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Coming SCOTUS ruling on homeless camps may not result in changes in Cincinnati

Tents along Third Street in Cincinnati in 2018
Bill Rinehart
Tents along Third Street in Cincinnati in 2018.

A case before the U.S. Supreme Court could alter the way some cities address homelessness. Cincinnati already fought a similar legal battle and has made changes. But the impact of the high court's ruling on other local municipalities is less certain.

The case out of Grants Pass, Ore., revolves around whether the city can make it illegal for people experiencing homelessness to camp on public land. It's drawn national scrutiny and could have big implications at a time when homelessness has been on the rise across the country.

"The decision that the Supreme Court makes will be the most significant the courts have made about homelessness probably ever, but certainly in the past 40 years," Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition Executive Director Josh Spring says.

It might not have much relevance to Cincinnati, though.

Cincinnati recently settled a lawsuit brought by the Homeless Coalition and a former inhabitant of a camp named Patrick Chin.

The legal fight originated in 2018 when the city moved to clear camps along Third Street Downtown. The camps simply moved locations after the city cleared them from a spot, and a series of court proceedings commenced, eventually making them illegal throughout Hamilton County.

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The suit claimed the city violated the constitutional rights of people living in the camps and effectively made their existence illegal since they had nowhere else to go. The city admitted no wrongdoing in the settlement, but agreed to pay $83,000 and to codify policies taking a different approach.

The changes made

Under the settlement, a representative of the city manager's office must approach people living in an encampment prior to police to provide solutions to their lack of shelter. After that, police can approach, but can only ticket people living in the camps if there are shelter beds available for them and they refuse to go. The people who are unhoused then have 72 hours to leave the camp.

The city says it implemented these policies more than a year before the settlement was finalized June 5. A spokesperson for the city pointed out work done by the city's Place Based Initiatives program and specific language in City Manager Sheryl Long's self-assessment last year discussing the polices. That language describes partnerships with street outreach teams, housing providers and an alternative response to crisis team.

There is an apparent point of disagreement between the city and the Coalition. The city says the settlement means they can order people to move from public locations like parks but can't charge or ticket them if there are not shelter beds available. The Homeless Coalition has suggested the settlement means the city can't order people to move from camps unless there are beds available for each specific camp resident.

Spring says the settlement is important because it formalizes those policies and the rights of people experiencing homelessness.

"The city did start implementing some of the ideas that are in the settlement before the settlement was finished," Spring says. "Now all of that has to be implemented citywide all the time."

Spring says the settlement is bittersweet. He's glad the city has adopted the policies, but says it's taken decades to get to this point. He cites a 2003 lawsuit that set the 72-hour notice requirement as an example. Prior to that, law enforcement could clear camps and force people out immediately.

Spring and people who lived in the 2018 camps will discuss the settlement at a news conference next week.

Strategies to End Homelessness President and CEO Kevin Finn says law enforcement agencies throughout Hamilton County use "a humane approach" to encampments.

"Either way the Supreme Court decision goes, I think that will continue," he says.

But that doesn't mean the high court's decision won't have an impact on the region.

"I do think there are some other municipalities, including in Northern Kentucky, where law enforcement could use a Supreme Court decision as a motivation to clear homeless camps."

FROM 2018: Cincinnati plans to clear Third Street homeless camp

Finn says there are enough shelter beds for the single people who generally live in encampments like the ones that sprang up Downtown six years ago. He says roughly 12% to 18% of people experiencing homelessness in Hamilton County are unsheltered. That compares to 40% nationally.

Finn agrees that sending in a social worker before a police officer to talk about housing options and other solutions is a best practice. But he says it's important to make sure people aren't living without housing.

"A homeless person is three times as likely to die sleeping on the streets compared to if they are a resident in a shelter," he says. "Therefore I don’t think we should be doing anything that might encourage people to remain unsheltered on the streets."

Spring says regardless of the city's settlement or Supreme Court's decision, more needs to be done to de-stigmatize homelessness and provide housing for people at risk of experiencing it.

"We have a long way to go in ensuring the rights of people living in affordable housing and securing the funds to build affordable housing," he says.

This story has been updated with more about the city's response to the lawsuit.

Nick has reported from a nuclear waste facility in the deserts of New Mexico, the White House press pool, a canoe on the Mill Creek, and even his desk one time.