Police to close street in Cincinnati’s Over-The-Rhine neighborhood to stop dangerous drug market ahead of summer

Video shows sidewalk sex, defecation, illegal drugs outside OTR church.

CINCINNATI — While the southern portion of downtown’s historic Over-the-Rhine neighborhood features unique boutiques, sidewalk cafes, celebrated restaurants and yoga in the park, life is very different just a few blocks north on the other side of Liberty Street.

An open-air illegal drug market near St. Francis Seraph Church in Over-the-Rhine has become so dangerous that Cincinnati police plan to barricade Republic Street in May for six months.

Police believe it is particularly dangerous because sellers near the corner of Republic and Green streets do not have ties to the local community. Out-of-town drug dealers sell to a mixture of local and drive-in buyers.

“It’s difficult to know for sure if (barricading the street is) going to have success. I think in this case we believe it’s worth trying because we know the severity of the problem,” said Capt. Matthew Hammer, who oversees Cincinnati Police District One.

The neighborhood is also littered with homeless camps, trash bags of loot from car break-ins, graffiti, and human feces on sidewalks and building ledges. People sleep on church steps, gather at a bus shelter, or push shopping carts of belongings.

A resident provided us with surveillance video of shootings, public defecation, a homeless man stabbing a planter with a large knife, and people openly smoking crack pipes.

Perhaps the most shocking video was of two people having daytime sex on a sidewalk at the corner of Hamer and Hubert streets. Police and fire officials arrived separately and do not appear to ticket, arrest, or cite them. The sexual behavior then continued after authorities left.

“You can’t put investment dollars in a neighborhood that’s out of control,” said Chris Frutkin, owner of City Center Properties. “That behavior would never happen south of Liberty Street.”

How did it get this bad?

Many residents said the outdoor crowds have gotten worse since the pandemic.

A slew of social service agencies and free giveaways attract the homeless and poor here during the day, they said. Then at night, many people drive in for the outdoor sidewalk parties, especially during summer, usually at the corner of Vine and Liberty streets in front of St. Francis Seraph Church.

“It’s tough to live down here. I mean, it’s third world,” said John Donaldson, a 25-year resident. “I cleaned up a 30- gallon trash can of human feces last fall. Just right here. Just in this (half block) strip.”

Donaldson and Frutkin both said police were more responsive to crime in this neighborhood several years ago. Donaldson said he’s called the city numerous times over the past six-to-eight months to complain about a homeless encampment next to a playground.

But a homeless person still lives there, he said, and he showed the mattress to us.

At the center of the controversy is St. Francis Seraph Church. Some residents blamed the church for drawing crowds, enabling bad behavior, and allowing trash to accumulate on church steps and sidewalks where people sit, sleep, and socialize.

For eight years the church welcomed the homeless inside to sleep in pews, eat, pray, and use bathrooms for up to eight hours each day. But in late March, the church locked its doors to the homeless and put up no trespassing signs, with surveillance cameras likely to be installed next.

Now the Franciscan Province wants to sell the adjoining St. Francis Seraph friary to the nonprofit Tender Mercies for a controversial new housing project for the homeless and mentally ill.

“We’re hoping that it could be a form of affordable housing with supportive services to get some of these people off the street into decent housing,” said Fr. Al Hirt, St. Francis Seraph pastor. “The Franciscans would love to see it used that way, more than some boutique hotel or something.”

But many believe this housing project will worsen neighborhood violence and add to the over-concentration of poverty, homelessness, and crime.

“It shocks the conscience,” Donaldson said. “I don’t think ... St. Francis even realizes the things sometimes that go on here.”

The Over-the-Rhine Community Council Board of Trustees voted to oppose the proposed housing project on April 9, citing its $21 million cost as an “inappropriate” use of public money because each efficiency apartment will cost near $500,000 to build. They also say the project could place the entire community and nearby elementary school at risk.

“They want to change the priest apartments into … units for the chronic homeless, addicts with no requirement to get sober. I think that is a recipe for disaster,” Donaldson said. “I lost two brothers to drug overdose. I would not put somebody I care about in this neighborhood.”

Noah O’Brien, vice president of the West End Community Council, said what is happening in his adjacent neighborhood – with the city cramming too much low-income housing into poor predominantly Black census tracts – is also happening in north Over-the-Rhine.

“When Tender Mercies takes the most vulnerable people – individuals with a history of mental illness, chronic homelessness, and they put them next to open air drug markets you’re guaranteed the negative outcomes,” O’Brien said. “If my sister was chronically homeless with a drug addiction problem, that’s not the census tract I want her in.”

O’Brien is one of several West End residents and advocates who filed a complaint against the city last month with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. They accuse city leaders of using federal money to over-concentrate low-income housing into the poorest, Black neighborhoods instead of spreading it out, as the Fair Housing Act requires.

“If you want me to give you a prediction (for the friary project) it’s very simple … Look at the Tender Mercies they just built in the West End with a similar open air drug market, similar issues in the area. Look at that police dispatch data. You can see what’s going to happen,” said O’Brien, who said 162 police dispatch calls were made to that new housing project in 2023, with many for disorderly conduct and weapons.

‘Outside, after 5 o’clock, that’s what became a problem’

Violent crime in Over-the-Rhine and north of Liberty Street has declined in recent years. But overall crime in both neighborhoods is at its highest level in at least a decade, according to our analysis of police data.

Two years after police started the PIVOT program, which is meant to address small areas of chronic violence, there has been a 45 percent drop in gunshot victims, “and that’s huge,” Hammer said.

Specifically, this small area of north Over-the-Rhine in 2023 we had about 150 individual arrests and about 400 charges and citations. That’s a significant number,” Hammer said.

But he acknowledged that other crimes, especially business break-ins and thefts from cars in the neighborhood, are “something that we continue to struggle with.”

“What really we’re facing in north Over the Rhine is more related to vacancy and blight, and it has less to do with the population that lives there,” said Assistant City Manager Virginia Tallent. “We’re really talking about people who aren’t residents. It’s a lot of folks who are chronically unhoused. It’s folks coming up from low barrier night shelters and frequenting service providers and choosing to spend time in the vicinity.”

North Over-the-Rhine also has a reputation for crime and drug trafficking, which draws people from other parts of the city, Hammer said.

The street closure at Republic and Green streets, is part of a broader strategy. City attorneys field a public nuisance complaint in 2023 against the owner of Hookah on the Rhine, as a particularly violent spot where criminals gather.

Police also signed a contract with Fusus to connect 500 public and private cameras in Over-the-Rhine and the West End.

“For District One in particular, I think because it’s a more dense urban setting. We’ve seen really good success with video footage advancing criminal investigations specifically around serious violent crime – shots fired, felonious assaults, and other gun crimes,” Hammer said. “Perhaps it’s a shots fired and no victim comes forward to us so we have very little information. If we’re able to access the camera information that allows us to see what occurred and who participated in that, then we have the potential to still advance a criminal case.”

In May police plan to install temporary barriers just north of Green Street at Republic Street, and south of Green at Republic, to block through traffic and reduce the drive-by drug dealing.

Police will also add no parking signs and a buffer zone to force drug dealers away from their cars where they typically stash drugs and weapons.

“The thing that we’re trying to make riskier is buyers entering the area and feeling comfortable that they can escape … this makes escape more difficult,” Hammer said. “They’ll see too much risk, they won’t choose to come buy drugs in this area.”

Hirt, the pastor at St. Francis, said he doesn’t think crime is getting worse and generally feels safe walking, except for one area.

“At the corner of Vine and Repulic and Green, that has been a real problem spot for a long time. Some days that really is a violent place,” Hirt said. “I walk through Green and Republic every morning coming to church at 7:30. All the bad people are asleep by then. Although not of them, drug sales go on for 24 hours.”

Many speculated that the church locked its doors to the homeless after getting pressure from city officials. But Hirt said lack of funding actually prompted the change.

“The biggest thing was the cost of security. It was near $10,000 a month to have two security guards for eight hours a day,” Hirt said.

When the Franciscan Province cut that security funding, the parish council picked up the cost in January, February and March to give the homeless a warm place during winter. On really cold days, 70 to 80 people took refuge inside the church, Hirt said.

“We don’t have the money to do this month after month. We are going to reconsider it in the fall,” Hirt said. “We’re also working with other churches and other nonprofit organizations and maybe there’s something we could really collaborate on and open something up that we all help fund.”

The behavior inside the church was rarely a problem, Hirt said, because the homeless were so grateful for the refuge, they respected the space.

“Outside, after 5 o’clock, that’s what became a problem. That big plaza out front became like a park,” Hirt said. “As they gentrified south of Liberty, people were moved into this section.”

Henry Stacey, vice president of St. Francis’s parish council, said church leadership has been discussing a plan of action for the past year and a half.

“The crowd can be anywhere from 10 to 20 individuals to maybe 100 at times,” Stacey said. “You’re on a major corner here on Liberty and Vine. You’ll have cars go by and honk at people and yell at them. There’s drinking going on, there’s probably other illegal activities going on.”

“There’s a lot of trash that’s left out there, so it becomes a very dirty place … each weekend,” Stacey said.

Church officials placed “No Trespassing” signs on church doors in late March, and plan to mark its property line to make it easier for police to remove people.

“We’ve had discussions about fencing. Right now, we’re not talking about putting any fencing up because we like the nature of it being an open plaza,” Stacey said. “We had to find some way to be able to participate with the city … to try and make sure that we enforce what we think is really inappropriate behavior.”

St. Francis parishioner Lynette Chancellor said she sometimes felt unsafe entering the church.

“Because you don’t know if they have a gun. You don’t know who is violent, who’s mentally ill,” Chancellor said. “When you go in your church, you want to be safe. You want to know you’re at a place where you won’t be harmed and nobody else in there will be.”

She hopes the church closure motivates outdoor crowds to move elsewhere.

“It’s getting kind of bad,” Chancellor said. “Out front, some of everything might be going on. You smell it, you see it. Some of them don’t care.”

The church is continuing its mission to help the poor by working with the St. Antony Center on its homeless programs. It also plans to start a Sunday lunch because Hirt said that is the one day when no other neighborhood agency serves food.

“We were very clear about designating the difference between homeless individuals who need help, and people who are really just partying to have a good time. There really are two distinct groups going on here,” Stanley said.

Good intentions, bad outcomes?

How residents, and the city, feel about St. Francis Seraph Church’s role in the neighborhood’s future, depends on who you ask.

“I think they’re trying to be helpful but … enabling out-of-control behavior is not being helpful,” Frutkin said. “I’m all about helping people, but you’ve got to do it with standards and expectations.”

Donaldson, who is a Grant Park block watch captain, was blunt with his feelings.

“The church has been an eyesore, at least in front and around the property, for a long time and they get a free pass,” Donaldson said. “If you go over there right now, there is someone sleeping on their steps. It’s blighted and it needs to be dealt with and I really think we should pursue a public nuisance.”

Assistant City Manager Virginia Tallent did not blame the church for the crowds or blight.

“There are a lot of third parties who bring … resources to the footstep of the church … that really do contribute to the crowding. People coming to serve meals, to do giveaways,” Tallent said. “I think it really would be useful to change some of the behavior of these third external parties that the church doesn’t have control over, in an effort to … reduce the crowding.”

Tallent did not comment on the potential sale of the friary to Tender Mercies for homeless housing. But local leaders did.

“I’m just not sure putting really challenged people, who are trying to recover from drugs or deal with mental illness, this may not be the right environment for them,” said Kevin Hassey, Over-the-Rhine Community Council vice president. “One of the leading reasons for recidivism is just having what you’re trying to get away from readily available outside your front door.”

Tender Mercies CEO Russell Winters declined an interview, but in a statement wrote, “Affordable housing is an essential tool for maintaining diversity in any neighborhood. This is no more evidence than in OTR.”

The 43-unit proposed housing project would help single adults experiencing homelessness who have histories of severe and persistent mental illness. It would include private rooms and bathrooms, laundry facilities, round-the-clock staff support, and access to resources needed to rebuild their lives.

“Tender Mercies prides itself on being a good neighbor, a role which we have repeatedly demonstrated in the areas where we provide solutions,” Winters wrote.

Winters, who is partnering with development firm Urban Sites, applied for state low-income housing tax credits for the $21 million project and will find out in May if it got the funding.

Meanwhile the city has already committed $1.1 million in federal HOME funds if the project wins the tax credits.

The city’s Department of Community & Economic Development has recommended conditional support of the friary project, according to a city spokesperson.

“Developing housing at all spectrums – from supportive, to low-income, to workforce and affordable, to market-rate – is paramount to healthy neighborhoods, and a critical element of the city of Cincinnati’s development priorities over the last decade, but especially in recent years as development has increased,” according to a city spokesperson.

But that’s not how Noah O’Brien, of the West End, sees it. His community council opposed a Tender Mercies low-income project in their neighborhood in 2021, but he said the city allowed it to move forward regardless.

Now the city is facing a HUD complaint and a likely federal lawsuit.

“It’s not a secret that they’re using their HOME (federal low-income housing) funds almost exclusively in poor black neighborhoods in violation of the law,” O’Brien said.

Predominantly black, poor census tracts such as the West End and north Over-the-Rhine need market-rate housing to bring balance and revitalization into the community, he said.

“You see the storefront where a kid can get a job … where a kid can get something nice on his birthday. You see the schools becoming desegregated … you see everything improve,” O’Brien said. “But the city doesn’t do that. For the last 20 years the city has had a pure concentration model.”

O’Brien sees the friary project as another example of the city allowing extremely low-income housing to be crammed into neighborhoods that are already struggling with blight, drug addiction and violence, giving residents little hope of a better life.

“You can throw resources at it, but they’re band-aids,” O’Brien said. “There’s a reason why they’re concentrating all of that (low-income housing) there. They’re not going to piss-off white voters, in white neighborhoods.”

WCPO is a content partner of Cox First Media.

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