Better Late Than Never

by Brian Davis

     The business element of downtown Cleveland sought to clean up the city. They built a number of playgrounds for suburbanites and tourists with money to have a reason to come to Cleveland. We built a Science Center, a new sports complex, and that crown jewel, that legacy to the kingdom of Mayor White, that great glass pyramid of Cleveland known as the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame. For the past twenty years, we had sent all our mentally ill, drug addicts, and those too poor to be able to afford a stable place to live to that empty shell known as Downtown. Little did the business element know that they would want that area back someday.

     It was painfully obvious that it would be difficult to attract people downtown if they had to step over people sleeping on the streets and turn away from the faces of poverty begging for some change. Despite the messages that poor people were the cause of all our problems, some people clung to the doctrine of our holiest of men that commanded that we care for the poorest among us. With visibly homeless people seeking answers and finding only steam grates, visitors to our fair city came away with a sense of fear, apprehension, and sadness.

     Business got together to forward a policy of out of sight/out of mind. Get rid of the visibly homeless people and the problem is solved. First, we believe, that the business leaders sought the assistance of a "man of the people," Michael White, to clean up the streets. We alleged in a lawsuit that was settled out of court that the city implemented a policy of kidnapping and dumping homeless people out of the area and off of a bus line. This policy was stopped after our lawsuit. There was also a great deal of attention paid to pan handlers and various groups met to attempt to get a handle on the situation. Also, the Mayor placed the Grapevine vendors in the same category as pan-handlers and targeted both for elimination.

     We at the Grapevine believe that he ordered police to begin to ticket our vendors for selling the paper without a license. This is a unique strategy that had not been tried in the 30 other U.S. cities where street papers are sold, and was rather ingenious. It was the same strategy that was used effectively against Black Panthers in the 1960s. They did not dispute the fact that our vendors had a right to distribute their words. They limited their enforcement to the commerce that was taking place on the streets. They said that commerce did not enjoy the same constitutional protections as speech, and the City has a legitimate interest in regulating commerce.

     But we won at the District level. Despite how much Mayor White has said that he found our vendor so courteous and admirable, he chose to appeal the decision. He could have dropped the issue, but he made the decision to dedicate staff time to appealing the case. In the Appeal, the decision was reversed, and Mayor White had the upper hand. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear our case, and so the Mayor won.

     He could have gotten so much "personal pleasure" by doing "a little thing" like sitting down with the homeless who run the paper and "making a small potential difference" in their lives. He could have decided to not rub our noses in the court’s decision, and instead acted as a leader to come to the best outcome for all. Instead Mayor White sat down in a closed door meeting with me (no witnesses) and said basically, "It is my way or no way." He was willing to exempt the fee, but our vendors had to get a city issued license which meant following all the rules and restrictions associated with a license.

     Then he met up with one of our vendors, we will call him Greg, the day before his inauguration in Cleveland Hts. This vendor was actually kind and courteous. A couple of points of clarification: 1. This vendor was not homeless when he met the Mayor, 2. The Grapevine is not a magazine, 3. The vendor did not say that he had not worked in years. 4. And finally, this vendor that the Mayor met is typical of the professional men and women we attract. Greg, who avoided the harassment from the Cleveland police, sold his papers in Cleveland Hts., usually without incident. Greg was held up as an example of the best of what Cleveland has to offer. A formerly homeless person who fled Cleveland for the better business environment of the suburbs was featured in the Mayor’s speech championing Cleveland. When all the facts are presented, the speech has a ironic tone.

     Greg (who is not that young) did show up at the Mayor’s office. He has been interviewed twice, but after almost a month has not been offered anything. One positive outcome was that the Mayor did not carry this political stunt further by inviting the media to see if Greg actually showed up. He also did not offer his new friend, the homeless person, a stereotypical poverty job like cleaning out the Police horse barn or street cleaner.

     I have yet to understand why he chose to use the Grapevine, a newspaper that he has basically tried to shut down for years, in his speech. Why were we singled out of all the organizations on the long Mayor White "Coal for Christmas" list? Did he feel he could score political points by stressing his concern for homeless people in the holy setting of Olivet Institutional Church? The White administration has had only contempt for homeless people, and has shown an unwillingness to actually take the lead in reducing the homeless population.

     I do have to say that the City Hall staff has been amazingly willing to assist the Grapevine. They have treated the paper very professionally and with a refreshing degree of respect. In fact, I was surprised how they were trying to balance the Mayor’s demands with the needs of the paper. I hope that after we let it be known that someone working in City Hall was accommodating to a homeless organization they won’t be fired.

     The city has not come forward with a plan yet, but we have done all that we can to negotiate something that our vendors can live with and the city will accept. We did get another ticket in January from the police, and we still do not have the ability to buy a license. If the police routinely take it upon themselves to issue tickets to our vendors at this time, how can we expect a system created by a government bureaucracy to license our vendors to ever work? We will abide by the decisions of the U.S. Court of Appeals, but we have little hope of it working.

Copyright NEOCH and the Homeless Grapevine published 1998 Issue 24