Cincinnati’s Homeless, Broken Promises, and Political Will: Thoughts upon the tragic death of Ken Martin

In the early morning hours of December 26 a homeless man by the name of Ken Martin was found dead in downtown Cincinnati. Though the cause of death has yet to be determined, it appears that he died of the cold. I did not know Mr. Martin, but I learned of his death within a couple hours. And I cried. No one should die in our country for lack of basic necessities, such as housing. Mr. Martin was certainly not the only homeless person to die in Cincinnati in 2017. In fact, the Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless held a vigil the week prior remembering the 135 people who had died from homelessness in the city during the year. But given that Mr. Martin died on Christmas night — as many of us slept with over-full stomachs and had felt the warmth of the love of friends and family — the loss of Mr. Martin hit us hard.In the days following his death, we learned a bit more about Mr. Martin. We learned that he was 55 years old. That he had been homeless for the bulk of the last several years. That he was a regular parishioner of the Episcopal Church downtown and a volunteer at that church. We also learned that he struggled with substance abuse.

Quickly, people started to blame Mr. Martin for his own death. The Enquirer, Cincinnati’s major newspaper, published an editorial by one of their columnists saying how Mr. Martin could have just gone to the men’s shelter. And perhaps he could have. But perhaps he could not. While the paper claims that the shelter is less than a mile from where Mr. Martin was found; that is inaccurate. The shelter is 1.2 miles away — in a location that used to house a factory, hidden from view. A 1.2 mile walk is a hefty walk in the cold to see if maybe they had a bed available. If they didn’t have a bed, it would have been a 2.5 mile round trip walk. And that is on top of all of the standing and walking a homeless person has to do all day. The same article says that the shelter is on a bus line. That is a nice, but unhelpful tidbit. A bus costs $1.75 each way. That is not an insignificant sum for someone who is homeless.

And the thing is, it wasn’t that long ago when there was a shelter just blocks away….

In Cincinnati, there is a “nonprofit” development corporation, 3CDC (Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation). 3CDC is funded by the government and big businesses — a “private-public partnership”. They run two of the city’s most popular parks — Fountain Square and Washington Park. They also have been tasked with bringing wealthy residents and consumers to a revitalized Over the Rhine and Downtown neighborhoods. In order to achieve that “revitalization”, there has also been a concerted, multi-year effort to move the city’s poor to different corners of the city.

3CDC was behind the closure of a low-income housing facility called the Metropole Hotel. That facility which was in the heart of downtown is now a high-end boutique hotel. The Metropole had the gall to exist across the street from our large arts center — the Aronoff. The Metropole was low income housing since 1971, long before the Aronoff Center was built. But the powers-that-be didn’t care about that timeline. Those poor people disturbed the wealthy attending the arts performances or going to the high-end steak house, Jeff Ruby’s simply because the poor could be seen entering and leaving their home. The mere existence of poor people in this newly affluent area was disturbing So the Metropole residents had to go.

Around the same time 3CDC pushed to evict the residents of the Metropole, they also went after the Drop Inn Center — Cincinnati’s largest homeless shelter. 3CDC was given control of the historic park across from Music Hall — Washington Park. They did a multi-million dollar renovation to the park including an underground parking garage. The School for Creative and Performing Arts also relocated to the edge of Washington Park. Alas, the Drop Inn Center had the nerve to exist right next to the park! Like the Metropole, the Drop Inn Center had been at its location since the 1970s. But no matter, those homeless people were making the wealthy uneasy by their very existence. Plus, they owned some prime real estate.

People were afraid of all of the criminals who lived at the Drop Inn Center. But those numbers were fictional. Whenever the police would pick up someone who didn’t have a known address, they would record that address as the Drop Inn Center address. It did not matter if the crime was anywhere near the shelter or if the person had ever spent a single night at the shelter. If one didn’t have an address, they were processed by the police as having the Drop Inn Center as their place of residence.

3CDC and their friends in City Hall made sure that the Drop Inn Center would leave this desirable location. As part of the deal, the 222 bed facility for both men and women would relocate to a spanky new 150 bed facility for men in Queensgate at the site of a former factory — about a mile and a half away. And the women would go to the other end of town in a facility that has 60 beds. The women’s shelter is 2 miles in the opposite direction from where the Drop Inn Center used to be and over 3 miles from the men’s shelter. (Note, fewer total beds and a denial that there could be homeless couples who want to stay couples despite losing their housing).

Another part of the deal was a promise by 3CDC to provide services to the homeless and the newly constructed shelters:

Key to the deal: A “good neighbor policy” in which 3CDC pledged to provide transportation to and from the property via shuttles; screen for sexual offenders and forbid them from staying at the shelter; maintain security at all entrances and exits and operate security cameras at all times. “Drop Inn Center Move to Queensgate Set”, Cincinnati Enquirer, May 5, 2014 emphasis mine

The promise made to provide shuttle services to and from the new shelters has not been kept. (According to both a source at the Shelterhouse and another homeless advocate source, shuttles are not available to take homeless to the shelters.) This promise wasn’t just made to the Drop Inn Center, it was made to City Council and to the public. Why wasn’t this promise kept? Why was it made? Was there ever any intention of it being kept? And even more importantly, why isn’t the city holding 3CDC accountable for failing to keep this promise?

Around the same time, the historic Anna Louise Inn which had provided safe, affordable housing for women downtown for 106 years was forced to move (they too had the nerve to own desirable property and serve the poor that the same time). The new Anna Louise Inn, now in Avondale, is no longer in walkable distance to employment (which was the reason for its original existence).

If all of the effort to hide the homeless was refocused to an effort to end homelessness — by doing something radical like providing housing — then we wouldn’t have homeless people dying on our streets. If our city had the same drive to find money for housing as it had to find money to fund yet another stadium; this wouldn’t be a problem. If those in Congress cared more about the poor than they do about providing a new trillion dollars in corporate tax breaks, we wouldn’t have this problem. When there is political will, nothing is too expensive. No tax break, no war, no stadium is cost prohibitive when the desire is there. Let us have the political will to say instead that housing and elimination of poverty (rather than removal of the poor from desirable locations) is our priority.

Yes, in a way homelessness is complex. But it is also simple. The surest way to end homelessness is to provide homes.

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