done.

At Deters' request, Ruehlman first issued a temporary restraining order banning outdoors camps Downtown south of Central Parkway. But when people pitched tents two blocks north of that line, near the casino, Deters went back to court and got the judge to ban the camps between I-75 and I-71 all the way north to the Norwood Lateral.

The tents then moved Thursday afternoon to Gilbert Avenue - one block east of I-71.

People who camped on Reading Road near the casino overnight said they were rousted from their sleep first thing in the morning.

“We went to sleep last night thinking all was well,” said one. “Woke up at 6:30 and they showed up telling everybody they had to pack up and leave.”

Jessica Barnett, who stayed in the camp, said she didn’t know where she’d go next. She said the officials pushing them out “look like a bunch of heartless people who just don't care."

“To say you're not even good enough to stay on this little piece of public land, that hurts,”  Spring said.

Spring said the bigger problem is that Cincinnati has “an affordable housing crisis.”  He said there is a shortage of 40,000 units of affordable housing.

Spring said a solution would be an affordable housing trust fund.

“Hundred of municipalities across the country have these. We do not," Spring said.

He said it could be funded by the same developers who build multi-million dollar housing projects downtown.

"Until we get real about solutions, the problem will just continue," Spring said. "This problem won't disappear."