Saturday, July 19, 2003

Court gives under-bridge squatters temporary delay

By Jane Prendergast
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Chris Roberts, 36, sleeps under the I-75 overpass near Third Street on the downtown's west side.
(Steven M. Herppich photos)
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People living under Cincinnati bridges got a temporary reprieve from eviction Friday when lawyers went to federal court, accusing the city of a pattern of unconstitutional attacks on the homeless.

A hearing was set for Monday on a temporary restraining order which, if successful, could keep police from moving the people out while the court case is pending. But the lawsuit goes beyond that, alleging that the city's two anti-panhandling laws also are unconstitutional.

Officers had prepared to roust the homeless Friday afternoon after No Trespassing signs were posted under the bridges Tuesday. Police had given the homeless 72 hours to gather their belongings and leave. By Friday afternoon a crowd gathered along Third Street near the Clay Wade Bailey Bridge, where activists, social workers and reporters outnumbered the five homeless people who live there.

The removal was delayed when a lawyer arrived about 2 p.m. with legal documents to sign for Don Henry, the unofficial leader of the homeless group.

Henry wouldn't say how he hooked up with the legal help. "I'm smart."

The lawsuit alleges that the city's two anti-panhandling laws and its plan to remove the homeless people violate five constitutional amendments, including those that promise rights to free expression, equal protection under the law, due process and freedom from unlawful search and seizure.

[IMAGE] People came out to support the homeless who sleep under the bridges and to protest plans to evict them Friday.
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"It's their right as citizens to live where they want to live," said attorney Jennifer Kinsley, of the law firm Sirkin, Pinales, Mezibov & Schwartz. The firm is known for civil rights work.

Similar debates have played out in cities across the country. In Miami Beach a lawsuit is pending over the city's decision to outlaw panhandling in part of the business district. Advocates for homeless people say such laws only criminalize homelessness.

Last year in Cincinnati, lawmakers made it illegal to aggressively panhandle at bus stops and near ATMs. Then in June, City Council passed another law requiring panhandlers to get licenses, a measure modeled after a similar one in Dayton, where Cincinnati City Manager Valerie Lemmie previously worked. Police had been holding off on enforcing that law, allowing panhandlers an unofficial grace period to get their licenses.

Mayor Charlie Luken said Friday's challenge was expected.

"We had no intention of cracking down at 1 o'clock and causing a huge scene," he said. "We've tried to do this in a sensitive way."

The issue became public several weeks ago after Luken complained about a tent erected by a homeless couple living under the highway along the Interstate 71 exit ramp onto Third Street. He asked police to do something.

That touched off a debate over jurisdiction between the city and the Ohio Department of Transportation, which owns the under-bridge property. That was resolved by a July 9 letter in which ODOT's chief legal counsel said the city had the authority to remove people from the state's right-of-way and that the state had no objection to the city enforcing any law on ODOT property.

At the tent encampment that caught Luken's eye, Goodwill Industry workers picked up panhandler Richard Witherspoon and his wife Friday morning and took them an extended-stay hotel in Sharonville for a week and bought them $117 in groceries. Starting Monday, Goodwill will try to help them find jobs and housing, said Bruce Keller, special projects supervisor.

"They were very excited," he said of the Witherspoons. "I didn't hear one negative thing from either of them."

Witherspoon has been panhandling in Cincinnati for at least six months, saying he's a trained chef who was trying to collect money for a bus ticket to Cleveland.

The Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless' most recent count of homeless people in the city found 1,280 in shelters the night of May 21 and 196 on the streets.


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