by Brian Davis
Cleveland Mayor Michael White on November 26, 1999 threw down the welcome mat to shoppers and visitors downtown for the holidays, but this year he also used that same welcome mat to sweep homeless people off of the streets. In a press release White announced an “effort to make Downtown and the Flats safer for the holidays.” The specifics of this plan were outlined in the release saying that the safety patrols will “focus on curtailing the practice of sleeping on sidewalks and aggressive panhandling.” The release also listed favorable statistics showing a decrease in crime downtown.
This policy went into effect on Saturday, November 27 after the holiday parade in Cleveland. On Saturday afternoon, police were dispatched to locations where homeless people congregate and told those gathered that they had to disperse. Police approached the welfare building on the corner of E. 17th and Superior and told those who sleep on the sidewalk that beginning on Sunday morning no one could stand, sit, or lie anywhere around the building (not one of the high areas for foot traffic).
According to police officials, the word came down from City Hall that the policy of moving homeless people from the welfare building and other gathering places must be started on Saturday late in the afternoon. The police reluctantly went back out and said that the homeless people would have to disperse immediately.
On Sunday, there were routine patrols reminding homeless people that they could not sit down near the welfare building. One homeless individual refused to leave, telling the police that he had nowhere to go. On Sunday afternoon in Cleveland, there are no indoor locations available for single men. He was arrested and ticketed for disorderly conduct for sleeping on the sidewalk.
A number of homeless people confirmed that police also broke up a gathering near a church van that brought food down to feed those on the street. They told the church volunteers that they were blocking the sidewalk and needed to move along.
Police sources said that a meeting was held at City Hall on Tuesday, November 23, 1999 for the police, which outlined “new national strategies for dealing with homeless people.” These “new strategies” were explained, and the police were told that they were going to implement these strategies locally. During the week of November 22, 150 people were arrested in New York City for sleeping on the sidewalk.
The National Coalition for the Homeless has begun a Civil Rights project to address this national strategy, which they characterize as “criminalization of homelessness.” The Board of Trustees of the Northeast Coalition for the Homeless is formulating a strategy for confronting this targeting of homeless people during the holidays.
Copyright NEOCH and the Homeless Grapevine, Issue #39, December 1999-January 2000