Friday, July 19, 2002

No-camping in parks brings protests

New Covington law called move against homeless

By Cindy Schroeder,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        COVINGTON — People who camp in Covington parks such as Devou and Goebel, as well as along city-owned riverbanks, face possible immediate arrest under a new law.

        Approved this week by Covington City Commission, the law will take effect within a couple of weeks. It calls for arrest for camping in parks, especially between 9 p.m. and 9 a.m.; lighting fires anywhere other than on city-owned grills; and drinking alcohol except in certain parts of Devou Park.

        Violators of the misdemeanor face a maximum penalty of six months in jail and a $500 fine.

        The law pleases people like Joe Mueller, a long-time resident of Covington's MainStrasse neighborhood. He says he's tired of homeless people drinking, defecating and panhandling in Goebel Park.

        But the change has homeless advocates threatening legal action.

        “Not allowing the homeless to have a fire on the riverbank or to camp on the riverbank is another way of saying "Get out,”' said Mark Teegarden, a civil rights advocate for the homeless of Northern Kentucky.

        “To me, that ordinance is a hate crime ordinance. It's targeting the homeless and being done to run them out of the city.”

        Mr. Teegarden said the Homeless Advocacy Group of the Recovery Network plans to file an injunction in federal court to overturn the law and stop Covington's periodic sweeps of riverfront homeless camps.

        But Mr. Mueller, 66, welcomes the new law.

        “(Someone) had a beautiful wedding around the bell tower last Saturday, while the homeless people were sitting in the (Goebel Park) shelter house drinking,” he said. “We're tired of homeless people hitting up park visitors and tourists for money, drinking and urinating in the park, and defecating in the shelter house at night. The police do the best they can, but they can't be in the park all the time.”

        Mr. Teegarden characterized Mr. Mueller's comments as “totally bull.”

        He challenged Mr. Mueller to prove that it's homeless people who are responsible for many of the parks' problems. “The homeless people always get blamed because they are the ones who are easiest to blame,” he said.

        Covington Commissioner Alex Edmondson said that the new law is patterned after one that was upheld in a Florida federal court.

        “We're just using the ordinances that are legal to protect our residents,” Mr. Edmondson said. “We're in the unique situation where our riverbanks are unexposed (hidden by vegetation) and we've been getting complaints from residents that people are setting fires (on the riverbank) and doing other things that are unacceptable.”

        Covington City Solicitor Jay Fossett said the change was prompted “by continuing problems of people camping out on the riverfront.”

        In mid-April, a series of city-authorized sweeps resulted in the razing of homeless camps on west Covington's riverbank. City officials, citing piles of bottles and campfires, described the setting as a health and safety risk.

        Eight of those campers responded by filing suit still pending in federal court, claiming city officials violated their constitutional rights when they razed the camps without notice. Three weeks later, 300 people marched on City Hall, asking Covington officials to stop “harassing” homeless people and to address the causes of homelessness and poverty.

        “Basically, the city is responding to the problem by criminalizing the situation rather than looking at problem solving and focusing on solutions,” said Linda Young, executive director of the Welcome House social service agency.

        She and other homeless advocates say it's unfair to penalize homeless people for camping in public areas when there aren't enough shelter beds in Northern Kentucky.

        “It certainly seems that the law in Kentucky is aimed at the homeless, given all that's happened in the past few months, "' said John Halpin, an organizer with the National Homeless Civil Rights Organizing Project. In Cincinnati, he said there are no anti-camping laws for parks.

        Elsewhere in Ohio, park systems in Hamilton and Butler counties allow no overnight camping except in designated areas.

        Mr. Fossett said that he will meet with Covington police to ensure that the new law is fairly enforced . He said homeless people who violate the law initially will be warned and will be told that there are places where they can stay.

        If they are arrested, Mr. Fossett said that he will ask the court to order them to an alcohol treatment facility, if necessary, as a condition of probation; and he also will ask that they be sent to a homeless shelter instead of to jail.

        Commissioner Craig Bohman, who cast the sole vote against the tougher law, described the measure as “overkill” and said the additional crimes and penalties are unnecessary.

        “If you're reading a newspaper near the Devou Park band shell and the newspaper falls on top of you and you fall asleep, it's now considered camping,” he said.


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