The Day Homeless People Struck Back

by Brian Davis

            In early 1990, homeless men banded together to sleep outside of City Hall until a better shelter system was established in Cleveland. They were pacified, but their demands were not met. There was a leadership vacuum for years and an unwillingness to stand up to the system.

            During the week of Thanksgiving 1999, Mayor Michael White formulated a policy to get rid of visible poverty in the downtown area for the holidays and beyond. While he had attempted a similar policy in 1994 and was stopped by the courts, he took a cue from Mayor Giuliani in New York City. In 1994, White directed the police to kidnap and dump homeless people in the outlying areas of Cleveland. After being beaten in the courts and having to pay homeless people because of the policy, White learned a lot in five years.

            He developed an unwritten policy to target poor people who stayed on the streets and sweep them under bridges. White ordered police to move homeless people off the sidewalks after the holiday parade on November 27 (Merry Christmas, now get out of here!). The press release issued by the city of Cleveland emphasized the safety of the downtown for shoppers and talked about the stepped up enforcement against pan handlers and people who sleep on the streets. It is harder to imagine a colder, more callous, and business ordered approach to the holidays and homelessness than endangering the lives of homeless people to increase foot traffic at Dillard’s.

            The American Civil Liberties Union teamed with the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless to fight this order. On December 22, the ACLU issued an ultimatum to the City demanding an immediate end to the sweeping policy. Attorneys from the ACLU said in the letter that the City had until 10 a.m. on December 23 to stop the policy.

            A group of college-age activists known as Food Not Bombs and a larger contingent of homeless people decided to stage a protest on Public Square in the midst of all the Christmas decoration. They demanded an end to the sweeping policy. They sought donations from pedestrians and concerned citizens. They preached, protested, and most importantly, offered comfort and warmth to homeless people who passed. Food Not Bombs feeds every Sunday on Public Square and sponsors engaging conversation. Most recently, they have begun documenting the events from the previous week in the homeless community.

            I went over to the demonstration and read the demand letter from the ACLU to the protestors. They were happy to hear about the support from the legal community, but went about ministering and distributing donations and friendship. Word came to the group that the Mayor would like to meet with protestors to attempt to mediate a compromise. Throughout the evening, marked and unmarked police cars gathered on the Square.

            Eventually, a meeting was organized between representatives of Food Not Bombs, homeless activists, City officials and members of the Downtown Coordinators development companies. The protestors stated absolutely that they were not going to move until the policy was changed. It was an amicable meeting, but there was no threat of arrest or any ultimatum from City officials.

            The Mayor set up a command post on the second floor of the Renaissance Hotel to resolve the demonstration. He had waiters serving his staff and advisors in a party-like atmosphere while protestors shivered in the cold down below. The Mayor sought help in the community to end the protest, but the demonstrators were resolute in spending the night on Public Square. It became clear that there was no resolution of the situation, and a meeting was held with law enforcement to work out a strategy.

            At 3 a.m., by chance, I was travelling to my office to work on the case. A television news crew also happened to be on Public Square at 3 a.m. I saw the most amazing collection of police and city vehicles that I have ever seen. I was going to stop and check in with the protestors, but found police, fire, and city vehicles stretching from in front of Terminal Tower all the way around Public Square to the justice center. This was a well-planned, carefully conceived crackdown on the protestors.

            When the police entered the tent which Food Not Bombs volunteers had constructed, they did not give the five arrested a chance to leave. They allowed ten Food Not Bombs volunteers and some of the homeless people to leave without arrest, but immediately took Edward, Dave, Elena, Pam, and Willard into custody. City clean-up crews came in and removed all the signs and the tent, and within twenty minutes there was no sign of the demonstration. [See related story, “Anti-Sweeps Crusaders Seek Justice,” this issue.]

            The television cameraman captured the entire event, including General White in his Renaissance Hotel bunker directing the operation. Dave, the President of the Homeless, was released from police custody quickly. Elena and Pam were released later on Thursday, December 23. Edward had to spend all of December 23 in jail, but with the assistance of the Cleveland Bar Association Homeless Committee attorney Rob Anderle, was released on Christmas Eve. Willard spent the entire weekend in jail, thus spending Christmas behind bars. Christmas in jail because he was demonstrating against his government. All were charged with trespassing on a public park, a bizarre concept.

            Throughout the day, media outlets hovered outside the ACLU offices to get word that we were, in fact, filing suit. There was a midday meeting with City of Cleveland attorneys. Actually, one attorney was employed by the City of Cleveland and the other was an attorney from a private law firm who knew very little about homelessness. It was obvious that there was not going to be a settlement, but the City left saying they would fax back a response.

            They held a press conference later in the day commenting on the demonstration and the sweeping policy. They characterized the sweeping policy as humanitarian and said that they would continue the enforcement throughout the holidays and beyond. With the bitter cold weather and the danger of death for people under bridges, the ACLU prepared to go to court.

            On Thursday evening at 8 p.m. in an office of a Federal Court the ACLU argued their case for a temporary restraining order to stop the enforcement of disorderly conduct laws against homeless people for using the sidewalks. In a darkened courthouse on Thursday evening, the Chief Judge Paul Matia skipped an episode of Friends and a quiet night with family to hear the arguments for and against the restraining order.

            He issued an order preventing the City from enforcing this policy outside of an area downtown from E. 12th to W. 10th to the lake to Public Square. This was to accommodate the City’s plans for the Millennium celebration and their complaints from businesses at Eaton Center, Radisson Hotel, and East Ohio Gas Company. This excluded the sleeping spaces of many homeless people, but prevented enforcement around the welfare building, which was the area targeted for heaviest enforcement.

            The judge issued an order to restrain the City, which is certainly what we were looking to accomplish. On Christmas Day, Mayor White in a one-sided article in the Plain Dealer, declared victory. In the ultimate display of “spin” the Mayor has changed a federal judge’s emergency order restraining the City of Cleveland from further implementation of his honor’s edict from a setback to a “win.” I can only wonder, why didn’t the City restrain itself from using the judicial system to attack homeless people in the first place?

            By looking at the facts in this case, there is no way to conclude that this is anything but an inhumane response to a growing problem in our city. The Mayor believes a restraining order is a victory, sleeping is disorderly conduct, intimidating those without homes is humanitarian, Cleveland has just enough shelter space to meet demand, and jail is a better alternative than freedom. George Orwell couldn’t develop better doublethink for 1984 than those of the Mayor’s press office over the past four weeks. “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” Cleveland is a comeback city.

            This is only the beginning. I can only hope that now that homeless people see the power they hold, they will organize for a better treatment of all citizens of Cleveland. If we can keep the Mayor up all night because 20 people decided to sleep on Public Square, what would happen if the 500 people who sleep on the streets showed up for a warm space at the People’s Hall (614 Lakeside Ave. NW)?

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