Portsmouth City Manager Derek Allen is under heavy scrutiny after what he describes as an effort to address the homeless problem, leading several residents to show up and express their concerns.
On June 22, City Manager Derek Allen visited the local tent city, where several of the community’s homeless reside by the Scioto River behind Bob and Floyds.
Allen then post selfies to the Portsmouth Ohio City Manager Facebook page of his visit with the caption, “Today, the Police and I took a trip to meet our neighboring community of Tent City located behind Bob and Floyds Tire. This is what happens when people believe they are being compassionate and giving panhandlers money. June 22, 2017.”
In addition to posting several pictures of the living conditions, he also commented, “If you believe you are being compassionate and helping by giving money you are not. It is perpetuating the slum living in which they are living.”
The City Manager even mocked the community’s make shift sink by posting a photo with the caption “Thank goodness there is somewhere to brush your teeth.”
The public immediately responded, sharing the post that Allen quickly deleted. Jacob Harris, of Portsmouth, was among the first to share the post. His post has now been shared more than 200 times.
Harris, who recently completed a degree in sociology from Shawnee State University (SSU), says that through his degree he has studied various social issues including poverty.
“When I saw the City Manager’s post and captions on his photos, I was immediately appalled and at a loss for words as to how someone could be so devoid of empathy and compassion for such a marginalized and underprivileged group,” he explained. “My biggest concerns when reading what he had to say are, with his comment ‘our neighboring community of Tent City.’ He was positioning that group of people as somehow outside and separate from Portsmouth. With the language he used in that sentence alone, he made his position clear that he does not think of the homeless in our community as a part of the community, but instead that they are a burden on our community.”
Harris explained that he originally shared Allen’s post as an effort to make it known how the City Manager was responding to one of the city’s most saddening problems.
“I did not expect it to reach over 200 shares, but I am glad it did and hope it continues to spread,” Harris commented. “First and foremost, Derek Allen needs to make a public apology for his comments instead of trying to avoid his criticism. We also need, as a community, a better understanding of the homeless people in our community. We need to come together and recognize that every single member of Portsmouth, whether wealthy or poor or homeless or unemployed or drug addicted, are still people worthy of respect and dignity. I would encourage everyone to make friends with someone who lives in poverty or is an addict or doesn’t have a home, because that is the only way we can move forward. Before lasting change can happen, we need to end the divisiveness of classism and instead come together and celebrate that we are all inherently valuable for no other reason than we are humans.”
Harris also started that since sharing the post, he noticed that he had been blocked from commenting on the City Manager page.
Harris was present at Monday night’s City Council meeting when he further expressed that the photo of the sink was most powerful in that it showed Allen mocking what was the homeless trying to live a “normal resemblance of life.”
He concluded that resources should be offered to these individuals rather than efforts to shame them for surviving the only way they can.
Since the post went public, some residents have called for Allen’s dismissal. Leading this group is Mark Jenkins, of Portsmouth, who is a local member of the Libertarian party. He has been using social media for fuel this plight and has even started a bit of a meme war with various memes made of the City Manager’s original post. Like Morris, he also called for the City Manager’s public apology.
Rather than comment on his goal of removing Allen, Jenkins provided The Portsmouth Daily Times with an open letter to the City’s leader, which reads:
Portsmouth Ohio City Manager,
No public figure -especially an overpaid outsider, should carry on with arrogance and insults of our poor and destitute.
We want solutions and harm mitigation for our homeless. They want opportunities and encouragement.
I was angry at you, Mr. Allen. Many are angry, and demanding change. We are starting to think that, although you may have accomplished much, your job could be done by just about anybody. Why not a Mayor?
The checks and balances of a Mayoral form of City Government seem more desirable, and with the right Mayor, he or she can accomplish the same at half the salary.
Before we announce our dutiful call to action, we demand an apology. If that doesn’t come, we have dozens of folks ready to campaign for your removal and change of government.
Our homeless deserve their dignity, and our concerned citizens will NOT be ignored.
Your move, Derek K. Allen. Choose wisely.
Mark A. Jenkins
Jenkins was also present at the Council meeting, where he demanded better of leadership.
The City Manager also responded with a letter to this reporter in which he outlined a variety of social issues and how they impact the community as whole.
Several other residents also spoke at Council, explaining that the homeless are not living a life of luxury and do not live how they do by choice. Furthermore, many thanked Allen for drawing attention to this issue but did not approve of how he did so. Overall, the push was for empathy.
On the other side, Sue Burke, Portsmouth resident, expressed that she shares the City Manager’s frustration.
“I’ve been cleaning up after these people for a long time,” she stated. “It’s a blight. It’s frustrating.”
She added that she did not take Allen’s comments as disrespectful and rather thought they were an expression of frustration.
“I want to give my support to Derek. I think he does a great job, and I think it would be a great disservice to this community if you let Derek go over this,” she concluded.
Allen letter, which arrived Sunday morning prior to the Council meeting, stated in its entirety:
Thank you for the opportunity to respond to this matter.
Over the past several weeks I have received an increased number of complaints regarding some of our citizens that appear to be living on the streets. The amount of concern has been amplified since some of the vagrants have been on the streets since my arrival in 2014. This is especially true of the panhandlers on 11th and 12th Street near Gay and Chillicothe Streets.
The one concern that has been expressed to my office far more than any other complaint is the panhandling issue involving these men. I have been asked on multiple occasions why my office does not put a stop to the panhandling. It is a deterrent to bring businesses and industry to Portsmouth. Homelessness is a nationwide problem but it seems to be growing in Portsmouth.
Last year we dealt with homeless people defecating in Tracy Park next to the veteran’s memorial and on a neighboring business’ property directly to north. Citizens and business owners are outraged that this happens and expect the city to take action on this problem. This is one reason the bathrooms at Tracy Park are never opened. People take up residence in them.
Recently I have received complaints of the prostitutes disrupting the business of some of our industrial citizens and of their desire for them to both be stopped and arrested, or for them to be relocated away from the businesses. They are at this present location because of the complaints when they operated in the neighborhoods prior to my arrival in 2014. This is a concern that is important to me as they need help in their lives. Arresting them will not solve their problem and it will not make them go away. The overcrowded jail will not accept the prostitutes or will immediately release them if there are arrested due to jail overcrowding.
On Thursday, June 22, 2017 I appeared on a radio show and upon arriving at the studios found t he doors locked. I later discovered that the homeless person currently occupying the old telephone company building had been going into businesses and demanding money and disrupting the business operations of our business community. Businesses that our community cannot afford to lose.
This was followed up the next day when on Friday, June 23, 2017 Wastewater Staff called my office to investigate serious concerns of a group of people squatting on city owned property. According to the report the mess over the flood levee on city problem was awful. That day I investigated the encampment with members of the Portsmouth Police Department, the Portsmouth Health Department and the city solicitor.
We did not kick these squatters off of the city property. We did ask for them to clean up the mess and they were asked to seek help. They were not inclined to get help because they informed me they were receiving sufficient cash to live in the woods in their encampment, if one can call that living. The Portsmouth Fire Department recently responded to this camp because of three overdoses by its residents. There was alcohol being consumed when we arrived and the conditions were deplorable.
No one present had any answers. I had no answers. No one should live like they are living. In order to communicate the disgusting conditions of squalor I took pictures and posted them on the City Manager’s Facebook page. Instead of lecturing people and preaching I made notice that by giving money to the panhandlers we are enabling and contributing to this mess and thus avoiding a situation where they want to receive help. This light-hearted approach was misinterpreted as mocking these homeless individuals which it was not meant. After approximately 10 minutes it was removed because the intended purpose was not being achieved.
I apologize for this situation and for the outcry that has resulted. For the past three and a half years I have worked tirelessly to move Portsmouth forward and I care deeply for its residents. At some point we are going to have to address the uncomfortable situation involving homelessness, prostitution and panhandling.
Derek K. Allen
During the Council meeting, Allen added that the City has been going targeted enforcement where they visit people living in condemned houses as well as those living in drug areas. He explained that he talks to people about getting help.
“The reason I was concerned is because no one should have to live like that,” he stressed. “There’s an entire city down there.”
He added that there are rats along the river where these people are living. He said he visited the area in a compassionate manner and did not mean for his comments to seem filled by hate and that they were made in “poor judgement.”
“It is City property,” he said. “I guess I could’ve kicked them out.”
Finally, he stated that these people were pushed over there because they are not wanted in the City. He said he offered help, but they did not want help, including help for mental illness that he said was apparent. Furthermore, he said that he went and apologized to the tent city residents rather than apologize to the public. He also said that is not the only homeless camp in town.
“These people don’t want help when they are making $50 to $60 a day panhandling,” he also said.
Homeless living in the shantytown confirm that they were not kicked off the property. They could not comment on the statements Allen made on Facebook as they have no or limited access to social media.
Timothy Allen Walker, Jr., 30, who lives between the tent city and another common location for homeless, down by the camping area along the Ohio River, was present when Allen and members of the PPD made their visit.
“They (Allen and the officers) were just concerned about stuff like they just want someone to help the community,” he explained with his best understanding of what took place. “I think they got a call – that’s what they said – that is was like dirty down here.”
He added that Allen and the officers just asked that the tent city residents clean up and promised to bring down a dumpster to help.
Second tent city resident, Butch Maxwell, 53, confirmed what Walker has stated. He added that the place is usually pretty clean; however, he lives with two canine companions who he says tear up things while he is out during the day.
“It will be clean when I leave, but then I come back to a mess,” he explained.
Maxwell added that Allen just happened to come in the afternoon before Maxwell had been home long enough to clean up.
First Ward Councilman Kevin W. Johnson came out in support of Allen, saying that there are issues with the tent city that the public is not considering. Still, his comments were harsh.
“Tent city? It was more like a dump.” Johnson began. “[I]t is unfortunate the city manager did not explain why this action was being taken and the problems associated with the “Tent city” dump including health, sanitation and safety.”
The Councilman went on to confirm that the members of the public have been making complaints regarding the the homeless in the community, while also recognizing the role of City leadership in addressing such issues.
“I find it interesting that people would want to protect this ‘out of sight, out of mind’ dump but not want such in their back yard or in our parks,” he stated. “I suggest you chat with our health department, fire & police chief and city manager about the problems certain of the homeless create in our city as well as touch base with those who deal with and provide assistance to the homeless. There are stories to be told; good and bad. It is, unfortunately, up to the city to deal with the bad as non-profits, churches and others are not able to do so.”
Still, many area residents question the City’s manner in addressing this long-time concern.
Reach Nikki Blankenship at 740-353-3101 ext. 1931.