Homeless Prevail in Federal Court and Stop Sweeps

            Three homeless individuals and the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless settled with the City of Cleveland to stop the sweeps of homeless people from the sidewalks. This means that City officials cannot use disorderly conduct statutes against homeless people who are sleeping, eating, walking, or sitting on the sidewalk.

            Three individuals came forward to assure that others would not be threatened with arrest for being homeless. Cornell Carter, Law Director for the City of Cleveland, said in a December 23, 1999 press conference, “It is clear that the city’s enforcement effort is not only legal, it is humanitarian.” The three individuals and the many other affidavits that the Coalition for the Homeless took show a more inhumane treatment of people who look transient. One individual was put in custody for accepting food on the sidewalk. Another was told by police that he could not be walking on the sidewalk after 9 p.m. and had to get into shelter.

            One individual, Ronald Russell, was told to move along 12 times as he greeted people in the morning at the welfare building with a friendly “good morning.” The police officer told him that he was no longer welcome in the area. Another individual, Jason Maiden, was told he had to keep moving or he would be arrested. The suit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Coalition for the Homeless is aimed at stopping the threat of arrest by City officials for the crime of using the sidewalk while homeless.

            The City of Cleveland settled the suit to prevent the case from going to trial in federal court. The mayor claimed that they are just enforcing existing laws and attempting to help homeless people in a press conference at First Church. A federal judge had extended a temporary restraining order through the trial date, which exempted the downtown area. The settlement does not include any exempted areas.

            Affidavits from experts in the community show a lack of adequate housing in the city and a lack of an adequate safety net. Jim Schlect, outreach worker of Care Alliance, said in his affidavit that he was concerned about people being pushed off of the public sidewalks and disappearing. It is dangerous for a person with chronic health problems to be out of more public areas. If an emergency happens and no one is around to call for an emergency vehicle, that individual may die under a bridge.

            The other concern is that homeless people who sleep off of the public areas will be targeted, as has happened in Toledo. Six older homeless people were killed over the last four months who stay under bridges.           

            The mayor had rejected a similar settlement in December. The American Civil Liberties Union was scheduled to begin depositions of police and city officials 24 hours before the settlement was announced. Plaintiffs expected the police to verify all of the facts put forward by the ACLU in the lawsuit. It was anticipated that the police would confirm that the genesis of the policy was in City Hall, and that it was a stretch to tie the policy to existing laws in the City Code.

            The Coalition for the Homeless and the NAACP of Cleveland are bringing Rev. Al Sharpton of New York into Cleveland for a celebration of the victory over the City of Cleveland, according to Staci Santa, Associate Director of NEOCH. On February 10 at the Cleveland Free Stamp, next to City Hall, homeless people will gather to highlight the victory in federal court.

            Copyright NEOCH and the Homeless Grapevine, Issue 40, February 2000