Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Neil is a city block away from former Sheriff Simon Leis.
There are two things I recall about Leis: He hoarded confiscated pornography and he made Justice Center inmates march in parades behind his mounted deputies to sweep up horse shit.
Under Leis, incarceration wasn’t just about punishment, it was about debasement and embarrassment.
Leis must now have quite a delicious vintage porn collection and he treated people like extras in his re-imagining of 1955 Selma, Alabama.
That makes Neil’s new three-pronged plan to get homeless people off county property and connected to countywide social services quite intriguing, if not still rife with a few holes.
But to understand why Neil’s ideas are, for now, seemingly good ones (we will watch to see just how humane they are) and to see where the potholes are set and how they can be filled in, we must first recall the genealogy of our city’s homeless population, especially the ones who are also mentally ill.
Once upon a time, Cincinnati had three institutions for our mentally ill population: Rollman Psychiatric Hospital, the Pauline Warfield Lewis Center and the Millcreek Psychiatric Hospital for Children. Democratic Gov. Richard Celeste (1983-1991) in 1988 signed a bill to “restructure” the state’s care for the mentally ill, promising “no drastic consequences” for Cincinnati’s three state-run hospitals.
Rollman was closed in 1990, followed by Millcreek in 1995.
In 1990, I was exactly one year into my five-year tenure as an assistant behind the old literature department reference desk at the Main Library on the first floor, just inside the Vine Street entrance, which is now replaced by DVDs and CDs.
When Rollman’s doors were slammed shut, we at the library knew it.
Crazy folks of every stripe showed up at the Main Library looking, we sometimes callously joked, like extras from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video — a funky, newly unmedicated, dead-eyed, tattered gaggle of mentally ill undead sleeping heavily in secluded study stalls or otherwise shuffling from public stack to public stack pulling down random titles and mindlessly flipping through books on fondue-making, Switzerland and Modern Library editions of Shakespeare just to wile the day away indoors and away from the dangers and surprises of the startling streets of downtown Cincinnati.
They were mostly harmless and quiet, too tired to bother anyone.
And the library’s security guards and the moonlighting police officers pretty much let them be.
When the library closed at 9 p.m
I didn’t know where they went; I assumed the Drop Inn Center.
It wasn’t until after I’d left the library for a newspaper job in Hamilton that I could really see these people. Since I had daytime hours and could now drive city streets, I saw their migratory network. If they weren’t at the library, they were in Washington Park (remember when it was Bum’s Cathedral?), and if not there they were sometimes on Fountain Square.
As post-riot downtown development exploded, these people were run off, many to overpasses dotting entrances and exits in and out of town. Now that Vine Street has been turned into a playground for the wealthy and since the park has been righted into a safer public space, the homeless and the mentally ill homeless have parked themselves at night at the very doorsteps of some of the safest buildings in downtown: those owned and run by the government, like City Hall, the Hamilton County Justice Center and the Hamilton County Courthouse.
If you have ever been past these places at twilight, just as the exterior lights are coming up, the dichotomies of our shadowy citizens “living” near a casino in proximity to two entertainment districts are illuminated as the houses of justice become the beds and toilets for the indigent.
Beginning this week, Sheriff Neil and his deputies will begin their three-tiered plan to address, according to WCPO, the 50 to 60 people nightly sleeping on county property.
They will begin by acting like social workers, talking to the homeless to connect them with social services.
After a month, the homeless will be moved if there’s no good reason for them to still be there.
Finally, county property will be cleaned and repaired. Neil says property has been “misused.” You can read that as: toilet cleaning.
In Neil’s first act, his deputies will encounter folks who already know good and well what services are available to them, unless spanking-new services have been added to the county’s arsenal. Like any subculture, the homeless is a community, a family of man, of sorts, and many of them pass along all kinds of hints and tips along the grapevine.
This is in addition to those who’ve already made contact with social services.
That second step — removing them if there’s “no good reason” they’re still there — seems too arbitrary and flimsy to work effectively.
What’s a “good reason” for being homeless in the first place?
“Move” them where, exactly?
And if they’re “moved,” are they being thrown in jail for trespassing?
We need that room for the proliferation of coaches and teachers who have sex with minors; for all the fake gangsters (see Vladimir Putin to learn how to really swindle) failing miserably at swindling the casino; for all the people across this county who like shooting and killing one another; and for all those drunk drivers who hill-hop, run down pedestrians in crosswalks and who slam into telephone poles.
The jail is for better things; for worse people.
I do not know what to do or what will work permanently.
But I’ll be watching.
Sheriff Neil deserves some credit for trying something in this small geography of county buildings.
I have but one prayer.
I hope and pray county deputies have had some basic training working with the mentally ill and the homeless.
What a nice housewarming gift.
CONTACT KATHY Y. WILSON: firstname.lastname@example.org