CINCINNATI — Ohio’s First District Court of Appeals heard arguments Wednesday in a case that has the potential to end Hamilton County’s controversial homeless camp ban.
Hamilton County Common Pleas Court Judge Robert Ruehlman issued the ban in August.
It prohibits outdoor homeless camps from public and private property throughout Hamilton County as long as local shelters have space to accommodate people experiencing homelessness. Proponents of the ban have argued that local homeless shelters have space, but many advocates for the homeless say the shelters are almost always over capacity.
Joe Mead, a lawyer for the ACLU of Ohio, represents New Prospect Baptist Church in the case and argued the ban “poses a substantial” threat to the church’s ability to “fulfill its religious mission.”
“The people that we seek to serve know of this injunction, right?” Mead said in court Wednesday. “They are scared of this injunction. They know that they are subject to arrest. They know that they are subject to having their property seized under this injunction, which further complicates our ability to fulfill our religious mission to reach out and provide services to people in need.”
But Christian Schaefer, an assistant county prosecutor representing Ruehlman, argued the church has no standing in the case.
Schaefer said the primary reason behind the ban was that the large homeless encampments in downtown Cincinnati last summer were posing threats to public health.
“The Ruehlman order focuses on running water and toilet facilities,” Schaefer said. “And the problem with camps of homeless is the homeless folks will defecate and urinate on the ground, on the sidewalks, on the trees, and it is a horrendous situation over time.”
If the church were to allow homeless people to camp out on its property, Schaefer said, the church would be able to provide the running water and bathroom facilities necessary to prevent those public health problems.
Mead also argued that the ban stemmed from an improper lawsuit that Hamilton County filed against the city of Cincinnati in an effort to help Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley disperse the camps.
ACLU of Ohio Executive Director Ben Guess repeated that argument in an interview with WCPO after Wednesday’s proceedings.
“Homelessness should not be considered a crime nor should it be considered a crime for those coming to the aid of those experiencing homelessness,” Guess said. “We feel like this manufactured lawsuit doesn’t really address the issues of homelessness in the county and in the city. It simply attempts to seep the rights of homeless persons and others trying to come to their aid under the carpet.”
Schaefer said in court Wednesday that the county’s lawsuit against the city was necessary to force city officials to enforce their own policies.
A majority of Cincinnati City Council didn’t want the city manager to enforce the city’s health and safety ordinances, and the county felt compelled to force action, he said.
“We started getting a tremendous number of complaints from people on Third Street,” Schaefer said. “The city manager wouldn’t enforce municipal complaints because a majority of council didn’t want him to.”
A separate lawsuit related to the homeless camps is working its way through federal court.
Bennett Allen is the lawyer representing Joseph Phillips, Patrick Chin and the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition.
He listened to the arguments at the First District Court of Appeals Wednesday and said the implications for the case could be “tremendous.”
A decision in favor of New Prospect Baptist Church, Allen said, could give his clients and others experiencing homelessness “some relief, at least temporarily.”
“These are folks with very few worldly possessions. And the threat of losing those possessions, having them seized and stored somewhere that’s difficult to access,” he said, “that’s a very serious threat.”
The threat of arrest can put people’s jobs at risk, Allen said.
If the ban stays in place, those threats remain very real, he said.
“It gives a certain amount of authority for the state, in this case the city and the county, to act without honoring a citizen’s right to due process,” Allen said.
If New Prospect Baptist Church were to allow people to set up four tents on church property, Allen argued the ban gives law enforcement officials the authority to go onto the campsite, arrest the people camping there and seize their property without a warrant and without any evidence that they were doing anything illegal.
“You can’t take people’s liberty, you can’t put them in jail, you can’t take their possessions without due process of law,” Allen said. “That’s just not acceptable.”
It could take several weeks or months before Judge Russell Mock, Judge Beth Myers and Judge Sylvia Hendon issue a written ruling in the New Prospect Baptist Church case.
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 issues we need to address. Poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO. To reach Lucy, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.