Urban Affairs: The Advocate

You see a beautiful green park; Josh Spring sees injustice in black and white.

It is an hour or so into a standing-room-only hearing of the city’s Historic Conservation Board. The group, a mix of architects, historians, and business types, weighs in on proposed changes to Cincinnati’s historic buildings. The matter at hand is to determine whether or not to grant Anna Louise Inn—the woman’s shelter operated by nonprofit Cincinnati Union Bethel near Lytle Park—a permit to move ahead with a federally funded renovation. Western & Southern, their Fortune 500 neighbor, opposes the permit; the corporate giant wants to purchase the inn, relocate it, and redevelop the site. The Anna Louise Inn has no intention of selling or being moved. It’s a battle that’s been going on for years.

Speakers on both sides of the issue queue up to the microphone in a seventh-floor City Hall boardroom: affluent residents from the chic condos and apartments near the inn who testify that they’ve never had a negative interaction with its residents, and Western & Southern employees who complain that they often feel threatened by “unsavory characters” in the park.

Josh Spring, executive director of the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless, stands in the back of the room, taking in the proceedings. His power-to-the-people raised-fist tattoo seems at odds with his conservative attire—a button-down shirt tucked into pressed khakis. When one resident of the inn, having spoken to the board during her allotted time, continues to talk loudly from her seat, Spring crouches by her chair. After a few hushed words from him, she calms down.

Soon enough it’s Spring’s turn at the mic. “I’m interested to know what the definition of an unsavory character is,” he says. He notes that the Historic Conservation Board’s work is not to determine who belongs in Lytle Park: “It’s about what.” In a metaphorical mash-up, he urges the board to “put another chink in the steps of ending this bullying attack by Western & Southern over who.” When Western & Southern’s lawyer asks Spring whether he’s made this issue something of a personal vendetta, Spring is visibly nettled. “Our organization, our mission is to eradicate homelessness and to prevent homelessness,” he says. Thus, the battle over the Anna Louise Inn “is inherent to our mission.”

Spring’s mission has made him a professional gadfly in the face of developers like Western & Southern and 3CDC whenever their plans signal that low-income residents will be pressured to move and homeless shelters compelled to relocate.

The tug-of-war over quiet, historic Anna Louise Inn in well-manicured Lytle Park might not seem to have much in common with classic displacement battles—chasing squatters out of abandoned buildings, say, or arresting sidewalk panhandlers. But for Josh Spring, they’re all on the front lines.

Growing up as the son of a Christian Missionary Alliance minister in the Appalachian mountains of Eastern Kentucky, Spring has vivid memories of seeing families in ramshackle houses with empty cupboards. When his father became pastor of a congregation in Louisville, he was schooled in urban poverty—literally: he had textbooks and played a trumpet that bore the words “negro school,” hand-me-downs from the days of segregation. It was culture shock when his family relocated to suburban West Chester and the Lakota School District. “I had just come from where, outside of Christmas, kids
regularly wondered where they were going to [get] money for basic necessities,” he says.

He pursued his degree in social work at Xavier University, working weekends at Over-the-Rhine Community Housing and Tender Mercies, learning the theory and history of the field while listening to peoples’ stories. “I was already hearing people’s life experiences,” he says. College “added the science.” The science convinced him that the primary cause of homelessness was a lack of affordable housing and lack of a living wage. “It also became clear to me that it has not always been this way,” he adds.

Like many in his field, Spring tracks today’s homelessness to the 1980s and the Reagan administration, when budgets for low-income housing subsidies and government-funded safety net services were cut. An Urban Institute study of 182 U.S. cities found that, in 1981, five in 10,000 people were homeless; by 1989, that number had tripled.

If public policy was behind the explosion of homelessness, Spring thought, public policy should be able to fix it. He graduated from XU in 2007, and just over two years later, took the helm of an organization that shared the mission he wholeheartedly believed in: rooting out the sources, not just the effects, of homelessness. He came to the post of executive director fully invested, body and soul.

The Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition represents the efforts of 45 agencies—everything from soup kitchens to drug treatment programs. The lobby of the coalition’s 12th Street office is lined with bright flyers about these services, a cooler of ice water sweats on the counter, and there are mail slots for people who are between addresses.

I am standing outside the office with Spring when a guy carrying a Pittsburgh Steelers jacket walks up. The man says he needs help and complains that the ladies working the front desk aren’t cooperating. Spring tells him that it depends what he needs.

The man has the puffy red face and swagger of someone not unaccustomed to alcohol. He insinuates that a woman behind the counter might not like him because he’s white. “I need somewhere to crash,” he says.

Spring suggests the Drop Inn Center.

“They threw me out.”

He asks the man if he feels he was kicked out unfairly.

“’Cause I’m a Steelers fan.”

Spring patiently lays out the process of filing a complaint to get back into the Drop Inn Center. “We’ll call over there and see if we can make it happen,” he says. “No guarantees other than we’ll try.”

Afterward, I ask Spring how much of his day involves handling this kind of individual crisis. “When you have mom and three kids here and every time you call, the shelters are saying they’re full, you kind of have to drop whatever you’re doing and figure it out,” he says.

Nevertheless, Spring’s job is geared to dealing with larger issues. Like panhandling. Not long after he was hired, in 2009, Spring got a call from a TV reporter asking what he thought about Jeff Berding’s latest panhandling proposal. In response to what was seen as an increase in aggressive begging downtown, then-Councilmember Berding planned to introduce a motion to tax panhandlers and reinstate a licensing requirement.

Spring hadn’t heard about the motion yet, but he knew the broad strokes of the effort; in 1998, the American Civil Liberties Union had sued the city over a similar rule and won on the grounds that certain anti-panhandling laws restrict free speech. Spring went to see Berding, director of sales for the Cincinnati Bengals, at the stadium. Seated around a table shaped like a football, he told Berding that homeless advocates had won this fight before and would win it again—they had a precedent. The meeting began the sort of polarized back-and-forth that would come to mark much of Spring’s interaction with city officials.

When I spoke with Berding he characterized Spring not as his opponent but as an aggressive advocate—well-intentioned but ineffective. “I think most members of council tend to see him as extremist and therefore tune him out,” Berding told me. He offers as his example Spring’s frequent conflicts with the city over decisions that have come out of the two-year-old Homeless to Homes program. Berding says that Cincinnati is following the best practices of progressive cities around the country in order to improve the way it serves the homeless. “He’s opposing much of it,” Berding says. “So here’s this effort to truly serve the homeless and Josh isn’t even at the table.”

Strategies to End Homelessness (formerly the Cincinnati/Hamilton County Continuum of Care for the Homeless) was created in 2007 to coordinate the work of 25 social service agencies in the city and Hamilton County. In 2008, council passed an ordinance, introduced by Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls, directing the organization to recommend a comprehensive plan to address the problems of homeless men and women. The result was Homeless to Homes, an aggressive, ambitious approach to put people on a path to permanent housing.

Spring applauds Homeless to Homes’s goal; it’s the strategies he questions. For years, the Homeless Coalition was responsible for monitoring living arrangements in shelters. Representatives from agencies, city council, and the city health department would meet annually and develop a set of health and safety standards, and shelters that wished to receive funding from the city or United Way had to comply.

But now, under the Homeless to Homes plan, Strategies to End Homelessness sets shelter standards. When council adopted a measure that would ban people who panhandled from spending nights in city-funded shelters (meaning most of the shelters in town), Spring saw it as a backdoor attempt to crack down on panhandling. He never would have agreed to the restriction if the coalition were still in charge of standards.

The coalition sued but the case was dismissed. Spring says the city claims that the no-beds-for-beggars policy hasn’t been enforced. But if it is, he says, “We’re ready for it.”

Walking through the Gateway Quarter on a hot late-summer afternoon, Spring explains to me that he isn’t opposed to development in the neighborhood. “It’s not something where we say condos and furniture stores are inherently bad,” he says. As he sees it, the problem is the assumption that it’s all right to move poor people without regard to common sense or legal process. And when development and social services are contracted to private companies and public-private partnerships such as 3CDC and Strategies to End Homelessness, decisions about public spaces are made in private.

We get to 13th and Race, a small grassy lot where a brick wall holds an abstract mural of five young faces. While Washington Park was under reconstruction, this is where Port-O-Lets and benches were set up for the homeless folks who used to hang out and use the public toilets there. Spring claims that 3CDC had promised to provide green space and restroom facilities for park “residents” during construction, then reneged on the agreement. The coalition demonstrated outside of 3CDC offices, with protestors staging a dramatic interpretation of the children’s book Everybody Poops. 3CDC eventually kicked in half of the cost of the Port-O-Lets, Nast Trinity United Methodist Church (which owns the lot) paid the rest, and the corner became the de facto Washington Park replacement hangout.

The Everybody Poops street theater was led by CCM drama professor Michael Burnham, whose own history of activism harks back to the Vietnam Era. Spring, Burnham says, “has the ability to look at whatever is in front of him, a person or a building, and see value there. Nobody gets left out.” At a protest in Washington Park, one of the security guards had something to say and Spring encouraged him to speak. He remains calm in the face of the opposition, Burnham says, and he puts strategy into his work. For the Everybody Poops protest, Spring even had a carefully planned rehearsal. It was a clever—and ultimately successful—way to draw media attention to a basic question: Yes, public defecation is a problem. But where are street people going to “go” when Washington Park is gone?

Like Spring, attorney Jennifer Kinsley is a veteran of the continuing battle over developers’ efforts to relocate shelters and low-income housing away from ripe-for-renewal parts of the city. Yes, she acknowledges, developers do offer money to people to move and even find them newer, better housing. But what the developers are missing, Kinsley says, is low-income tenants’ fundamental connection to the neighborhood. “Their connection to the world is downtown,” she says. Relocation is more than a temporary inconvenience. “Asking folks who are hanging on by a lifeline to move away from bus stops and from a pharmacy is basically cutting off their ability to peacefully live,” she says. To Kinsley, Spring is first and foremost a peacemaker.

Vice Mayor Qualls doesn’t see him that way. “Clearly Josh has the passion of youth,” she says. “But he prefers the politics of confrontation and criticism to cooperation and compromise.”

She has listened to Spring’s argument against displacing residents of Over-the-Rhine for the sake of revitalization when vacant housing already exists in the neighborhood. “You can make those arguments when it’s all theoretical,” Qualls says. But she points out that as a result of deterioration and age, a number of low-income housing developments in OTR operated by not-for-profits have had high vacancy rates. Those are reasons for, rather than against, relocating the indigent and the social service agencies that serve them into new, upgraded facilities.

“The reality is if you’re actually going to provide the types of services that give people the opportunity to make their lives better and make their environment better and the environment better for everybody,” says Qualls, “I think most people would agree that that’s a good thing.”

The coalition has scored a number of legal and policy victories. In November of 2009, Spring and former residents of the Metropole—the low-income building acquired by 3CDC to be transformed into the luxurious 21c Hotel—commandeered a room in the building for two hours and presented printouts of the law detailing their rights. The case went to court and residents were awarded just under $500 a person—not much money to pick up and move, but to Kinsley and Spring, an important settlement. Kinsley says it’s the first time in Cincinnati that low-income residents have received compensation for being displaced.

These kinds of conflicts are about housing, of course. But they’re also about respect. Spring cites a recent case (he won’t name the property owner) in which tenants came to the coalition because they’d heard that their building was going to be redeveloped. The coalition brought together the owner, the developer, and the tenants to talk. The developer, it turned out, had been working on a relocation plan for the tenants, but was reluctant to reveal that prematurely for fear something might fall through, creating more resentment. Ultimately, all sides walked away feeling better and the tenants ended up with the promise of new housing. “Everybody at the table just recognized the humanity of the other folks,” says Spring. “We were able to convince the developer to not just assume they couldn’t talk to these people.”

In early fall, I tag along with Spring and Leslie Moorhead, the coalition’s director of development, as they scout locations for their annual fund-raising dinner. We walk over to Bell Event Centre in historic St. Paul’s. The banquet room in “the Bell” is impressive—maybe too impressive for their purposes, Spring says. Plus, he’s uncomfortable with the venue’s requirement that they have security at the door. So we head to Longworth Hall, he and I riding in the back of Moorhead’s pick-up. After seeing Longworth Hall, which he seems to prefer—apparently there are some homeless encampments in the area—we head back to Coffee Emporium for an espresso.

That is, I have my caffeine fix; Spring isn’t a user. Even so, the barista recognizes him. “Hey man,” he says. “I saw you speak at UC last year.”

We talk about the big challenges on his to-do list right now. Foremost, he says, is getting the winter shelter organized. When the temperature drops below 9 degrees for three consecutive hours (an improvement over the former standard of zero degrees), the city opens a temporary shelter at the Over-the-Rhine Recreation Center on Republic Street. Cuts to the recreation budget had him worried, but this year a corporate donor came through, so there’s funding to pay full-time workers to run the operation, rather than asking center staff untrained in shelter work to supervise on frigid nights. Also occupying his time: the Coalition’s purchase of 117 E. 12th Street, the building where the organization currently resides. That means there’s at least one property in Over-the-Rhine that even the most persuasive developer won’t be able to acquire.

And of course he’s keeping a watchful eye on Washington Park now that its transformation is complete. In September, after the coalition and its members filed suit, city council struck down Park Rule 28, a provision that allowed the Park Board to erect any sign in any park at any time, thereby enacting rules that would be enforced as law without public discussion or vote. In Washington Park, that meant signs forbidding visitors to share food or rummage in trash cans. Spring admits the new Washington Park is beautiful, and people from all walks of life seem to be enjoying it. But in his view, that doesn’t wipe away the injustice that it represents.

“Fifty million dollars was spent,” he says. “People were displaced. If it looks pretty to you, and you now feel comfortable, does that mean that it doesn’t matter what it took to get it that way?”

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