Sixty-one year old Lee McCoy adjusts his blue windbreaker to fit over his head. His hands shiver in the 40 degree weather as he grips onto his sign: 3CDC Stop Stealing Homes! The sign reads, written in large, prominent block letters.
“I don’t believe nobody can walk in the shoes that I walk in,” he says, as he trekked through the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition’s (GCHC) Homeless Awareness March in Over-the- Rhine (OTR) on Oct.26. “But I haven’t given up hope. Homeless people are not lazy by any means. They are the smartest, the most surviving people I know in the world. You have to survive every day.”
McCoy is homeless. He has been, off and on, for a long time. Because of drug trafficking chargesfrom31yearsago,McCoy says that “nobody will rent him” affordable housing. He is one of many homeless people who have slept on the courthouse and justice center steps, where many feel safe because of the wide, well-lit area.
Earlier this month however, Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office posted a “no trespassing” sign on the courthouse, calling the homeless’ use of the facility a “public health hazard.” Nearly two dozen people who sleep on the steps were evicted, much to the dismay of GCHC. For several weeks before the eviction, representatives from GCHC had met with the Sheriff’s department to discuss solutions to the department’s concerns to avoid eviction or arrest of the homeless.
“The numbers at the justice center were decreasing [at that time] because of outreach efforts,” Executive Director of GCHC Josh Spring says. “We had to inform them that there are not enough places for people to go, not enough affordable housing, [and that] the formal shelter setting doesn’t work for everyone. They still moved forth with pushing people deeper into the margins.”
Part of the reason that homeless were evicted was because of the use of the steps as a de facto restroom, which the homeless defended because of the lack of public restrooms available at all hours of the day.
“That was part of the issue. That was not the entire issue,” Jim Knapp of the Office of Media and Public Relations at the Hamilton County Sheriff Office says. “It was a public place that people needed to use for public business.”
Four homeless men teamed up with GCHC to file a lawsuit on Oct.16, claiming that the homeless have the right to remain “free from cruel and unusual punishment, including the right not to be criminally punished” for being homeless.
In an attempt to give homeless people temporary solutions, there are many different homeless shelters in the OTR area, ranging from gender specific shelters to family shelters.
The Drop Inn Center (DIC), which has been in operation in its location on Vine Street in OTR since 1978, takes in almost everybody that needs to be taken in—from a quick one night pick- me-up to a “step up” stay of about 45 days.
In addition to a small living space, three meals a day, and a case manager to help residents find a housing plan as soon as possible, “step up” residents of DIC are given the opportunity to seek necessary services including medical care five days a week, mental health services and alcohol and drug recovery programs.
“We don’t warehouse people,” Arlene Nolan, executive director of DIC says. “We actually provide good quality services and really help people get off of the streets. We have a lot of partner agencies that come and provide service here.”
For Nolan, one of the most notable aspects of the DIC is the diversity in people that come in. In DIC resident Amber Loy’s case, life was good. She had a place to live, was dealing with her battle with depression and held a job as a Reservation Specialist for U-Haul. That is, until she and her roommates were evicted and she lost her job. Loy was admitted into the psychiatric ward of a hospital for depression, and was left homeless soon after with nowhere to turn but DIC.
“I have a better understanding of homelessness being homeless myself now,” Loy says. “I see the way you’re looked at on the street when you try to pan handle for money and nobody wants to help you. People act like homelessness is a choice—but when you lose your place and you have nothing, it’s not a choice. It’s something that you just have to deal with.”
Although DIC boasts the fact that they help almost everyone that comes to them, getting in isn’t so easy for McCoy. In fact, he’s tried multiple times, but can’t get in for, as he puts it, “something simple on their computer.”
“I’m one of those guys that fits between the cracks. I’m not a sex offender or anything but I cannot get into DIC,” McCoy says. “[At night I have to] have a lot of blankets. I shiver a lot, and I [just] hope the morning comes quick so I can go so`me place warm.”
McCoy is one of a total of 7,013 people in Hamilton County living either on the streets or in homeless shelters in 2012 due to lack of affordable housing. McCoy and others at the march chanted “Democracy is under attack! What do we do? Stand up fight back!” in protest of OTR’s gentrification—a term used to describe the shift from an urban setting to wealthier homes and higher property values.
One of the organizations responsible for gentrification is 3CDC, a non-profit organization aimed at revitalizing and connecting Fountain Square District, the Central Business District and OTR.
Vice President of Communications of 3CDC Anastasia Mileham says that the cooperation found 500 vacant buildings, 700 vacant lots and almost 1,700 vacant residential units in the area in 2004 which attracted crimes such as drug trade, prostitution and gang activity numbering up to about 12,000 calls for police service annually.
“By adding market-rate residential units, service businesses, job opportunities in restaurant kitchens, safe green space where children can play without falling on hypodermic needles and streets clean of debris and human waste, we can help bring the neighborhood back into use as the vibrant, mixed-income neighborhood it once was,” Mileham says.
Despite the positives gentrification brings, it isn’t favored by everyone, including Spring.
“[In gentrification] people lose their home and [must go to] a shelter or outside and bounce from couch to couch,” Spring says. “Society and the government look at it and say ‘Well these people chose to be here. These people are lazy. They made bad decisions. Let’s just leave them in this situation.’ That’s not true.”
But McCoy doesn’t let the fact that he can’t get into housing stop him. Every day, for upwards of 11 hours a day, McCoy sells Streetvibes—a biweekly newspaper put out by GCHC that is distributed by 45 homeless people at a dollar profit per newspaper sold.
“I thought it was a silly idea when I tried it,” McCoy says. “I wanted to quit in the first week but I stuck with it. I love it now. I love meeting people. I’m on a fixed income, so that supplements my income.”
Editor of Streetvibes Justin Jeffre says that the goal of Streetvibes is to educate lack of affordable housing and jobs and to put a face on the negative stereotyping of homeless people.
“Most people that experience it, it’s only temporary,” Jeffre says. “A lot of times people won’t seek help that is available until it’s too late because they’re too embarrassed to ask for help. You can play by all the rules, you can work hard in school, you can go to college, and you can still end up being homeless.”
McCoy knows first hand how it feels to be stereotyped as lazy.
“I probably put in 11 hours a day selling Streetvibes,” McCoy says. “[But] I see a lot of people look down on homeless people just because they’re out of luck. I think it takes a strong person to be homeless. God has a purpose for me. I just hasn’t realized it yet.”