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They Called it Camelot

Wednesday, August 2, 2000 at 11:09 AM

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Yesterday the city of Cleveland confronted half a dozen homeless people occupying the old Ward Bakery on E. 55th and Chester. The city wants to tear down the building to make way for new development. But the homeless took a stand over the abandoned bakery, some even willing to risk their lives to protect their squatter's rights. 90.3's Karen Schaefer reports.

Karen Schaefer- Littered with broken glass and scored by fallen masonry, the former TipTop Bakery is an eyesore the city of Cleveland would like to demolish. But for more than two decades, this derelict building has provided welcome shelter for people who had no other place to go in Cleveland’s homeless community.

They called it Camelot—and some were prepared to defend it with their lives. Yesterday its bastions were stormed by police and city administrators. Barry Withers is executive assistant to Mayor Mike White.

Barry Withers- Our goal this morning was to make them aware of the availability of services, our efforts to assist them in relocating, and that we believe that this is a very dangerous, condemned site for them to be in.

KS- But the protesters refused to leave and city officials found themselves embroiled in confrontation. For hours, administrators tried to negotiate a truce with homeless advocates and the half dozen homeless people who have been squatting here. Chris Dole of Food Not Bombs offered 90.3 WCPN this tape of talks between the homeless and Linda Hudacek of the city’s community development department:

Hudacek identifies herself and Dole is asked if he’s been taping...

Dave Campbell is a Vietnam veteran and the acknowledged leader of a loose federation of east side homeless known as Rosewater. He’s one of those who—armed with a baseball bat—was prepared to fight back, rather than face eviction.

Dave Campbell- We’re solely here for the defense of this property. This bakery represents what we call homeless ingenuity.

Pamela Wagner- My husband has laid down his life - when they come to tear that building down, they’re taking him with it.

KS- Pamela Wagner is 33 and homeless. She has one son and is seven months pregnant with her second child. Along with Campbell, Wagner, and her common law husband Eduardo Laurino were among those arrested last December when police—acting under orders from city hall—swept a group of homeless protesters off Public Square in the small hours of the morning. Wagner and other homeless advocates claim the city’s shelters are unsafe and inadequate to house Cleveland’s growing homeless population—a charge the administration continues to refute.

PW- He doesn’t want to die, it’s not a suicide wish, alright. This has been their home for over twenty-some years and they don’t want to lose it. People don’t understand.

KS- By mid-morning it was clear that city officials couldn’t fathom why some people would choose to live in an abandoned warehouse instead of a homeless shelter. Daniel Kerr is with Food Not Bombs.

Daniel Kerr- And we told them to understand that you have to understand the importance of having control over your living situation, having a sense of privacy and independence. That’s impossible to get in a shelter. We believe that this site here and the building belongs to the homeless and should be developed on behalf and for the profit of the homeless, not for the profit of private real estate developers

KS- But by mid-afternoon, the homeless protesters announced they would leave the premises peacefully, even though their demands for reparations and improved services for the homeless had not been met.

“You guys are leaving?”

“Yes, we are, but we want you guys to know, every city official, every Cleveland police officer will have a lawsuit on their hands. This is our property...We can prove that we’ve had squatter’s rights in the last 21 years here.”

“Our lawyer is about to file an injunction with the city of Cleveland...to prevent the demolition of this building...”

This morning the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless plans to file a lawsuit against the city in Common Pleas Court. They say a squatter’s rights provision gives the homeless tenants legal possession of the old bakery. Barry Withers of the mayor’s office says that’s a matter for the courts to decide.

BW- That’s a legal issue. We feel very strongly that we possess the building and we disagree with them

KS- That disagreement is just the latest in a long chain of arguments between officials and advocates over treatment of Cleveland’s homeless population. Although the city continues to facilitate the opening of new shelters, many homeless advocates fear the number of homeless people will rise sharply as the first wave of welfare-to-work recipients runs out of cash benefits on October 1. In the meantime, Cleveland’s homeless will not be faceless. This Sunday, Food Not Bombs will celebrate a victory on Public Square. And Dave Campbell of Rosewater will take his own brand of protest to Cleveland’s other homeless camps. In Cleveland, Karen Schaefer, 90.3 WCPN, 90.3 FM.

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