Sunday, August 10, 2003

Homeless in Cincinnati

A decade of laws can't keep problem off the street

By Ben Fischer
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Dozens of people came out to support Donald Lee Harvey and four other homeless men who live under one of the bridges on the corner of 3rd Street and the Clay Wade Bailey Bridge Thursday afternoon, July 17, 2003.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
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A federal court will decide Monday if the City of Cincinnati can legally remove homeless people from under two bridges, and will also say if two recently enacted anti-panhandling ordinances are constitutional.

The decisions will come just days after the National Coalition for the Homeless, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, named Cincinnati the sixth "meanest" city in the country to homeless people.

Whatever the court decides, larger issues behind this summer's particular cases still remain. The city has tried to curb panhandling ever since the first law aimed at aggressive beggars in 1992. Cincinnati, Covington and almost 50 other cities nationwide continue to fight in the courts to be able to break up homeless camps in public spaces.

But has any of it made a difference? That's still very much an open question, and there aren't many hard numbers to help out.

Proponents of anti-panhandling measures say the laws are starting to work, albeit slowly, and are encouraged by recent drop-offs in complaints. But some police officers and regular downtown visitors say the problem of rampant begging and homelessness is as bad as ever.

There are lots of reasons for the apparent failures of the laws: Beat cops who are reluctant to spend time enforcing what they see as minor crimes, quick releases for those convicted and constitutional challenges to the laws.

First impressions count

During the flap over under-the-bridge homeless camps, Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken candidly said the camps were "...not good for the city's image."

He was criticized for being blunt, but his concerns are real. Image is important. Case in point: the public sees Downtown as a dangerous and dirty place, even though the area has relatively low crime and is clean and modern.

It's not just Cincinnati. Cities across the country are concerned about revitalizing central business districts. And as Luken has made clear before, a vibrant and successful urban core does not include panhandlers and the homeless.

As a result of this trend, half of the nation's medium and large cities ban aggressive panhandling, and 40 percent of all cities ban sitting down or lying in public places, according to the National Homeless Civil Rights Organizing Project in Washington. Most of those ordinances have been enacted in the last 15 years.

But while opponents of such movements are OK with cracking down on actual criminal behavior, they say development proponents are just intent on appeasing the sensibilities of the middle class.

"There's no legitimate reason for these ordinances at all," says Scott Greenwood of the American Civil Liberties Union. "It's not about stopping crime, it's about businesses and image."

Police or Social services?

Politicians and homeless advocates have different motivations, but they both agree, something needs to be done.

For much of the 1900s, social welfare services were created to deal with the poor. But a 1982 essay by two social scientists popularized the "Broken Window" theory, advocating using the law to deal with vagrancy. It now dominates American thinking on urban problems.

The theory says that by vigorously pursuing minor crimes like graffeti and aggressive panhandling, a city sends a message that it values law and order. Hence, people feel more comfortable, sense an orderly neighborhood and commit less serious crime.

For David Ginsburg, president of Downtown Cincinnati Inc., the concern is much more concrete. Downtown businesses feel the direct effect of "broken windows" when people are afraid to shop there. He's a big believer in the broken window theory."Aggressive panhandling is the second-most often reason for people not visiting downtown," Ginsburg says. "We have to pay attention to the little things. The message through doing that is that someone is watching, and therefore someone cares."

DCI actively pushes City Hall for stronger enforcement of laws, but also has two other programs: a public awareness campaign to teach people not to give to panhandlers, and privately hired "ambassadors" to patrol downtown.

The city is making too much of the problem, according to Georgine Getty, director of the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless. There are really only a few dozen panhandlers who are truly "aggressive," she says. Solutions shouldn't come from the police; they should come from social services.

"A common denominator"

At the core of the debate is whether panhandling and the homeless are separate issues, or if they're just different symptoms of the same problem.

Some proponents of stronger legislation say they are distinct matters. Stories of panhandlers who are actually con-men preying on sympathies to make good money are well-documented. But Cincinnati Police Capt. James Whalen, who oversees patrols in Downtown and nearby neighborhoods, says those are the exception.

"From getting to know the people involved, there is a panhandling side of the equation and the homeless side of the equation," he says. "But a lot of those are the same people. It is absolutely the same issue."

Getty concurs. The vast majority of homeless people don't beg, but dire economic circumstances lead to both, she says.

No one right answer

Whalen said while his forces are instructed to enforce whatever laws are enacted, they have to treat the homeless with special sensitivity. For example, in the time since the first publicity surrounding the under-the-bridge homeless camps, the police avoided any confrontation, and city workers have helped place all but one of the people into assistance programs.

The one who refused was Donald Henry, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit.

Getty said she can't comment on the specifics of the under-the-bridge lawsuit, but she says the city could do that same work for all the homeless, if leaders were properly motivated.

"The city has the power to end homelessness," Getty says. "We have a really good social services network here, one of the best in the country. We need to step back on the legislation and let the social services work."

But without the potential for legal enforcement, social services are largely voluntary. People who don't want help won't get it. On the flip side, without social services to back up the law, arrests are temporary solutions to systemic problems.The latest efforts against panhandling and homeless people living in visible and dangerous placesare finally mixing the two philosophies. Instead of simply creating laws against it, politicians and business leaders are beginning to understand the need for a multi-faceted approach.


According to Whalen, two workers from University Hospital's psychiatric emergency services unit have worked out of the police department's District One headquarters on Central Parkway since early spring.They are available to go with police officers responding to aggressive panhandling complaints or a homeless person in an unsafe place.

Getty says District One's plan is well-intentioned, but just a "drop in the bucket." One secondary effect of the program is that it could address some of the traditional problems the police have with dealing with panhandlers and the homeless, according to one police officer.

"It's just frustrating," says Roger Webster, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, of enforcing panhandling laws. "You take them off the street, but then they post bond and it's the same problem again, a few hours later."

But he said sending a social worker along could help convince beat officers that an arrest could actually lead to some lasting change.

Also, DCI picked up the tab for half the $50,000 for a downtown-based social worker originally provided for the panhandler registration ordinance. That is another step in the right direction, Getty says, but still falls short.

"We're talking about systemic changes," she says. "If you don't like seeing panhandlers, work to get rid of the reasons people beg."

There's no cure-all solution to the problems of the homeless and beggars, either in Cincinnati or anywhere else. But even though the sides have little in common ideologically, there's room for them to work together to repair "broken windows" in the city and help the poor at the same time.

Homeless legalities

Monday, Federal District Judge Susan Dlott will rule on a legal challenge to Cincinnati's recent efforts to remove homeless people from under two bridges and restrict begging. The plaintiffs in the case argue the measures violate constitutional rights. Cities across the country have faces similar lawsuits, and while the outcome of cases can vary significantly, there are a few basic legal principles applied in deciding these cases:

•  The act of asking for money, in and of itself, is a form of speech and therefore protected by the First Amendment. Laws that completely ban begging are widely considered unconstitutional.

•  Content neutrality. In 1998, a judge declared a Cincinnati anti-panhandling ordinance unconstitutional because it distinguished begging from other speech. Any law that makes asking "Do you have spare change?" illegal but not "What time is it?" in the same circumstances could be overruled.

•  Overly broad. Courts will likely strike down a law if it could potentially outlaw legitimate, positive activities as well as undesirable ones.

•  Vagueness. Laws have to be precise in what it prohibits. If a court rules that a ordinance gives police undue discretion in enforcing it, it will likely be overruled.

•  Cities have an assumed right to the "administration of public intercourse." While people have a right to be in public places, a city has a responsibility to maintain traffic flows through crowded areas.

•  Cities have a right to maintain public health and safety. Courts will likely give wide discretion in prohibiting homeless camps if a city can prove the camps present a health or safety concern.

*These are only loose guidelines, not meant to predict any specific case outcomes. How any individual court rules depends on the unique facts of a case, and laws are presumed to be constitutional until a defendant challenges it.

SOURCE: Constitutional expert Christo Lassiter, a professor of law at University of Cincinnati and Enquirer research.

How cities across the nation tackle homelessness


It's a misdemeanor to ask for money near ATMs, bus stops, or check-cashing businesses. It's also illegal to approach people in cars to ask for money. The "Capital Crossroads Special Improvement District" has distributed 100,000 fliers instructing people in the downtown area to not give to panhandlers.


Panhandlers must get fingerprinted and register for ID cards. Citations are rare, but the mere threat of prosecution for unregistered panhandling has curbed the worst of the problems, say business leaders. Begging is banned after dark or near banks and bus stops. Cincinnati's ordinance is patterned after Dayton's.


This city has one of the most aggressive panhandling ordinances around. It prohibits following people, waiting outside banks, or near outdoor restaurants. What really stands out is the punishment: up to $2,500 in fines and a court order to not beg downtown. Violating such an order can mean several weeks in jail. In 2002, the city prosecuted 40 such cases. Business owners say the new policy has helped. Critics say it's just moved the beggars to other areas in town.

San Fransisco

With cash payments to the homeless and few laws against public sleeping, San Francisco has a homeless population of nearly 10,000, double what it was a decade ago. Now the city is cracking down. In May the monthly payments were cut from $400 to less than $60, with savings redirected to housing services. Despite the problems, San Fransisco remains high on lists of the nation's most liveable cities.

Orlando, Fla.

Forbidden activities include sitting or lying down on sidewalks - violaters face up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine. Also, panhandling of any sort has been restricted to 15-foot by 5-foot blue rectangles painted on the sidewalks. The ACLU of Florida is considering legal challenges.

New York City

Mayor Rudolph Guiliani began his campaign to enforce "quality of life" crimes in the early 1990s. He prosecuted "squeegee men" for disrupting traffic at stoplights. Changes were shortlived. A new report estimates the homeless population reached an all-time high in New York in 2002.


Ben Fischer is an intern on the Enquirer's editorial board. He is a senior at Kent State University.

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