Editorial by Brian Davis
Couples and malcontents built a community known as Camelot, which was a safe place of peace in the heart of Cleveland. Out of the remains of an architecturally significant bakery long since forgotten by the city, a diverse group with no place in society created a sanctuary. As in the legend, outside forces destroyed Camelot, leaving a large crumbling, asbestos-filled memorial to an idealized society.
There are a few things to understand with regarding to the homelessness in Cleveland in order to understand the reason Camelot was created. First, shelter is not always appropriate for every person. While in America we try to homogenize everyone into majority trends, the reality is that not everyone watched “Survivor” or wears corporate logos as fashion. This is similar in the homeless community. It would be a lot easier if everyone would follow the protocol for getting off the streets outlined by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, but this will never happen. Group quarters in Cleveland are not always appropriate for couples and people with disabilities.
The other reality is that every shelter is full every night. The state housing coalition estimates that there are 3,080 people on the streets on any given night. 1,100 shelter beds exist in Cleveland, and so there are obviously people who have to “sleep rough,” because there just is not enough space.
Finally, we have a huge housing crisis in Cleveland, as we do in most urban cities in America. We have seen the withdraw of affordable housing units over the last five years all over the United States. A quick trip down Chester Avenue in Cleveland reveals the 700 abandoned and now destroyed Vanguard properties, which were drawn from the inventory four years ago. These unites were not replaced, and are the most glaring example of the large number of affordable housing units lost in our city.
With all of this, people have a remarkable ability to survive and seek out places to stay alive. In Cleveland, we have neglected our chronically homeless for so many years that we have a large number of people in abandoned buildings and under bridges. We saw in December 1999, the Mayor’s attempt to deal with this burgeoning population by instructing police to arrest those who were visibly homeless. This was stopped by the Coalition for the Homeless and a small group courageous homeless people, but the problem was never addressed.
These are not items to casually gloss over. They all have dramatic policy implications for community. The federal government has developed this “Continuum of Care” approached to dealing with homeless people, which is a deliberately slow process to move people from the streets to emergency shelter to transitional shelter and finally what is called permanent” housing. While this has focused attention and raised resources it has left many people on the outside looking in. There are those who were scorned or even victimized by the system who needs a great deal of work to coax them back into the mainstream. There are those who sought assistance in a shelter and instead had a child endangerment file opened on them. There are men who served in Vietnam who are having difficulty negotiating the bureaucracy.
The reality is that there are a sizable number of people who are absolutely cut off from the social service system. There are many people who work or get some form of disability who never venture into any help centers. These are independent minded people who have embraced all the rhetoric about the American Protestant work ethics. They bought the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality. It is a question of pride and self-respect. For their mental stability, they do not want or need shelters, food stamps, welfare, or any charity. These are the ghosts of our community who recycle abandoned buildings. They are uncounted by the Census, forgotten by local government and ignored by the social service agencies.
In July of 2000, the Mayor instructed his Community Development department to clear the homeless people from the old Ward Bakery on Chester Avenue because it was going to be destroyed. City officials enlisted the help of the many outreach workers to run interference and move the squatters. On July 14, members of the Mental Health Services and Volunteers of America outreach team descended on Camelot bringing with them the declaration of war from the City.
Even though landlord tenant law specifically addressed squatters and the remedy for removing squatters (housing court), the City of Cleveland sent outreach workers to remove the residents of Camelot. The outreach workers realized that those independent men and women were not going to go to shelter so they told the members of Camelot that if they did not evacuate by August, the city was going to glow the building up around them.
The outreach workers continued to engage the residents with bribes to leave, and offers of assistance. Some of the couples left, but a small group resolved to go down with the building. They enlisted the help of Food Not Bombs, which offers a meal and comfort to homeless people on Sunday afternoons. Food Not bombs’ volunteers, who consider themselves caterers to the revolution, were willing to help save the building. They planned a rally for July 31 to get community attention. The knights of Camelot also sought reinforcements with legal assistance to prevent the destruction of their beloved castle.
As the supporters gathered on July 31, about 10 people started their vigil to preserve Camelot. Every media outlet showed up for the event. They did live remotes and toured the building. They saw the makeshift shower and the beds. They saw the recreation room and the garden room. They listened to the elaborate plans for the building and the hopes and dreams of the residents. The story as it appeared on the evening news was not the typical “anarchists take on the system” story, but for the most part was, “What if the City showed up to demolish your home?” slant. This was better than anyone could have planned.
City officials showed up at 8 a.m. on August 1 first with police and then with troupes from City Hall. The bombastic Barry Withers and the “good cop” Linda Hudecek surveyed the residence and toured the building. They conveniently missed the 50,000 square feet of asbestos that their inspector had bound in s 1997 survey. They declared the building unsafe and told the inhabitants to vacate. The Food Not Bombs negotiators tried to come to some resolution but the City refused to deal. Finally, the Knights of the Roundtable agreed to leave when an attorney from Legal Aid showed to deliver a strategy for a lawsuit.
Incidentally in July, two the inhabitants of Camelot were present when a brown bread truck pulled up to the building and two black men went into the building to remove some of the asbestos. They did not wear protective suits, and put asbestos in regular green garbage sacks, the declared the building free of the cancer causing agent.
The knights of Camelot held a victorious press conference as they exited the building, telling all the members of the media and City officials that they trespassing on the knights’ property. The residents were aware that homeless people had occupied the building for decades, and they wanted a judge to decide if they had legal grounds to claim the building based on the adverse possession laws in Ohio. They also felt that they were not evicted properly. Their other claims were that the building was architecturally significant and that there had not been the proper debate within the city to take down the building. All this was very shaky with no legal precedent, but deserving of a judge to hear the arguments.
The residents of Camelot approached the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless and our attorney, Doug Lawrence, to assist with their case. NEOCH’S interest in the case was just to get the city to address the needs of those who were staying at Camelot, and try to get precedence that squatters have to be evicted through housing court. The court hearing was a media circus, which took lawyers all day and night on August 1 and 2 to prepare. By the time attorneys could get to court, the building destruction was underway. The ghosts of King Arthur had provided a reprieve when the crane broke an O-ring, and did not work. This was short-lived, as another crane was brought in almost immediately. The temporary restraining order was moot, but in an extraordinary move, the judge ordered the city to appear the next day to address the needs of those who had stayed in the building.
Every victory by the city turned into a defeat. The stand off had ended without bloodshed, and the media painted a picture of Goliath crushing defenseless David. In court, the restraining order was tossed out, but the story was how the judge scolded the City for their lack of concern for the inhabitants. In the final embarrassment to the city, it was discovered that in their haste to take down the building they did not do the proper abatement of the asbestos. Thanks to the diligent work of the reporters at the Plain Dealer this discovery halted the destruction of the building.
Police were guarding the building around the clock as asbestos flew into the air while the construction company pulled the building apart. Asbestos left undisturbed is harmless. The dust from the asbestos is what is dangerous. In their haste to kill Camelot, the City put at risk neighbors, police officers, and the construction workers.
In the end, the judge accepted the word of Cornell Carter, legal director of the City of Cleveland, when he appeared in court and said that they would address the needs of those displaced by the destruction of Camelot. With all the historical assaults on homeless people by the White administration, this was at best a hollow promise, but more likely a blatant lie.
Of the nine people who regularly stayed in the building, a few made it off the streets without the assistance of the City of Cleveland. Three are living in a tent; one has moved to another abandoned building; one is staying with a friend; two moved to Columbus (where they do not take your children if you become homeless); and two receive a substantial anonymous donation and moved into housing. To date the city has not addressed the housing needs of any of the former residents of Camelot, “Camelot the lordly castle of Arthur, with its vast halls and beautiful grounds, was all raised by Merlin’s magic power without the aid of human hands, and was lost in Cleveland because of the arrogance of power
Copyright NEOCH and the Homeless Grapevine, Issue #44 September 2000