Columbus orders homeless camp to shut down at city-owned site

2022-09-03 01:38:17 By : Mr. wei jiang

In the span of four months, what was once a vacant lot off of Mound Street has grown into a humming city of tents where those without shelter have found temporary refuge.

Elizabeth Blackburn has not only watched the transformation; as one of about 15 people living at the homeless encampment on Columbus' Near East Side, she's lived it.

Blackburn liquidated her savings and along with fellow volunteers with First Collective — a group of community organizers and social justice activists — set about to raise money to fund improvements and purchase resources the site's residents needed.

They erected fences, amassed a stockpile of food and medicine and obtained portable toilets that are regularly serviced. One day, a homeless man living on-site referred to it as Camp Shameless — both a nod to the Showtime series and a signifier that those staying there need not feel shame — and the name stuck.

Blackburn and others knew Camp Shameless might not last.

They just didn't expect that it could possibly come to an end so soon.

Because the site is partially on land owned by the city of Columbus, the city last month issued a trespassing notice to those living at the homeless camp. The July 28 notice instructed individuals living at the site to clear out by the end of August.

“We just didn’t know when it would happen, but we knew at some point that it would,” Blackburn said. “Anger was the initial thought; it’s really hard."

City officials said they became aware of illicit activities and public health concerns they say are prevalent at the camp, including alleged drug use and littering.

But Emerald Hernandez-Parra, the city's homeless advocacy liaison, said one development in particular served as the main impetus for taking action: When city officials became aware First Collective volunteers were trying to build a seemingly permanent structure on land they did not own, the city issued a "stop work order" July 22.

After conferring with Columbus City Attorney Zach Klein's office, Hernandez-Parra, the assistant director of special projects in the city's Development Department, said her office was advised they would need to pursue a trespassing notice as well.

Hernandez-Parra told The Dispatch in June that she was content to allow the residents to remain at the site for the foreseeable future. But she was also clear that city leaders did not consider the living arrangements to be a long-term solution.

And when she visited the site herself in mid-July, after hearing reports of the structure being built, she said: "It kind of forced our hand."

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“It points to the intent to circle up and stay, and that’s not something we do here in the city," Hernandez-Parra said. "We want to make sure we’re moving toward (permanent) shelter, toward housing because we do not do sanctioned encampments.”

Blackburn said First Collective began building the structure in early July after the camp’s supply tent continually collapsed under the weight of rainfall. Volunteers initially intended to anchor the structure into the ground, but Blackburn said that plan was scrapped when they learned they would be violating city code. 

Though there is no permit for it, the wooden structure, which has plastic sheeting for a roof, is now adhered to pallets that can be moved, Blackburn said.

The structure is just one of many recent ways in which volunteers have continually sought to improve the camp since it first opened at the end of March. 

Thanks to a steady pipeline of community donations, a cadre of bikes are available for camp residents to use as needed. And volunteers have been able to provide a stable power source for the camp, Blackburn said, having purchased solar panels and a storage battery to operate a community fridge, a charging station and fans.

Volunteers even obtained a digital projector to screen movies for residents on one side of the wooden structure.

Outreach workers with Mount Carmel Street Medicine, as well as Maryhaven, the behavioral health services provider that specializes in addiction recovery, have visited the site at least once a week to offer housing assistance; meals and clothing; mental health and substance abuse treatment; and free legal services. Some individuals have accepted such assistance, Hernandez-Parra said, but others have declined and remained on the land.

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During visits, outreach workers and Columbus police community liaison officers have reported seeing sanitation issues that pose public health concerns, Hernandez-Parra said. City officials also claim that social media posts originating from the camp indicate substance abuse and other illicit activity may have happened on the property.

Hernandez-Parra said to her knowledge, no individuals at the camp have been arrested or cited for drug-related or other crimes, but complaints to the city's 311 hotline about problems with the camp have been routine.

It's an accusation that surprised Blackburn, who said though the camp has naloxone available to treat overdoses, it's never been needed. She further insisted that camp volunteers have made it a priority to keep the site from becoming a public nuisance.

“There’s a lot of really good relationships we’ve built with the neighbors, and I can’t believe the complaints are coming from them,” Blackburn said.

The Near East Side homeless camp is not the only one against which city leaders have taken action this summer.

On June 21, the city cleared out a homeless camp near a closed public park on the Far South Side, where officials say drug use and sanitation issues had long persisted. Homeless advocates showed up to protest the operation, in turn drawing a large police presence as crews excavated and cleaned up the site near Heer Park at 125 W. Williams Road, off South High Street, which had been closed since February 2021.

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If homeless individuals remain at the Mound Street camp after Aug. 31, the city would likely undertake similar action, Hernandez-Parra said. But, she added, she does not anticipate it would be as daunting of an operation because residents and volunteers have kept the site notably organized and orderly.

Regardless, Hernandez-Parra said regular outreach will continue for the rest of August — outreach she said she hopes those living at the camp will accept as they prepare to transition to more-stable housing.

“There are issues that are causing us to step in, but I wish we didn’t have these issues because we could still be in outreach phase,” Hernandez-Parra said. “The city’s intent is to make sure the system has time to work with you.”

But not all residents at the camp believe the city has their best interests at heart.

On a scorching Wednesday afternoon, a 39-year-old man who gave his name as Jesus lounged under an awning at the camp to keep cool. He said he'd lived at the camp pretty much since it first opened and has in that time formed a close bond with many others there.

After he learned about the trespass notice, he said he's since regularly told outreach workers that if they really want to help him and others at the camp, they'd allow them to stay.

"They say they want to help; they say they want to do all these things," Jesus said. "But they're going to take it away and put us right back on the streets."

As First Collective volunteers consider how they will respond to the city's order, they have circulated news of the trespassing notice across social media in hopes of drumming up support from other social justice groups.

"It’s our goal to keep people together and to keep them in the community they’ve been a part of for all this time,” Blackburn said. "I knew we’d have a fight with the city and I knew things weren’t going to be easy, but I'm committed to this project.” 

Eric Lagatta is a reporter at the Columbus Dispatch covering social justice issues and nonprofits. Reach him at Follow him on Twitter