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Homeless win ban on arrests

By Martha Grevatt


New York is not the only city where it is a crime to be homeless. Just in time for the busy holiday shopping season, the city of Cleveland instituted a policy of arresting homeless people caught sleeping on the streets or "panhandling."

After five people were arrested, homeless advocacy groups began organizing to defeat the ordinance.

The Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless demonstrated and packed City Council chambers.

On Dec. 22, the coldest day of the year, Food Not Bombs erected a tent shelter on Public Square in front of Tower City shopping mall. The group, which has been feeding homeless people every Sunday for the past four years, served hot meals and distributed blankets and clothing.

At 7 p.m., city officials informed demonstrators that they were in violation of the law, but there was no order to disperse. It was not until 3 a.m., when the streets were empty and the media were inaccessible, that police surrounded Public Square.

Eyewitnesses state that dozens of police cars, a fire truck, and an ambulance arrived on the scene. Cops tore down the shelter and confiscated food, blankets and all other provisions that had been left for the homeless.

Five people were arrested while Mayor Michael White watched from above in a cozy Renaissance hotel room. Homeless people and their supporters were arrested. They have since been released.

Despite the arrests, the protest was tremendously effective. On the same day as the demonstration, the American Civil Liberties Union issued a letter to the mayor expressing its intent to sue the city to block the unconstitutional arrests.

Lawyers for the ACLU offered not to file the suit if the sweeps were halted, but the city refused.

The victory came when Federal District Judge Paul Matia issued a temporary restraining order stopping the arrests of the homeless.

While feeling good about the victory, homeless people and their advocates will not rest until the ordinance is overturned.

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