By Katelyn Lusher
A couple of weeks ago, a few friends and I were at a bar in Over-the-Rhine not far from the Homeless Coalition. It was a warm night and we were chatting on the bar’s sidewalk patio when an older man, who was presumably experiencing homelessness, approached us asking for bus fare. None of us were bothered by him at all, but the bouncer at this establishment apparently had a problem with him speaking to us and tersely told the man to stop bothering us. I told the bouncer there was no problem with the man speaking to us and we were just talking. The bouncer, however, insisted that the man was a problem just by being there and told me “you don’t know, you’re not here every night and this is my patio” (although I am almost positive that the bouncer is not, in fact, the owner of this bar).
When the man protested against the bouncer’s behavior, the bouncer quickly became aggressive and antagonistic, telling the man that his breath stank and he smelled bad. At this point, my friends and I were so disgusted that we knew it was time to leave because we didn’t want to support a business that supports that kind of behavior. We asked the man to walk with us so he could remove himself from the situation since the bouncer was clearly trying to start a fight. However, the bouncer continued to harass the man as he was walking away, yelling that he “could take him and his boys” and following us. My friend told the bouncer that you cannot treat people this way, but the bouncer continued yelling that this was “his” patio and telling us to not tell him how to run his patio. We led the man away and advised that he stay away from that business because it wasn’t worth getting into an altercation with the bouncer.
What happened at this business, however, is anything but an isolated incident. Time and time again, people who work or pass through Over-the-Rhine treat people who are experiencing homeless as less than human and undeserving of common decency and dignity. The larger issue at hand though is how people like the bouncer claim ownership over something that clearly is not theirs because they are power-drunk. Cincinnati has seen its fair share of police brutality and many people experiencing homelessness have a story about poor treatment from law enforcement, but since the police are supposed to be public servants, they are (somewhat) more likely to receive a public reckoning. But what happens when security officers or bouncers at private establishments go too far? Private sector policing is also just as guilty of encouraging or causing violence against people experiencing homelessness, and they have far less accountability. Furthermore, the treatment that people receive from security immediately shows who is valued at that establishment and allowed to act out and who is not.
For example, just before the incident described earlier, my friends and I witnessed an inebriated man making a pass at three young women on the patio who were clearly uncomfortable with his advances. He was invading their personal space, but the bouncer did not do anything and let it happen. When moments later the man presumably experiencing homelessness approached us, however, the bouncer immediately jumped in and started a confrontation even after my friends and I insisted that nothing was wrong. There were glaring—and very telling—differences between the inebriated man and the man experiencing homelessness. The first man was a clean-cut white man who was well dressed while the other man who approached us was Black and his clothes showed signs that he may have been unsheltered for some time. His appearance was not his fault, but the bouncer faulted it against him regardless and wouldn’t even allow him to speak.
These kinds of problematic interactions not only reflect the values of the establishment, but also the environment that is encouraged in gentrified areas. When a neighborhood becomes gentrified, the common refrain is that an area is being “cleaned up.” Often, that also means scrubbing the image of homelessness in that area no matter the cost, while not actively investing in affordable housing and programs to actually get rid of the issue of homelessness. Over-the-Rhine, as many people know, has been aggressively gentrified and the gentrification is spreading further each year. While not every business in Over-the-Rhine is necessarily aggressive towards people experiencing homelessness, the “upscale transformation” of the neighborhood makes it more and more difficult for people experiencing homelessness to get the services they need as those services move farther and farther away from the city center. Shelterhouse (formerly known as the Drop Inn Center), for example, used to be near Washington Park and was much more accessible for the population it services in the area. But because city developers wanted to change the atmosphere of the area, the Drop Inn Center was pushed out and relocated west of downtown, in an area that is not as easy to get to. Even more troubling is the fact that the people who are attracted to gentrified neighborhoods like Over-the-Rhine seem to be disgusted by the very presence of people experiencing homelessness.
A few Streetvibes distributors, for example, have told me stories about how people treat them terribly when they are selling their papers, telling them to “get a job” or just pretending they don’t exist. One person even told me that someone tried to urinate on them. Even more recently, 3 people were caught on security footage shooting BB guns at people experiencing homelessness on the street.
While this kind of treatment is unfortunately common all over the country for people who are experiencing homelessness, gentrification makes it clear that the city says they do not belong. The combination of a changing local environment and the poor treatment from people paid to “protect” patrons at an establishment results in a very hostile situation for people experiencing homelessness. While it may seem on the outside like people like the aggressive bouncer are keeping people safe, we need to ask ourselves one important question: who do they serve and who do they protect?