Side-Stepping Responsibility: Lessons From the Street

Side-Stepping Responsibility: Lessons From the Street

by Dr. Mark Mussman
Melissa Mosby with a summer volunteer group from Wisconsin
Melissa Mosby with a summer volunteer group from Wisconsin Photo: Dr. Mark Mussman

When I walk around Over-the-Rhine it’s clear that changes are happening rapidly. I heard that this year something like 30 businesses have opened up in the neighborhood already, with many more just around the corner. I have been following some of the liquor license requests, and it seems that there will be a bar on every corner by this time next year. Over-the-Rhine will eventually become the French Quarter of Cincinnati once the permit to carry liquor on the streets is approved by the state. But when the bars close and the tourists go home, it’s a different story.

Melissa Mosby, one of our awesome Voice of the Homeless Speakers, talks about how people choose to ignore the suffering that occurs in the neighborhood. “When the bars close down and everyone leaves, they don’t see the person trying to find a piece of pizza in the garbage can, or picking up a cigarette butt from the ground.” Melissa spent many years living on Jackson street in Over-the-Rhine. Melissa has seen both sides of humanity – those who acknowledge the situation and those who ignore or exploit others.

Doorway at Know Theatre where Melissa lived for a long time
Doorway at Know Theatre where Melissa lived for a long time
Photo: Dr. Mark Mussman

When she tells her story of living in the doorway of the Know Theatre, I imagine that some people think she lived inside the building, but in reality she slept outside, using a little alcove for some shelter. Her feet lay on the sidewalk, exposed to the elements. People stepping over her legs on their way to work, ignoring the situation that she is in. Embarrassed, trying to not show signs of vulnerability, Melissa quickly packs up all her belongings into her backpack and hides her “bed” (cardboard and a mat made of Kroger bags) into the bushes beside the theater, and then acts like she is just sitting there, normally, like anyone else. Her ego struggles between being strong enough for anything that life throws at her, and understanding her limits.

If you are lucky enough to have heard Melissa tell her story, you may have heard her tell this heartbreaking story. One night, while all the college students and bar crowd saunter down Main Street (a street packed full of bars), Melissa saw a few college students standing around the Mary Magdeline Shower House. The Shower House is a special place in Cincinnati – a place where anyone can get a shower and a change of clothes. They also wash your clothes and you can get them when you come back for a shower in the next two weeks. Melissa’s experience at the Shower House is one of gratitude and dignity, and she has a special place in her heart for the people who run it.

Melissa slowly approached the group standing by the Shower House and quickly noticed what was happening – one of her friends was sleeping in the doorway and “these kids were taking selfies, pretending to lay down next to my friend so I stopped them and asked them if they thought it was funny, “Are you gonna post that on Instagram? Are you gonna Facebook that? He is a human being, that could be you.” Melissa has confided in me that she could not bring herself to tell her sleeping friend what had transpired. “What good would it do, Dr. Mark?” She has helped me understand that when you live on the street your self-esteem is rock bottom, and even letting someone know about this might cause more pain in an already difficult situation.

Mary Magdalen House where people are treated with dignity and respect
Mary Magdalen House where people are treated with dignity and respect

On any Thursday, Friday, or Saturday night it’s difficult to navigate the sidewalks without being stuck between groups of drunk people. I find it difficult to get through even when there is no one on the streets because of all the sidewalk seating the bars and restaurants are putting up. Just last week, another one popped up on Race Street at Zula. Navigating the sidewalks (which until very recently didn’t have ramps on the corners, and some alleys still don’t have ramps) in a wheelchair or another assistive device must be almost impossible. Near the Coalition the space between the bar’s outdoor seating and the parking sign is so narrow that only one person can walk through at a time. The outcropping of Zula destroys any continuity of the sidewalk and creates a very narrow walkway. This makes carrying groceries difficult through here as well. But, when the goal is to create as many bars as possible (Over-the-Rhine split into two entertainment districts this year, so that is why we are getting twice as many liquor licenses) the everyday life is pushed to the side for the benefit of the bars.

The Contact Center's future location on Elm Street
The Contact Center’s future location on Elm Street
Photo: Dr. Mark Mussman

Years ago, the talk in town was all about “Walkable Streets” and “Form-Based Code.” Over-the-Rhine is walkable to an extent, but as social service agencies get moved to the fringe of the neighborhood it becomes more difficult for people to access services. Many organizations have moved to the West End or Queensgate, miles from here. In the near future, the Contact Center will be moving to Elm Street, from its long-term home on Vine Street, so that a business can move in. This is a trend that is happening all over the neighborhood. The Shower House is planning a move as well to a more accommodating building outside of the business district. Since so many other organizations have been removed from the neighborhood, only a few are left. One organization that is trying to keep services in the neighborhood is St. Francis Seraph, who is expanding their operations to include others who have been displaced like Haircuts from the Heart –and possibly the Shower House, but they can’t absorb them all.
We are beyond the tipping point in Over-the-Rhine and it’s going to take a lot of citizen input to ensure the neighborhood remains a community. If the current trend of displacement continues, this will be an exclusively rich, white neighborhood. For those coming in, parking at the 3CDC parking garages, bar hopping, and leaving, they may be happy for the removal. For those who do not believe that homelessness exists, for those who believe that every panhandler is lying about their need, for those who are willing to humiliate people who are struggling to live another day, they are complicit in the suffering that they are willing to ignore as they step over the feet of someone sleeping in a doorway.

If you want to get involved, schedule a speaker like Melissa for your church, school, or community group and we will help you to understand what you can do to bring about positive change in our community.

You can also sign up on our Educational Event Registration webpage for an hour-long walking tour that will give you a different perspective on the people’s history of Over-the-Rhine. Tours are $50 for a group, so get a few friends together and learn something new!

Please visit our website to read the speaker biographies, learn more about the social justice walking tours, and see what the Streetvibes Shadow Activity is all about. We also have plenty of information about the Cincinnati Urban Experience – our Alternative Break program, that has been lauded as on of the best in the country.