Tuesday, May 21, 2002

Homeless sue over camp razing

Covington violated rights, they say

By Cindy Schroeder cschroeder@enquirer.com
and Tom O'Neill toneill@enquirer.com

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        COVINGTON — Eight people who say they lost everything from family photos to work clothes in last month's razing of riverfront homeless camps sued the mayor and the city in federal court Monday.

        In the suit, like one pending in federal court in Cincinnati and about 50 others filed around the nation, the homeless claim Covington officials violated their constitutional rights when backhoes and dump trucks were used to seize their possessions with out notice.

        John Chetuck says he lost his only photo of his 11-year-old son in the sweep.

        Also taken were The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, a Motorola pager, three work uniforms, blankets, pillows and a backpack, the lawsuit says.

        Hubert Ferry counts a white leather Bible with his name inscribed in the front and ticket stubs from the 1975 World Series among the items seized by city workers.

        And fellow camper Phillip Folk says his 5-week-old kittens and prescription medications were among the items removed April 15 from Covington's Ohio riverbank.

        “For me, it's about common decency and self-respect,” said Mr. Chetuck, 30.

        “Yeah, we were camping on the river. But coming down and taking everything you own is just like someone coming in your house and taking what you own.

        “You still have that feeling of violation.

        “I don't know what gave these people the right to do it.”

        Mark Teegarden, who volunteers for agencies serving homeless people, said the 25 to 30 people who were living on Covington's riverbanks now “are having to move day-to-day like nomads,” for fear of harassment by police or others.

        Covington City Manager Greg Jarvis referred all comment on the lawsuit to City Solicitor Jay Fossett, who declined to respond to the allegations until city officials were served with the lawsuit.

        Officials in cities from Miami to Sacramento say homeless camps are a health and safety risk, while advocates for the homeless say sweeps such as the one in Covington leave people with no place to go.

        According to Pallavai Rai, a representative of the Washington, D.C., based-National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, the Covington lawsuit is one of about 50 filed in recent years over issues related to the eviction of the homeless from public property and the seizure of their belongings.

        In Cincinnati, a federal lawsuit was filed in October on behalf of a half-dozen homeless people whose possessions were not returned after a sweep of homeless camps under bridges.

        Possessions taken included clothes, bedding and other personal items.

        Cincinnati and Hamilton County agreed to suspend such sweeps until the suit is settled, said attorney Bob Newman, who also is involved in the Covington lawsuit.

        The Covington lawsuit seeks the return of the homeless' possessions or a monetary equivalent, as well as unspecified compensatory damages.

        In 2000 in San Francisco, a group of 10 homeless people won a suit against the city and county after their possessions were discarded.

        The homeless were not living on the streets or under bridges, but in the Mission Rock Shelter, which the city closed in 1999 because it wanted the location for parking for the Giants' new baseball stadium.

        “There's legal precedent with different kinds of property, homes, boats,” Mr. Newman said.

        “We're saying these laws established on behalf of rich people apply to everyone.”

        He called the San Francisco ruling a “usable precedent,” but its relevance in the Cincinnati case remains unclear.

        “(Court rulings) are very fact-specific,” Raymond Vasvari of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio said from his Cleveland office Monday.

        “So it's very hard to draw general conclusions.”

        Covington Mayor Butch Callery — who authorized the razing of riverfront homeless camps — has described the setting as a health hazard and safety risk.

        Last month, Mr. Callery was among three city officials who viewed piles of bottles and temporary shelters along much of West Covington's Ohio riverfront.

        Officials said then that they removed illegal temporary housing, including tents and tarps, from city property because of concerns about liability.

        They said city workers removed other personal items because they were covered with feces and urine — claims the homeless people and their advocates have denied.

        “It seems to me that what the mayor of Covington is trying to do is to get rid of these people off the riverbank,” Mr. Newman said.

        “By stripping them of all of their property, he's able to discourage them from being there.”

        The suit filed in U.S. District Court in Covington claims that Covington officials illegally removed belongings of homeless people without notice.

        The suit also claims that Covington officials violated the rights of the homeless under the “search and seizure” provisions of the Fourth and 14th Amendments and violated their rights to due process under the Fifth Amendment.

        In Covington, homeless advocates say there are only 24 emergency shelter beds for men, of which only 10 are available long-term.

        According to 2000 Census data, Covington reported about 3,000 people homeless.

        Tonight, the Covington City Commission is scheduled to vote on a proposed center that would bring together agencies and services designed to help the homeless become self-sufficient.

        National and regional advocates for the homeless also plan to follow up the lawsuit with a June 10 march and rally in Covington.

        For now, Mr. Chetuck, a dishwasher, said he just wants the same rights as other members of society.

        “We are people,” he said. “We do have rights. We pay taxes. I work every day.

        “Whether we win or lose, at least it's a chance to be heard.”

        Karen Samples contributed to this report.

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