Tuesday, July 8, 2003

Officials battle over camps


Homeless enclaves: Bridge squatters have city, state at odds

By Jane Prendergast and Gregory Korte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Rounding the tight southbound curve off Interstate 71 into downtown Cincinnati, commuters first see the tent. Nearby, under this concrete overpass, are two chairs and a laundry line with colorful shirts hung out to dry. Condiments line a ledge.

PHOTO GALLERY

Living under a bridge
Homeless people live here. And because they're the first thing drivers see off the interstate onto Third Street, Mayor Charlie Luken and downtown boosters want them out - if they can get state approval.

Luken, particularly annoyed after the tent popped up last week, wants the spot cleared. In an e-mail last week, he joked to Cincinnati Police Capt. James Whalen that he thought he saw a man installing cable TV there.

"It's also a safety issue," the mayor said in an interview. "We don't want people living on the street on a major entrance into downtown. It's not good for them, it's not good for us. It's not good for the city's image."

But police say they can't do anything because these homeless people - and others farther down Third Street - are camped on state property and the city needs official permission from the Ohio Department of Transportation to take action.

ODOT, however, is reluctant to do that.

A legal opinion from counsel Kathy A. Ferguson said the state could remove obstructions in the roadway or off the road if it poses a danger to the "traveling public," but that the law "doesn't give us the legal authority to remove people."

The effort to clear out the encampments comes as Cincinnati continues its effort to get tougher on panhandlers, by restricting where they can beg for money and by requiring them to register with the city.

Covington also cracked down last year, removing homeless people from its riverbanks - an action that prompted a federal lawsuit.

The politics of homelessness and the laws about state property are so touchy that the question of the overpass squatters has trekked up I-71 to Columbus - and to Gov. Bob Taft's desk.

map "We've taken a look at it, and we believe it's in the city's jurisdiction," said the governor's spokesman, Orest Holubec, quickly taking the issue back off the governor's desk. "If there's an issue, we think it's well within the city's power to deal with it."

Donald Lee Henry thinks it's funny that these high-ranking officials are wringing their hands about what to do with him.

He's a 40-year-old homeless man who lives underneath Interstate 75 at the other end of Third Street from the tent enclave, with four other men and two kittens, Cow and Callie.

Henry chose his spot because it's close to his two key panhandling spots - the base of the Clay Wade Bailey Bridge, where he makes $20 to $30 a day, and outside Great American Ball Park. A good night outside the stadium can net him up to $80.

In the morning, his sign says he needs coffee. But it's his afternoon/evening sign that works the best: "Why Lie? I Want Beer. Thank you."

There's respect, Henry says, in not lying to potential donors with excuses about bus tickets and broken-down cars.

Cincinnati officials are buoyed by the June 24 dismissal of a federal lawsuit in 2001 by five homeless people against Hamilton County. They sued after their belongings - including 30 pair of women's underwear, a CD player, cell phone and at least two Bibles - were taken by a jailhouse work crew from an encampment near Sixth Street and Central Avenue and destroyed.

U.S. District Judge Sandra Beckwith said the county's action was a "random, unforeseeable event," and not a systematic violation of civil rights. "The county's intent is not to destroy (the) plaintiff's things, but to remove them from areas where they do not belong," she said.

The homeless group appealed.

Their lawyer, Stephen R. Felson, acknowledged the homeless people were trespassing on state property, but said that doesn't mean the state can take and destroy their property.

"It's a substitute for eviction. If you keep taking the belongings, they'll have to go elsewhere, I suppose," Felson said. He said the city should post a notice at the encampments before seizing personal property.

Cincinnati police's Whalen says the encampments - particularly Henry's and the tent group - are dangerous to the homeless people because they have to cross traffic to get to their spots and because they could be hit if a truck overturns on its way out of the tunnel through that dramatic curve. They're also dangerous to drivers, he said, because they're distracting.

Someone's pet dog was killed at the one along the I-71 ramp, he said, when it chased after a ball that went onto the highway.

"This is clearly ODOT's property,'' Whalen said. "Without the co-operation of the property owner, we can't make them move."

He said he sent a sergeant, with a social worker, to the two spots a few weeks ago to try to talk with the residents about what help they need. Like most city officials before them, they've found it's easier to move the homeless around than to get them off the streets.

Henry stayed along the riverfront near Paul Brown Stadium before moving under I-75 about a year ago. He didn't know who was governor, he said Monday, and wouldn't recognize Bob Taft if he saw him.

But since he's at the center of this debate, he said he did want "to take the opportunity" to make a statement about the possibility of getting removed from his spot.

"If it comes around to that and they run me off, I'll either go to the riverfront, Union Terminal or under a bridge. I'll let things cool down, and I'll be back here. Where else am I gonna go?"

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E-mail jprendergast@enquirer.com and gkorte@enquirer.com




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