Advocates Sleep Out to Protest the Lack of Housing

by Karen St. John Vincent

On the cold and overcast Memorial Day Weekend, with the sounds of the annual Rib Burn-off wafting towards downtown, and the Saturday night revelers cruising Lakeside toward the Flats, a modest gathering took place peacefully in Jessie Owens Park. Some 100 homeless people and volunteers of Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless and Food Not Bombs came together for food, fellowship, and to pay honor to those casualties of the war on poverty.

The Memorial weekend sleep-out was the brainchild of NEOCH volunteer Jim Patton, who was searching for a way to bring people in the community together for fellowship and prayer.

“From the start the thought was to have this camp-out at Jessie Owens Park,” said Dan Kerr, one of the founders of the Cleveland chapter of Food Not Bombs. “When we realized it was going to be near Memorial Day, it became a lot bigger and the focus changed.”

The evening began with a vigil service. All present were invited to become part of a circle; some held hands. Some held candles, some held cigarettes and shuffled their feet, remembering a friend who had died on the street, Patton read the Bible. The Lord’s Prayer was recited in unison.

A dinner followed of hot dogs, stew, and soup, and people were given the chance to write their own personal sentiment on a “Memorial Wall” dedicated to those who had died. People were also given the opportunity to participate in forums dealing with the most pressing issues, including housing and temporary services.

“We did a forum on empowerment . . . bringing some power back to the homeless, who are pretty disenfranchised, pretty much not heard from,” said Brian Davis, director of NEOCH. “We also did one on temporary service, looking for suggestions of how to break that monopoly that exploits homeless people, giving them minimum wage to do some pretty difficult manual labor with no benefits and no chance of a raise.”

Food Not Bombs conducted a forum on alternative housing that dealt with getting people off the streets and into homes. A discussion ensued about what it would take to acquire abandoned buildings to refurbish and turn into housing for the homeless. For Davis, some of the important issues brought out in discussion included the organization of people willing to take ideas further beyond the forums and the addressing of some specific issues the priorities, the looking in to service that may not exist but need to.

“We just try to build some community. You know, NEOCH is part of your community and you’re part of our community,” said Davis. “We need you to be part of our organization to try to gain that voice.” Despite the rain and cold, 60 people spent the night.

“We did have a lot of support,” said Kerr. “Students from BW [Baldwin-Wallace College], Community Outreach helped bring the grills and water containers, Daniel Thompson helped organize the open microphone and the performances. He also helped us get the wall, and St. Herman’s donated a bunch of blankets . . . it went really well.”

As for Davis, when asked of the possibility of having a similar event next year, he responded, “I have no problem with continuing this as an annual event. But that’s entirely up to the volunteers, and to the homeless who would want to do it again.

“I don’t want to say we’ll do it every year because, hopefully, we won’t need to do it every year.”

Copyright NEOCH and the Homeless Grapevine, Issue #17, August-September 1996