Activists from Around the United States Gather in Covington, Kentucky

by Lisa Etling

 On Monday June 10, approximately 300 homeless people and advocates from around the country braved the ninety-degree heat in Covington, Kentucky to participate in a rally and three-mile march to City Hall. The event was organized by the homeless people in Northern Kentucky and the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH), with support from various religious organizations and homeless coalitions from Covington, Cincinnati, Louisville, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Indiana, Louisiana, Montana, and New Hampshire. Fourteen representatives from Cleveland also made the journey to participate in this first national mobilization sponsored by NCH.

According to NCH and local homeless people, Covington police have threatened homeless individuals with arrest for merely sleeping outside or sitting in the park too long, and seized their property. The rally was planned as a response to this criminalization of Covington’s homeless people and the destruction of a homeless encampment along the Ohio River. On April 15, Mayor "Butch" Callery ordered workers to raze the camp where thirty homeless people were staying, destroying all their belongings, from blankets to prescription medication to pet kittens. As NEOCH Director Brian Davis explains, "Instead of addressing the root causes of homelessness, public officials have repeatedly responded with attempts to move its homeless citizens out of view and into another city."

The 2000 census estimated a homeless population of 3,000 in Covington. However, this city of 44,000 provides little emergency relief, only a total of 92 shelter beds, and lacks affordable housing units. In fact, according to NCH, "the U.S. Housing and Urban Development recently declared Northern Kentucky one of the most distressed areas of the country."

The Cleveland group, made up of residents and former residents of 2100 Lakeside and homeless advocates, left for Covington on Sunday evening and stayed the night at a drop-in center in Cincinnati. They provided bucket drums and a drum machine that added even more energy to the march.

The rally began in Goebel Park at 9:30 am with speakers from the local homeless population, religious groups, and NCH. Executive Director of NCH, Donald Whitehead, gave a stirring speech to the gathering, quoting from Martin Luther King and expressing the need to mobilize; "We have to get tired. We have to stop waiting so we can bring America home." The rally concluded with a prayer service and a litany reading, appealing to past activists from Frederick Douglas to John F. Kennedy to Sojourner Truth to Mother Theresa.

The 300 marched along Covington’s streets, carrying banners, signs, and drums and stopped at a parking lot, the proposed site of a Life Learning Center, that would provide such services as job training and laundry/shower facilities. However, Mayor Callery cast the deciding council vote against building the center, instead approving the site for a county jail.

 The march concluded at the City Hall with a meeting with Greg Jarvis, the City Manager, serving as the representative for the Mayor and City Council, who couldn’t be present because they were working. Marchers filled the conference room to its maximum capacity of 175.

 A Covington woman experiencing homelessness read the list of requests and Mr. Jarvis then answered questions from the crowd, claiming that the city’s police had gained a nationwide reputation for "showing compassion and sensitivity to [their] homeless." He also stated that Covington was one of the few cities in Kentucky that gave money to its social services, approximately fifteen percent of its Community Development Block Grant budget. When asked about Commissioner Alex Edmondson’s statement that Covington would not become "the social services capital of the world" and the movement in Cincinnati to charge Covington for the services provided to its homeless citizens that had been shipped over the river, Jarvis declined to comment.

Many expressed disappointment with the short meeting, but believed the event stirred up dialogue in the community. Karen Sweeney, an advocate from Cleveland who has attended other homeless rallies, expressed such sentiment, stating "I felt that we weren’t given enough time to express ourselves, like we were in Washington, D.C." Donald Whitehead summed up the mood, stating " I was a little upset that the mayor didn’t show up, but it’s consistent with how he’s treated the homeless. What really happened today was about building public awareness around the issue of homelessness."

The day concluded with a picnic back at Goebel Park, where homeless people and advocates were given a chance to relax, discuss the event, further action, and show support for each other. The day’s events attracted two Cincinnati and three Covington television stations, a print journalist, and a radio station. Northeast Ohio organizer Oren Casdi was satisfied with the event and the drum machine’s popularity, but hoped that the turnout from Cleveland for the next national mobilization will be greater.

Published in the Homeless Grapevine Street Newspaper Cleveland Ohio July 2002 Issue 55