Legal Fight Over Cincinnati Tent Cities Continues

A newly-amended legal challenge to block the city and county's tent city ban in federal court names the mayor and city solicitor and purports new data about shelter availability

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click to enlarge The final tent city in Over-the-Rhine - Nick Swartsell
Nick Swartsell
The final tent city in Over-the-Rhine

The tents downtown that popped up this summer are gone — but the fight over them continues.

The Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition yesterday filed amendments to a lawsuit against Cincinnati and Hamilton County it filed this summer in response to the city’s removal of tent cities in downtown and surrounding neighborhoods.

The amended filing seeks to block the city and county “from detaining or arresting citizens experiencing homelessness, and from seizing or destroying their property,” and to block an injunction that effectively made sleeping outside illegal in Hamilton County.

Cincinnati officials’ efforts to remove a tent city under Fort Washington Way in July escalated into a drawn-out game of cat and mouse between city and Hamilton County officials and residents of various camps that popped up along Third Street, in Pendelton and Over-the-Rhine. 

In the midst of that fight, Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge Robert Ruehlman issued a restraining order at the request of the city and Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters that made it illegal to camp outside in the neighborhoods where the tent cities were popping up (later it was extended to include all of Hamilton County).

That sparked the filing challenging Ruehlman’s order from Joe Phillips, a camp resident.

The amended complaint in U.S. District Court looks to add the Homeless Coalition and another camp resident, Patrick T. Chin, as plaintiffs. It also seeks to add Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley and City Solicitor Paula Boggs Muething to the list of defendants, which currently includes Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters, Ruehlman, Hamilton County, the City of Cincinnati and the Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas.

The final tent city was located on land owned by nonprofit Over-the-Rhine Community Housing. Inhabitants there cleared the camp in August under threat of arrest. Some residents of those camps found housing, but many remain homeless. In the weeks after the camp was cleared, some residents who were unable to find housing received citations from police for sleeping outside.

The Homeless Coalition’s amended filing also includes new claims about a pivotal issue in the situation: the capacity of shelters in the area. The city and county both argued that they could remove camps and potentially arrest inhabitants there because there is enough room in area shelters for people experiencing homelessness. Advocates like the Homeless Coalition took issue with that assertion, however, and in the latest court filing, the group shares data from the Department of Housing and Urban Development about calls to a Hamilton County hotline for emergency shelter access.

An average day in August saw calls looking for space in family shelters for roughly 94 people, the filing says. 95 percent of those people were turned away due to lack of space in family shelters. Those calling the hotline looking for space in shelters for individuals fared somewhat better, the filing shows — but 73 percent were turned away due to lack of space.

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. Though shelters in the area had been full or over capacity, they made room to accommodate those in the camps, according to Strategies to End Homelessness CEO Kevin Finn.

The filing now also notes that 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.

The Homeless Coalition will hold a news conference to further discuss its filing tomorrow at 11 a.m.

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