By Angie Wang, Associated Press
CINCINNATI (AP) — Criminalizing homelessness by banning encampments throughout a southwest Ohio county is not the answer, advocates for the homeless said Friday.
Civil rights lawyer Joe Mead described as “troubling” the scope of an Ohio judge’s order that prohibits homeless people from establishing tent cities in all of Hamilton County. Mead, of the ACLU of Ohio, said he’s never heard of a county prosecutor arguing that homeless people are a nuisance in all public spaces.
County Judge Robert Ruehlman has twice extended his initial ban on encampments in downtown Cincinnati near high-profile entertainment and sports venues. When homeless camps moved just outside the restricted area, Ruehlman amended the order, first covering more of Cincinnati, and then the entirety of Hamilton County. In his Thursday ruling, he said anyone who stands in the way could be arrested.
The county prosecutor’s office said the amendment — the latest development in a weekslong sweep of Cincinnati’s tent cities — is enforceable only as long as there is room in shelters for the homeless.
Area shelters have filled their permanent beds but continue to accept individuals who can sleep on spare mattresses, said Kevin Finn, president of Cincinnati-based Strategies to End Homelessness. No one has been turned away.
Mead said the lawsuit doesn’t name the homeless people it affects most, denying them a chance to be heard in court.
County Commissioner Todd Portune also criticized County Prosecutor Joe Deters , who filed the lawsuit against the City of Cincinnati. Portune said Friday he is working with advocates for the homeless to find a new location for the encampment, and that Deters’ actions don’t align with the county’s policy.
Josh Spring, director of the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition, said homeless people have since relocated to private land in a quickly gentrifying community, where residents who have withstood those changes welcomed them and offered to bring food, water and blankets.
Cities across the country are zeroing in on homeless camps, said Megan Hustings, president of the National Coalition for the Homeless. On Friday, local officials ordered about 20 people to leave an encampment in northern Massachusetts, citing health and safety concerns. Hustings said many people don’t like being confronted with visible poverty.
Nearly all of Hamilton County’s homeless population already lives in shelters, Finn said. Others live on the streets because Hamilton County doesn’t have shelters that accommodate pets or couples without children, and people who experience paranoia or anxiety from mental illnesses often can’t stay among upward of 200 strangers.
Substance abuse is by far biggest reason people don’t go into shelters, Finn said. The facilities enforce 9 p.m. curfews, and residents aren’t allowed to use drugs or alcohol on site. Some can’t make it to the morning without using.
Homeless advocates filed for two injunctions that would have stopped the city from clearing out the camps. A federal judge denied both motions. Spring said advocates continue to work with lawyers to build their legal strategy.