Successful Squatting in Cleveland Requires Strategy

Commentary by John Q. Squatter

    This is not legal advice since I am not a lawyer and should not be considered advice to be used in court.  This advice is based on public opinion and what has worked in the past with people who set up a community. 

    1.  I do not believe that a freeway underpasses or the parking lot at the Brown’s stadium are defensible positions.  Brown’s stadium was used during special events for a legitimate purpose. The freeway underpass is either ODOT or County space and not zoned for private use.  There is a legitimate safety concern that makes the underpass indefensible in the court of public opinion.

    2.  Are sports are more important then people in this town?  By relocating twice from an area near a sports team, those sleeping in tents can make the case that they keep getting pushed around because our society values sports over people. There are three giant monuments to sports teams, while our public housing and affordable housing in our community deteriorates.

What has worked in other cities?

    1.  The other tent cities have survived because churches have allowed homeless people to use their space, and the City cannot tell a church how to use their property.  So in other cities they use parking lots for a month or a couple of months then relocate to a new church parking lot.

    2.  The other tent cities have survived because they have set up a governing structure.  They have strict rules against any illegal activity on the property.  They have won sympathy from the public because they keep the place clean and have strict rules for conduct.

    3.  One group of homeless in one city used the tent city as a form of political protest so they had some protections under the law.

    4.  Once you find a good space that you can defend get the media involved early on.  Get television, Plain Dealer and Free Times to interview the residents about your efforts early so that it will be harder for the police to bust up the encampment.  My suggestion is one of two messages for the media:

    A.  All the City offers is shelter or nothing.  There are no standards in the shelters and so we found a better option.

    B.  Housing is out of reach in this city yet there are so many abandoned buildings.  It is a crime to have all these vacant units teasing us, but we have to wait 3 to 5 years for housing that we can afford.

Other options:

    1.  Take over a private property that has back property taxes and make improvements either a lot or a building.  Cut the grass, clean up the property, paint it or make it look better.  This would generate positive publicity in the media and you would get a lot of support from many different groups, and it would be hard for the owner to object because they are behind on their taxes.  If the owner objects, there is a provision in the landlord tenant law about squatting and so they would most likely have to go through the eviction process to have squatters removed.  You could make improvements in the property (clean up and such) in lieu of paying the taxes.  So you could argue in the media that that you are cleaning up blight and eyesores, and doing more than the owner is doing for the neighborhood.  The police would not have a hard time removing you unless the owner filed an objection.  This would give at a minimum 45 days to relocate plus the fight in court and in the media attention would be good.

    2.  Find property that the City has taken into its land bank for redevelopment.  This was the case for the Camelot fight at East 45th and Chester Ave.  So, you could make a case that this is public property for residential use and you are in need of a place to live so you are fulfilling that purpose.  Landbank property is taken by eminent domain and then turned over to a developer after the property is demolished.  Again, you would have time to fight this out in court before they could remove you.

    3.  If you want to find a place for your tents then it would be better to go to a residential space or work-live space like around Superior Ave. This way the city could not say that it is not safe to live so close to the freeway, which is what they said during the recent controversy over the so-called “Freeway Hilton.”

    Also, figure out an answer for their questions about waste disposal both human and garbage waste that you can put the public at ease about when the fight comes.  You will have the most luck with space that is not being used and is actually falling into disrepair.  So, you will be able to tell media, “we found this space and cleaned it up.  We have solved the waste issue.  We are not bothering anyone and are making things better so just leave us alone.”

    You need to set up a democratic process within the community that you set up.  You must elect a spokesperson and leadership structure.  Reduce the amount of illegal things going on around the camp. (Don’t litter, don’t have open containers of alcohol, etc.).  This is entire struggle is a rough fight, because the State is very friendly to landowners.  To acquire property through squatting takes 21 years, but using public opinion you can get a lot of sympathy.  Organizations may be hesitant to get involved because a lot of these discussions involve illegal activities, but individuals might be willing to help.  In addition, organizations might want to help move into housing, but would not be willing to help with tents.  The problem is that most organizations feel like in the richest country in the world everyone should be in housing so fighting over less then that is a waste of resources.  This is why groups may be unwilling to help locate appropriate spaces.  Once you find the space that you want to defend there are groups of lawyers or activists and others who will be willing to help you defend your space with media and legal work.

Copyright Homeless Grapevine, Cleveland Ohio Issue 82 October 2007