By Dr. Mark Mussman
How many people need to die on the street before we enact long-lasting systemic change? Last week, we honored the life of Danny Lee Miles, just 61 years old, on the corner of Race and Liberty. Danny Lee is just one of what will likely be over 100 people who die in Cincinnati because of homelessness in 2019. Every person who spoke at the memorial commented on how they wish they could have done more, that there is a crisis, and that Danny Lee was a kind and gentle soul. The details of his passing were unknown at the memorial, but we do know that he died alone, outside, in the cold, on a night with temperatures in the 20’s.
The emotions on the corner ran high as clothing items and food were handed out to whoever needed them. Organizers, who want to honor Danny Lee, said that these items were being given out in honor of Danny Lee, from Danny Lee himself. Curious passerby who stopped to asked what was going on were shocked to learn of Danny Lee’s passing, and many had stories to share about reaching out to him, and sharing food with him.
Danny Lee’s life didn’t need to end short. He had been living in a Northside group home for many years before finding himself out on the streets in October of 2018. A person connected with the group home said that he was de-comping, which means that his mental state wasn’t able to handle stressors. This may have led him out to the street last fall, but the system ended up failing him. Several organizations and individuals had helped him while he was staying on the corner of Race and Liberty Streets, but ultimately, they were unable to prevent his death.
Danny Lee had been estranged from his family for almost two decades, but their communication with the organizers was similar to that of those who passed him by each day - they wish they had done more. It seems that his mental state had put up barriers between him and his family for some time. Although Danny Lee attended the University of Louisville and received an EMS Certificate, he was unable to care for himself at the end of his life. Some questioned if we could have forced him into the shelter, after all, Prince of Peace operates a winter shelter literally across the street.
Prayers, pleas, and calls for system change were the focus of the memorial. One family, who lives on the block, attended the memorial because they had brought him blankets, mittens, and other items over the past few months. The young kids looked on as their mother spoke, “...I even offered to get him an Uber to the homeless shelter one night because it was very cold. But he was like ‘I’m okay, I’m okay.’ You know that was the kind of person he was, he didn’t ever ask for help, ever, but because we saw him everyday, we wanted to help. It breaks my heart that we live in a city that would board up a doorway, to keep him from being seen on a main street, rather than give him the help that he needed. He was human being. He was more than just a homeless face. He had a family. We loved him. We were his family.”
Danny Lee passed away in the doorway on Race Street, just out of sight from busy Liberty Street. He had been sleeping in the doorway on Liberty, but the doorway was recently boarded up. It seems clear that the purpose of the board was to prevent him from sleeping there, in the eyes of someone, to remove the blight. Since the doorways on Race Street, on the same building were not also boarded up, it seems clear that this was about visibility - they don’t want people to see poverty in the gentrifying neighborhood. As “OTR” creeps northward into Over-the-Rhine and FC Cincinnati decimates the West End, only two blocks from where Danny Lee died, the push to remove signs of poverty have been elevated. But what does it mean to push people further into the shadows?
Liberty Street is literally a battleground right now. The City is back at the drawing board regarding the Liberty Street Pedestrian Safety initiative. The southern part of Over-the-Rhine may have a SID forced upon us, forcing affordable housing out of the area. North of Liberty, the Brewery District continues its plan to turn the neighborhood into a museum, erasing all contributions and existence of African Americans from the neighborhood. Liberty Street is a major traffic artery, with “rush hour” from 7am to 7pm during the weekdays, as it connects the two interstate highways. Those of us who cross Liberty daily know the dangers of the street, but dying, alone in the cold, is not on the agenda of any of these current battles.
Streetvibes Distributor and Contributor, Kim Green made an impassioned plea for affordable housing at the memorial. She used her voice to bring light to the pressing issues that we face in the neighborhood today. At the podium, Kim proclaimed that “here in a city where developers are coming in, taking historical buildings, making them into storefront eateries, it’s really heartbreaking… today people are buying these buildings, they are trying to genocize (sic)... move affordable housing out. The churches, the Homeless Coalition, and [the shelters], they are doing their part to try to help with affordable housing. The City of Cincinnati and City Council are to be ashamed of themselves to let this happen. City Council stand up, help your community - let’s get affordable housing!”
We know how to eradicate homelessness through affordable housing, livable wages, and housing protections, but it seems to me that people are still stuck in the mentality that it’s the fault of the individual, so therefore we have no responsibility. This mentality can be traced back to the Reagan Administration, who pushed the idea that churches should be responsible for dealing with homelessness, not the government. Unfortunately, the government has manufactured the current housing and homelessness crisis. By dismantling public housing in favor of privatization, by rewarding developers for displacing residents in favor of market-rate housing, by allowing wages to fall way below a livable wage, by giving landlords carte blanche protections to deny and remove people from housing, the government has created and maintained a system that has resulted in the crisis we have today.
We have been to too many funerals over the past few years. The Homeless Coalition’s memorial service that takes place on the longest night of the year counted over 110 people last year who died due to homelessness. Over the past year, the City and County have worked together to make it an arrestable offense to live outside on public or private property. The claim that people who are living outside pose a significant threat to the public is wrong, and forces people further into the shadows, further into isolation. Here we have an individual who was seen every day, yet was in danger himself, and the system wasn’t enough. We are short 40,000 units of affordable housing. All the shelters are over capacity. The jail is also overcrowded. Unless we do a major affordable housing push, a push for livable wages, a push for housing protections, the number of people who lose their lives to homelessness will continue to rise.
While so many people are gaining from the displacement of people from our neighborhood, shouldn’t they take on some of the burden? We’ve lost more than 2400 units of affordable housing in Over-the-Rhine over the past 10 years. We are hemorrhaging our neighbors, yet someone is making a great profit off of it, using benefits and public incentives that come out of our taxes. The family who helped Danny Lee with blankets and mittens and offered to get an Uber to the shelter ended their memorial statement with this call to action. “We live on a block with all these vacant buildings. No one’s doing anything with them but making a profit eventually… we have to do better as a people. We just got to do better. No one should have to die outside, alone, in the cold.”