An Excess of Good Deeds

An article from the current Streetvibes regarding social service agencies in “impacted” areas. Article by Gregory Flannery.

Over-the-Rhine has too many people trying to help other people, according to a resolution passed last month by Cincinnati City Council.

The resolution establishes a policy “that social-service agencies and programming shall not be concentrated in a single geographic area and shall not locate in an area that is deemed impacted.”

The resolution doesn’t define “impacted,” an ambiguity that is one reason a consortium of non-profit groups is contemplating a lawsuit challenging the resolution, according to Georgine Getty, executive director of the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless.

The resolution, sponsored by Councilman Christopher Bortz, won approval in an 8-1 vote. Councilman Cecil Thomas was the lone dissenter.

Over-the-Rhine has too many charities, Bortz says.

“There are 120 social-service agencies in Over-the-Rhine, more than one per block,” he says. “That doesn’t seem a very balanced way of approaching it.”

The resolution describes the number in terms that might be used to describe drug abuse or infectious viruses.

“The unchecked proliferation of these agencies has the potential to negatively impact the residential character and the neighborhood serving commercial uses of Over-the-Rhine,” the resolution says.

Those aspersions aren’t accidental. Bortz says that what he calls the “hyper-concentration” of agencies trying to help people has the perverse effect of hurting the neighborhood.

“The hyper-concentration attracts more than just the people who need services,” he says. “It attracts people who prey upon them.”

Asked if he blames the human -services agencies for crime in Over-the-Rhine, Bortz explains what he sees as unintended consequences.

‘”Maybe I didn’t phrase that comment carefully,” he says. Basically, you’ve got an at-risk population. They’ve lost a job, lost a home. Maybe they have an addiction issue. Usually it’s a combination of a lot of things that get people to the point of desperation.”

Where such people congregate, trouble follows, Bortz says. Drug dealers and others see the human-services agencies’ clientele as a potential market, he says.

“You’ve got other people who don’t want to help them,” Bortz says. “People end up gravitating to prostitution, for example, to feed an addiction.”

Bortz’s resolution doesn’t accuse any particular agency of any particular wrongdoing, but Mary Magdalene House is presumably one of its targets. Since 1988 the agency has provided a basic service that often proves elusive for homeless people: a bathroom.

The Rev. Giancarlo Bonutti, a Marianist brother, is director of Mary Magdalene House, which serves up to 1,600 people a year.

“We provide 21,000 showers a year, besides people who come in just to use the toilet,” he says. “We have a very personal ministry here for the people we serve.”

Bonutti says that, so far as he knows, Bortz has never visited Mary Magdalene House, located on Main Street.

“Some of the people who are trying to degrade us have never even visited us,” Bonutti says. “To make judgments about us without even knowing what we’re doing is pretty unfair.”

Like former Vice Mayor Jim Tarbell, Bortz says the number of human-services agencies in Over-the-Rhine stymies re-development. That argument ignores certain inconvenient facts.

“In fact, we are one of the first groups to take an old building on Main Street and improve it while maintaining its historic character,” Bonutti says.

But council’s resolution overlooks a larger point, he says.

“It seems to me some of the social-service agencies that are helping out in the area are actually helping the city,” Bonutti says. “A lot of us provide services for free, not costing the city any money.”

Bortz’s resolution is his second attempt this summer to restrict human-services agencies. His earlier attempt to insert restrictions in the city’s zoning code prompted an outcry from churches and other non-profit organizations. Council sent the proposal to the Cincinnati Planning Commission for reconsideration.

The resolution doesn’t specify how many human-services agencies should be in Over-the-Rhine. Bortz paradoxically suggests that’s not the point.

“I don’t know what the number is,” he says. “I don’t know that it’s necessarily about the numbers.”

Instead, he introduces parity as a measure.

”Look across the entire region, not just the city of Cincinnati,” he says. “Look across the 12 counties. There is no neighborhood that even comes close to having the number of social-service agencies that Over-the-Rhine has.”

But Bortz admits there aren’t any neighborhoods in — or outside — the city asking for agencies to locate there.

“I wouldn’t want to go to every neighborhood and say, ‘You’re going to have to have more social-service agencies,’ ” he says. “People aren’t exactly pounding on the door asking for more.”

Bortz bristles at the suggestion that he or the city have an animus against the poor in Over-the-Rhine and the agencies that serve them.

“I’m not talking about forced relocation by any stretch of the imagination,” he says. “There’s a little bit of confusion, particularly among the advocacy groups saying, ‘Oh, you’re trying to close down agencies.’ Of course we don’t. We want to help them improve their efficiency.”

The resolution directs city administrators to “carry out any actions necessary to adhere to such policy” – again, without specifying a course of action. Bortz characterizes the measure as a “starting point” for discussions on ways to better serve people who need social services.

“I’m not sure there are any folks who understand what’s going on in the social-services community who think the status quo is fine,” he says. ‘There is room for improvement.”