Some in Cincinnati's Tent Cities Gain Shelter. What Comes Next?

Though many who lived in the camps removed by the city have found housing or shelter space, advocates say the deeper issues will take far longer to solve

click to enlarge Stacia Hollander and Kasper Wade at a rally in Washington Park supporting inhabitants of tent cities in Cincinnati - Nick Swartsell
Nick Swartsell
Stacia Hollander and Kasper Wade at a rally in Washington Park supporting inhabitants of tent cities in Cincinnati

Stacia Hollander has been without an apartment or regular space in a shelter for a year and a half. For the past few days, she’s been staying in a camp on 13th Street in Over-the-Rhine, where inhabitants of various tent cities have come after the city cleared them out of other locations.

For the past three weeks, Cincinnati and Hamilton County officials have squared off with inhabitants of the tent cities and their advocates in a protracted game of chess that has stretched across downtown and surrounding neighborhoods.

After a number of removals by city officials, the last readily-visible camp from that battle is the small tent city where Hollander has been staying on private land owned by Over-the-Rhine Community Housing.

Some of the handful of residents there say they’re in the final stages of getting housing — but advocates say that doesn’t mean the struggle over the way the city addresses those experiencing homelessness is over. A federal lawsuit against the city and county over policies clearing camps still looms, as do bad feelings around the city’s treatment of those experiencing homelessness. And the region will continue to face an overall deficit of affordable housing and shelter space long after the last tent comes down on 13th Street, activists point out.

Mayor John Cranley, who has been a driver behind the camp removals, has said that the camps represent a public health and safety risk, citing drug activity and hepatitis outbreaks. He has also pointed out that area shelters are willing to take those living in the camps, and that there is no excuse for living on the street. Advocates for camp inhabitants dispute those assertions.

At the urging of Cranley and Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters, Hamilton County Judge Robert Ruehlman issued a series of progressively more-restrictive rulings that eventually made it illegal to camp on public space anywhere in the county. Ruehlman cited Deters’ and Cranley’s reasoning that the camps represented health and safety risks. But advocates for those experiencing homelessness say the rulings effectively made being homeless illegal in Hamilton County.

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

On a recent sunny weekday, Hollander sat in the OTR camp with other inhabitants filling out forms to apply for housing provided by social service workers. Yesterday, Hollander says, she found out she’d been accepted. She’ll soon move into an apartment in Westwood.

But the memories of how she was treated will linger. Hollander says she is the woman who received a message on her cup at Dunkin' Donuts in June that read, “Stop hanging out in front of the store.” Another customer posted a photo of the message on social media, where it went viral. The incident made brief national headlines, compelling Dunkin' Donuts to fire the employee.

“It is so hard out here,” Hollander said yesterday at a rally in Washington Park showing support for camp inhabitants. “We are human. We’re not trash — stop bashing us.”

While other camp inhabitants have also found housing or shelter space, some without homes haven’t been lucky enough to get that yet.

Kasper Wade, a 41-year-old who grew up in Mason, says he became homeless after his mother died earlier this year. His father abruptly kicked Wade out of the house.

“I have my story,” he says. “We all have our stories. We’re as human as you are, Mayor Cranley. I want to know why you are being so cruel and inhumane."

“A lot of us are sick,” Wade continued. “I have to wear a medical device that has to stay sanitary and clean. That’s very hard out here. I don’t want to die out here. But without the help of the city, I’m afraid I may.”

Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition Executive Director Josh Spring says the solution to the problem is simple: housing that is affordable to low-income people. In the meantime, social service agencies and shelters like Shelterhouse, along with advocates like the coalition, are working overtime. 

“Our combined efforts over the past couple weeks have resulted in a substantial majority of folks either finding shelter or housing,” coalition attorney Bennett Allen said, noting that he didn’t have exact numbers for how many camp inhabitants have found housing or shelter space. “Unfortunately, some others have been forced to simply hide. We want to have a forward-looking approach that tries to improve the city’s policy.”

Allen says he plans to meet with representatives from the Cincinnati City Solicitor’s Office Wednesday. He expressed hopes that the meeting would lead to a resolution of a federal lawsuit he filed on behalf of Joe Phillips, a camp resident, two weeks ago.

Despite assertions from critics, he says Phillips’ lawsuit doesn’t seek financial damages and that no camp inhabitants are seeking cash settlements.

“That’s an unequivocal no,” Allen said. “I’m not aware of any similar lawsuit that has ever settled for any substantial amount of money. We have not discussed that with anyone.”

Allen says the goal is to get the city to change its policies in regard to the camps away from a law enforcement tack to one that maximizes a social service approach. That, he says, is one prong of several necessary to help address the issue.

“We’re trying to influence and change the way the city, and perhaps the various municipalities in the state of Ohio, use their criminal statutes — trespass for example — with respect to and against people experiencing homelessness,” he said. “We’re trying to do what we can on our end with the litigation route to bring some pressure to bear, but on the other hand we also need the budgetary approach. We want to push toward a budget that has more money for affordable housing. In the meantime, we want a policy so that while that is working itself out, people aren’t faced with arrest, criminal history, loss of property, that sort of thing.”

Meanwhile, some Cincinnati City Council members want to find longer-term solutions. Council voted recently to set up a 60-day task force that would hash out how to address homelessness in Cincinnati. The problem has deep structural roots — a 40,000-unit deficit in housing affordable to Hamilton County’s lowest-income households, for example, and lack of access to addiction and mental health treatment options — that advocates say continue to haunt the region.

“As a representative of a supermajority of Cincinnati City Council, I can say we do not agree with Mayor John Cranley,” Councilman Chris Seelbach said at yesterday’s rally. “We believe that instead of spending $40 million to help billionaires build a soccer stadium, we should spend a few million ensuring that people on the streets have a place to stay. The solutions are multi-faceted. It’s much bigger than just shelters — it’s transitional living, permanent supportive housing, it’s rapid rehousing. It’s being able to live in whatever neighborhood you want to and being able to afford to live in that neighborhood.”

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