By Chris Knestrick
There is a lot of celebration for the proposed construction of Ohio City’s Irishtown Bend project. There have been radio interviews, newspaper articles, and community forums, although with very few public details about this new park. Despite all of this publicity, nothing has been mentioned of the 20 to 35 people who are experiencing homelessness who live on the riverbed, some for upwards of 20 years until NEOCH began advocating for their rights.
The 17-acre proposed park would cover most of the riverbed of West 25th Street from Detroit Ave to Columbus Road. The first phase of the project is a massive stabilization of the land, which will cost $49 million. The second phase, the actual construction of the park has no public price tag yet. Despite money flowing in from many agencies and foundations, the cost of relocating the Irishtown Bend residents - which NEOCH estimates would cost around $18,000 – was not a part of their original budget.
NEOCH is appalled by the fact that the human cost of this massive project was not a top priority. We believe that the project organizers have both an ethical and legal obligation to relocate these residents. So we began an advocacy campaign that utilized media attention, direct action and dialogue.
NEOCH’s involvement started on July 31st, 2017 in a meeting between NEOCH and Ohio City Inc., NEOCH was told that there was no money available in the current funding for relocations but that they would try to find some. Did none of the funders or grant seekers consider that these residents would need a new place to sleep at night? Do they not consider these residents to be valuable neighborhood constituents?
Recognizing the problematic lack of planning, NEOCH began an advocacy campaign to make sure that there would be individualized relocation plans that would respect the agency and dignity of the residents on the river bed. The local media picked up the stories and people began to become concerned.
Part of the campaign was focused on a nonviolent direct action at the community meeting hosted by Ohio City Inc. The meeting was to present the design plan for the Irishtown Bend Project. On August 31st, around 25 NEOCH members and supporters showed up at the meeting to demand relocation for the residents that live on Riverbed Road. Our signs read, “No Displacement! Relocation for the Riverbed Road Residents!” Because of our presence, there was a questions and answer session at the end of the presentation. Many community members stated their concern over the lack of consideration for the residents that will be impacted by the project. Because of our presence, the Executive Director of Ohio City Inc. publically promised to find the money to relocate people.
After hearing about the lack of planned relocations by those involved in the project that will take place in her district, Representative Nickie Antonio called together a meeting between all the stakeholders in the project. Those present were The City of Cleveland, Councilman McCormack, The Port Authority, The Office of Homeless services, the Metro parks along with the service providers that work with the residents on the River bed; Care Alliance, Frontline, Metanoia, and NEOCH. This meeting was held at St. Malachi, which enabled some of the impacted residents to attend.
There were three important topics discussed in the meeting. First, we discussed the timeline for the project. There have been different dates given to the community, which makes the residents nervous. Currently, the project will begin in the spring/summer of 2018. We will keep the residents up-to-date on any changes in the construction start time.
Secondly, we discussed the legal obligations for relocation. Under the Uniform Relocation Assistance and Real Property Acquisition Act of 1970, if federal money is used in a project, there is a legal responsibility to offer relocation money to those affected. In the meeting, the Metroparks and the port authority said they are receiving federal money. However, according to them, the Request for the money does not include any time of legal obligation to relocate the residents. NEOCH believes that there is a legal responsibility and is currently investigating these claims. We hope that the relocation money that has been promised by Ohio City will be offered for the moral reasons and these investigations will become unnecessary.
Finally, during the course of the meeting, the residents of Riverbed Rd, who were present, asked the group to have NEOCH facilitate the relocation. It was stated that "We trust NEOCH more than any other service provider and want them to be the ones facilitating the relocation plan." We are honored by this comment and would be willing to facilitate the relocation of the residents as long as there are funds available to develop a dignified relocation that allows for the residents to have agency in the relocation options available to them. NEOCH is prepared to offer our assistance in these efforts. We have coordinated the main homeless outreach collaborative in the city for years. In so many ways, we are the most experienced and equipped to support such efforts. We have strong relationships with the residents of Irishtown Bend.
The residents of Riverbed Road each have their own human story. There is no one uniform reason why they have chosen to make a home in this location. One couple has chosen to remain together as they try to make their way back down south to where they are from. The shelter system does not have an option for couples to remain together as they attempt to overcome homelessness. They would be forced to separate. Another man does not want to lose his dog. He has already lost everything he had through homelessness but remains committed to his companion. If he would enter the shelter system, he would be required to separate from his best friend.
We at NEOCH are prepared to defend the legal right of those who live in this location. We voiced our concern because the residents continued to ask our outreach workers about what they should do. We know that they have very few options available to them for housing and fear being forcefully displaced and having their property destroyed.
Rather than zip lines and boulder scrambles, the funders of this project need to continue to center their work on the individuals who live there. Just as Irishtown Bend offered refuge to Irish immigrants fleeing the Potato Famine of the 1800s, this location continues to be a refuge for those who have no place to call home. We hope that the stockholders in the project, such as Ohio City Inc. remain true to their words and either find the money to relocate people or write a check themselves.