City of Cleveland Wants to Move “Square” Meals Elsewhere

Analysis by Joshua Kanary

   For several decades now, a number of faith based and charitable groups have used Public Square as a convenient location to serve meals to homeless and impoverished individuals in Cleveland. Groups such as Food Not Bombs, care on the Square, Willoughby Hills Church, Bethel Temple, and John Carroll University are just a small sampling of the names behind the food.

   The City of Cleveland has sought for several years a relocation of these meals to an indoor location in order to get them off of Public Square. Efforts from the previous Campbell administration met with resistance, but there was a renewed effort from the Jackson administration and city council to help the groups relocate.

    The City partnered with the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless earlier this year in and effort to negotiate with the groups and find a suitable location for relocation. However, negotiations soured as the City of Cleveland turned to harsher methods to force providers off the Square. Citing health concerns, law enforcement at the request of City officials suddenly began enforcing a seemingly forgotten licensing requirement, the city effectively banning the Public Square meals beginning October 3rd.

     All sides now seem to be gearing up for battle; thought efforts to negotiate are still underway. The following is a timeline of events leading up to the ban, and a summary of the viewpoints represented.

July 10


   The City of Cleveland begins meeting with meal providers and NEOCH on a monthly basis in order to discuss better coordination of services and the possible opening of an indoor location. The original pair of groups that attended were Food Not Bombs and Care of the Square. But over the coming months, many of the other groups joined the discussions. Although several topics came up during the meetings, the main focus was the City’s proposal to move to an indoor location.

    The city stated that an indoor location would benefit all parties, as the indoor meals would be more sanitary, the outdoor meals were becoming a bigger burden to passersby because of the construction on Public Square, and because people had begun to complain about trash build – up on the Square. The City also sated that Public Square is the “gateway to the city” and needed to be attractive.

    NEOCH was also advocating for an indoor location to serve the meals, stating that homeless people shouldn’t have to face the potential embarrassment of receiving their meals in public, and that an indoor location could provide running water, protection from the elements, and a public restroom. NEOCH also felt such a location would make it easier for outreach workers to coordinate services and stay in touch with clients who might otherwise be hard to reach. NEOCH staff were concerned that eating outside was undignified and difficult with the harsh Cleveland weather.

   However, many of the groups were resistant to the move because they felt the City was actually just trying to hide homeless people. Additionally, they stated that the City had moved homeless people around on previous occasions and the groups and their clients were tried of moving. Another concern cited by the groups was that security could become an issue if the feeding was moved out of the public eye to a more remote indoor location.

   Despite their differences, the groups continued to meet with City, and independently, hoping to reach a reasonable compromise.

September 27

   After several meetings and much discussion, a plan to find an indoor location suitable to all involved was put into motion:

   With help from the City, outreach workers, and NEOCH, the groups planned to open a communal dining hall by winter. The groups agreed to scout possible “dream locations” for the communal dining hall and relay those to NEOCH. NEOCH agreed to compile the list of locations for the City to approve before the City would help to fund the relocation.

    Additionally, the organizations stated that they would go to their own members and search for further funding among them. In exchange, the City offered to look into putting money towards and overnight drop – in center.

    An alternate list of outdoor locations, such as Chester Commons, was put together in case Public Square became too crowded because of the construction of the Euclid Corridor.

October 3

   While setting up to serve their usual lunch on Public Square, Care on the Square was approached by police officers and was told they would be ticketed if they unloaded their food. The group offered to move Chester Commons, since that was a previously suggested alternate location, but they were informed by the officers that they would be ticketed there or at any other location if they attempted to provide meals. This happened several hours after the City began enforcing the new Public Square curfew by ticketing two homeless individuals sleeping on the Square. After this date, no one was allowed back on the Square to provide meals.

   The City explains they would not allow the meal providers to serve on the Square because public health officials found several rat nests on the Square. The City claimed that nests were a result of the waste produced from the public meals.

   The City then offered an alternate location for the meals at East 18th and Davenport (one block north of Lakeside). However, the meal providers found the site unacceptable because the location was far from the public eye and made it seem like they really were trying to hide homeless people. Additionally, the groups felt that the location was not safe for providers or recipients, and the Davenport locations was too far away for many disabled people to travel.

   Groups stated that the number of people they usually served dropped in half because many were either unable to travel to the new location or did not feel safe there. With no other choice, the meal providers continued their service at the new location while NEOCH continued to negotiate a compromise with the City and groups.

October 22

   The City gets back to the organizations with an alternate location next the Mall B, at which they can provide meals. The groups were asked to sign a Covenant prepared by the city.

    The covenant required that the groups follow established health codes, clean up after themselves, monitor recipients to prevent public urination and defecation, stay until the last client is served, and interact with social service providers.

   The groups were also required to acknowledge that the site is only temporary, and were told to  “ respect the Downtown Cleveland Alliance and clean – up crews.”

October 25

  The City meets with NEOCH and the meal providers in order to discuss the terms of the Covenant. Many of the meal providers were angry and upset about the City’s actions and attitudes ticketing began.

   One particular portion of the proposed Covenant greatly irritated the groups: the provision requiring them to function as “ bathroom monitors.” Recipients of the meals do not have access to public restrooms at the current location, as they once did not Public Square. Recipients of the meals, and volunteers were able to avail themselves of the nearby bathrooms in Tower City when the meals were still served on the Square.

   The groups requested a portable toilet from the City, but the City denied them due to budget constraints. However, the City also denied the groups permission to provide their own portable bathroom for meal recipients.

   Groups involved with the discussions feel that the City is no longer willing to work with them. They believe this was shown especially when one group requested to distribute blankets and clothing at Public Square instead of the meals, and was promptly denied.

   Groups felt the October 25th meeting was a sharp contrast to the September 27th meeting in which the organization left feeling empowered and ready to work with the City. The night of October 25th left them feeling anything but empowered.

   The direction the groups will take now is uncertain, but they are talking and working amongst solution. One of the groups, Food Not Bombs, has experience fighting feeding bans in other cities (most notably Orlando and Las Vegas). It is hoped that the City and the groups can come back together and forge an agreement, but a climate of suspicion and intimidation has hampered the discussions. If things go badly, the City of Cleveland may find itself facing lawsuits similar to those in other cities, and no one will be happy about that.

Copyright Homeless Grapevine, Cleveland, Ohio, Issue 83, November 2007