Downtown Cincinnati homeless camp to be cleared out by week's end

Officials say it's a health, safety hazard

CINCINNATI -- A homeless camp near Third and Plum streets that city officials say has become a health and safety hazard should be cleaned up by week's end.

In a memo released Monday, Acting City Manager Patrick Duhaney framed it as the first step in a long process to help the people living there get into permanent housing.

Others weren't so sure.

Kevin Finn, the CEO of Strategies to End Homelessness, said the city had not discussed expanding shelter capacity with any of the organizations listed in Duhaney's memo as of Sunday. Even if those discussions took place throughout the day Monday, Finn said, there is no way extra shelter space could be ready before the encampment is disbanded.

"By then," he said, "all those people will be gone."

A spokesman for Duhaney said city officials are confident there will be enough shelter beds Friday night for everyone who gets displaced from the encampment. The city plans to fund a temporary shelter until the people can be placed in permanent housing, Duhaney's memo said. It didn't indicate how much that would cost, and spokesman Casey Weldon hadn't answered WCPO's question by Monday evening.

The camp, located underneath a ramp to Fort Washington Way, has frustrated neighbors in the past few weeks. They say it's led to public sex, urination, drug use and other problems.

Police posted notices Monday morning that people in the camp had 72 hours to collect their personal items and leave. Workers also were on hand to help those people get into housing, if they wanted it.

Then, on Friday morning, city crews will clear out the campsite, including couches and mattresses, and power wash the area. Duhaney said they'll also toss any hazardous items -- a makeshift bathroom, garbage and syringes.

Police will hold any personal property.

Capt. Mike Neville said the evacuation of the encampment is the first step of a process designed to help people experiencing homelessness.

“The city has stepped up with an agreement that can give them permanent housing — temporary housing — that we are explaining to them,” Neville said. “If they need efforts to get them there, we will get them there and in that location is where they will get more permanent housing opportunities and other treatments.”

Neville said there hasn’t been an influx in crime in the months that people have been staying in the encampment. The bigger issue, he said, is sanitation.

“The City of Cincinnati looks at homelessness as a social need, not a criminal need,” Neville said. “The value in thinking that somebody’s going to get cited or go to jail is not our goal.”

The city also is looking at ways to stop people from setting up camp in the area again. At least temporarily, Duhaney said crews will fence off the area.

A woman who lives in the encampment, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said she’s sad she has to leave because she feels like she has nowhere else to go. She’s been staying under the overpass because it protects her from the elements and there’s a sense of community; everyone in the encampment sticks together, she said.

“We keep to ourselves,” she said. “We go out there. We have to fight to get our food, money and everything to support food, habits, whatever.”

Despite the visibility of the encampment along Third Street, there actually are fewer people living on the street in Hamilton County than in years past, Finn said.

"The dynamic seems to be different in that people tend to be sleeping in more visible locations, and I think part of that is a safety issue," Finn said.

The fact that the city allowed the encampment to remain there for so long likely drew more people to stay there over time, he said.

"When all of a sudden there is sort of an unstated acceptance of people being in one place, that draws in people who are sleeping in other places where there is not a perceived acceptance to the camp being there," Finn said. "People who are on the street are constantly having to worry about their possessions and whether they're going to lose the things they have. So to have a location where the perception is that you're OK to be there and that your possessions are OK to be there will draw more people."

A June 26 report written by Downtown Cincinnati, Inc. board member Jason Barron asserted that residents and businesses near the encampment had become concerned about health and safety because of public urination, defecation and drug use occurring in and around the encampment.

Among the suggested solutions was to fund the placement of a portable toilet near the camp. But Finn said making the encampment more livable would only encourage more people experiencing homelessness to gather there.

This photo taken by a Downtown resident around 5:30 p.m. July 8 shows a man who appears to be urinating on the exterior of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

"A lot of times we tend to look past the obvious solutions," Finn said. "If the problem is homelessness, the answer is housing."

Local homeless shelters have room for single men and women, he said, but the people staying outside don't want to stay there. Nearly 90 percent of them, however, have told street outreach workers that they do want to stay in an apartment, Finn said. He estimated it would cost roughly $365,000 to provide apartments for them for a year, along with case managers to help them get back on their feet.

Finn said the plan to add more homeless shelter capacity won't address the problem long-term. He estimated that it would cost at least $15,000 per month to increase homeless shelter capacity in the way Duhaney's action plan described.

"If the city and the business community that are concerned about the people who are down there really wanted to make a difference, then coming together and coming up with, not a temporary housing option, but a permanent housing option for those folks would be the way to go," Finn said.

Without that, he said: "In a month or two, all those folks might be in the exact same position again."

No matter what, a smaller number of people will want to stay on the street, and Maslow's Army co-founder Samuel Landis said his group wants to be part of the city's action plan to help those people, too.

Landis lived on the streets for about two decades while he battled addiction and struggled with mental illness. He got clean, got shelter and married Susan Landis, who also experienced homelessness for a time.

The two of them started Maslow's Army to help meet the basic needs of people living on the street or in places not meant for human habitation.

"History repeats itself," Samuel Landis said. "I've been kicked out of multiple camps."

"From the human perspective, I just want these people to be treated as equals," Susan Landis said. "At the end of the day, we're talking about human beings. I think it's really important that they are treated as such."

Maslow's Army board member Brian Garry said he is concerned families will be separated by the city's action.

"Our city leaders need to look them in the eyes," he said. "Article 25 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights says that housing is a human right."

The Landises said Maslow's Army volunteers will be at the Third Street encampment in force to help connect people with resources and move people who want to stay on the streets to other encampments.

The group also wants to be involved with the city's action plan to help the police and other city officials understand the sensitivities surrounding why people are staying there and why they are reluctant to stay in shelters, said Jeff McDowell, a Maslow's Army board member.

"We are actively talking with United Way, the city and others," McDowell said.

This photo taken July 16, 2018, shows some of the mattresses, tents and other possessions that have built up as part of the homeless encampment near Third and Plum streets Downtown.

Editor’s note: WCPO does not ordinarily use anonymous sources. However, WCPO staff members use anonymous sources in rare circumstances where such sources are the only way to obtain information vital to the public good. WCPO staff members have vetted these sources and believe the information they provide to be accurate and in good faith.

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region -- to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on problems we need to address. Poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO. To read more stories about poverty, go to www.wcpo.com/poverty. To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.

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