Desmond Brown stood in the tent city at the privately-owned corner of land on 13th and Republic Streets as the rain sputtered down, proudly dangling a pair of keys to an apartment he had just secured in Walnut Hills.
Brown, one of about 15 inhabitants of the camp, says the keys represent the first time he’s had a place of his own. The 41-year-old, who was adopted, had a tumultuous childhood followed by years of couch-surfing, shelter stays and life on the streets as an adult.
Now, his time at the controversial camp is coming to a close with help from nonprofit Over-the-Rhine Community Housing, which owns the lot the camp rests on. But he says he won’t forget the tent city he and his fellow campers call "The Colony."
“If they can do it for me,” he says, shaking the keys between his fingers, “I want all my people housed.”
Elsewhere in the small camp, the mood was tense. Yesterday, Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters ordered the tent city cleared by Cincinnati Police, citing complaints about drug use, public urination and other public nuisance charges. The removal would have been the latest in a series of such actions by the city, beginning at downtown’s Fort Washington Way, where condo residents and businesses lodged a number of complaints about a tent city there inhabited by as many as 40 people.
Camp inhabitants and their advocates have fought a pitched battle with the city and county over the tent cities. They deny claims that the camps are public health and safety hazards and point out that, while shelters will stretch to fit in camp inhabitants, they are already over capacity.
The camp is on private property owned by Over-the-Rhine Community Housing, which did not ask the residents to leave. But Deters set a noon deadline today, which many inhabitants took very seriously.
Noon came and went, however, and it became apparent the city and county would not move in to dismantle the camp just yet.
The spot in Over-the-Rhine is already loaded with a tense history around class and race. It is very near the spot where Cincinnati police officer Stephen Roach shot and killed unarmed black 19-year-old Timothy Thomas, setting off days of civil unrest in the neighborhood. In the aftermath of that unrest, city officials and business leaders went about efforts to remake the neighborhood, eventually spending hundreds of millions of dollars to renovate nearby Washington Park and turn older, distressed buildings — some vacant, some home to low-income residents — into high-dollar condos, stores and restaurants. Those investments have brought new activity to the neighborhood — but they have also caused controversy and may have spurred some level of displacement of long-term residents.
Camp residents and representatives from advocacy groups like the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition huddled prior to Deters' deadline at the Jimmy Heath House nearby, debating a strategy. The plan they came up with: leave the space by Monday.
Mary Burke-Rivers, the housing nonprofit’s executive director, called the camp on 13th “unsustainable” and said the organization and others are working on finding solutions. That would mean getting more camp inhabitants like Brown housing. She noted, however, that it will be a daunting task.
Others in the camp are still waiting. An inhabitant named Jessica Barnett has tried to gain housing via a few different programs, but remains in her tent for now. Joe Phillips, the plaintiff in a federal lawsuit against the city and county, is also still at the tent city, though he says he believes he has secured employment making pallets at a site near Colerain Township, and that his employer may help him find housing as well.
Nonprofit Strategies to End Homelessness, which coordinates shelters and programs to move people into permanent housing, counted more than 7,100 Cincinnatians who experienced homelessness at some point last year. Advocates like the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition, OTRCH, STEH and others say that affordable housing is the way to address the issue.
Hamilton County needs tens of thousands of units of affordable housing to meet demand from those making under $14,000 a year, according to a study by the Greater Cincinnati Local Initiatives Support Corporation. And, even as more people need affordable housing options locally and nationally, federal funding for housing is headed in the opposite direction. OTRCH lost more than $1 million in federal funding for housing last year. Strategies to End Homelessness, which coordinates shelters and supportive housing options, lost another $300,000.
"This is going to keep happening, because we don't have enough of the solution," Rivers said of the tent cities.
Rivers said OTRCH had met with Mayor John Cranley earlier in the day, and that he indicated the city would not try to clear the camp today.
“CPD will continue to enforce court orders on homeless encampments,” Cranley said later in a statement. “If the County obtains another court order, we will enforce it, just as we have previous court orders. It is our understanding that the owner of 13th and Republic, Over-the-Rhine Community Housing, has committed to vacate all individuals staying on their private property on Monday and are working to place the individuals in permanent housing or shelters. We appreciate that commitment and our outreach workers will continue to work with individuals experiencing homelessness to connect them to needed services and housing.”
Deters and acting Cincinnati City Manager Patrick Duhaney today moved for a permanent injunction that would allow the city to remove the camp. That injunction argues that OTRCH's land does not have running water or bathroom facilities and is thus not fit for human habitation.
"Because the encampment moved onto private property, a premises which is completely lacking the public health and safety requirements that are required by Ohio law, this court's injunctive powers to prevent the nuisance cause by the encampments are still applicable," that filing reads.
The legal maneuverings from the city and county have caused concern from some legal analysts. Attorney and Cleveland State University professor Joseph Mead says that those efforts represent a big overreach. Mead and other lawyers sent a letter to Hamilton County earlier this week requesting records around the court proceedings be made public.
"Even if you think arresting people for seeking shelter in a tent is a good policy, you gotta be a little troubled that policy is being made, not through the political process, but through a collusive lawsuit attempting to restrict rights of people who have no chance to weigh in," Mead said in a tweet today. "Through this two week long litigation, which had absolutely no adversarial testing, meaningful briefing, or any public input, Hamilton County may become one of the most aggressively anti-homeless places in the United States. An affront to democratic and constitutional values," he continued in another tweet.