Does anyone care about these men?

Friday, June 26, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

To the guys living there, the corner boardinghouse on Maple Avenue in downtown Hamilton goes by many names. The Fire Escape. Al Capone's Hide-out. The Joint.

But to a man, this is the place they call home.

It doesn't matter that the thermometer in the hallway registers 97 degrees. Or that the screenless windows let in horseflies along with the honks of freight train horns. To the 16 men who bunk there, it's still home.

They don't know how much longer they'll be able to say that. Or where their next home will be.

The boardinghouse is destined to be demolished July 1. It stands in the way of a planned parking garage for the new $35 million Government Services Center, a joint project of the city of Hamilton and Butler County.

The boarders, mostly third-shift factory workers and late-blooming college students, need help moving. But they're not getting much assistance from the city or county.

Over the past week, government officials claimed help was on the way. Hamilton City Manager Hal Shepherd told me, "We are going to get all of these men into other locations."

Kenny Kendricks, a third-year student at Miami University's Hamilton Campus, has his doubts. Sitting in the sauna-like heat of the boardinghouse's TV room, he said:

"We've read about these promises in the papers. But we have yet to hear a thing from the city."

About the only concrete offer came from the Butler County Sheriff's Department. Deputies and inmates from the county jail will move the guys out next week. But to where?

"I have no place to go," said Paul Parker, home from a night of making plastic bottles.

The guys would like an escape route from the Fire Escape. But every time they try to find a way out, they run into bureaucratic roadblocks. Government agencies tell them they're overpaid, unqualified or ineligible. The city comes up with alternative housing. But it's expensive.

"We pay $200 a month here," said Ray Tilton, a 40-year-old, classmate of Kenny Kendricks. "The one place we were offered charges $400. And we can't move in until late July. Where are we supposed to live until then? On the street?"

The men in the TV room looked at one another and laughed nervously. They gave their rumpled, sweat-stained clothes the once-over. It wouldn't take much to see them as street people.

"We're not much to look at," admitted Everett Hubbard, who works at a printing plant and has lived at the boardinghouse since 1989.

"But we're not bums," Paul protested.

"We," Everett proudly stated, "are working men."

"And," Kenny added, "we pay taxes."

Indeed, they do. Their taxes helped pay for the building whose parking garage is going to replace their home.

The Government Services Center will contain the human services department and Veterans' Service Commission. Employees in those offices are the very same people who have come up with those creative ways to say "We can't help you, go away" to the men in the boardinghouse.

"I just can't understand that," said Carl Hibbard, who works as a security guard when he isn't taking classes at Miami's Hamilton branch.

"I don't bother anybody. I keep my nose clean," he added.

"I pay my own way for everything. I've never asked for a favor. I'm too proud."

But this time he swallowed his pride, took the advice of the city and county officials he contacted and went to the Veterans' Service Commission. Carl served in the Navy and fought in Desert Storm. He asked for some help in finding another place to live. And he was told he was "ineligible."

Carl wasn't ineligible to fight in the Persian Gulf war. He isn't ineligible when taxes are taken from his paycheck. But he doesn't qualify for help.

"It sure makes me wonder why I served my country," he said. Makes me wonder, too.

Does anyone really care about the guys who live on Maple Avenue in a boardinghouse they call home?

Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.