Activists and community members gathered at Heer Park on Feb. 12 to protest the proposed closure of the park, the site of a long-standing camp for the unhoused. The Parks and Recreation department of the city of Columbus, Ohio, has proposed closing Heer Park on the city’s South side. The park is also home to a playground and a dirt bike course.
The city claims this closure would be in response to “reports of drug abuse and vandalism” in the park, but in reality, it’s only the latest of the city’s attempts to make Columbus less safe for the unhoused. For around 50 to 60 homeless individuals and families, Heer Park is a safe space to sleep and receive aid. Although some of those who shelter there do so in vehicles, most sleep beneath tents or tarps. The city’s decision to close the park without offering alternative plans to house the people who live there exposes the city’s failure to care for its most vulnerable residents.
Advocates for the homeless said the city has long blamed unhoused people for problems they haven’t caused as an excuse to remove amenities from the park. “The city took the bathrooms. The city took the trash cans. The city took the handwashing stations, during a pandemic! The lights don’t even work!” said Emily Myers, an outreach coordinator for the Columbus Coalition for the Homeless and a volunteer with Central Ohio Harm Reduction. “They systematically started removing them.” Myers emphasized that closing the park will do more harm than good, particularly for the people who live there. “We have older folks, some folks in their late 60s… They’ll lose the only home they have.”
Max, one of the people sheltering at Heer Park, said the park has been a location for the unhoused to gather for more than a decade. After being houseless for more than a decade, he said the park remains a crucial spot for sleeping and for receiving aid. Waterproof sleeping mats offered by volunteers are particularly helpful in the winter months.
“We need more of these,” Max said, indicating the waterproof mats. “In this weather, the condensation, there’s no way around it. If your tent was big enough for a cot, that’d be the ticket.”
Max reported that despite the freezing weather many people do not find shelters and other local services to be accessible. “The homeless shelters in this city treat residents like prisoners or dogs,” he said. “The social programs… there are issues, you pretty much have to sign your rights away, and most of them are only temporary… The problem is huge and it’s growing. The city wants to present a nice clean image so they come out and bully us, they straight bully us, from one place to another.”
Sophie Fifner, a spokesperson for Columbus Parks and Recreation, claimed that the closure of the park would be regrettable but necessary. “We want to make sure the parks are a safe space,” Fifner said.
But, safe for whom? Myers reported that the vandalism and damage to the park was caused by people who use the dirt bike course to ride bikes and ATVs. “They are causing havoc… I have gotten reports of BMXers targeting houseless people and shooting at them with BB guns,” said Myers. “This is not new unfortunately and has been going on for some time.”
Advocates and volunteers remained vigilant throughout the day for the city to move forward with their announced plans to barricade the park. A truck owned by the city drove up to the park entrance, but circled around and left. Later, Myers reported that she spoke with another representative of Columbus Parks and Recreation who said the closure would be postponed. When asked if this was due to pressure from protesters and the community, Myers said: “I absolutely believe it is.”
While advocates for the unhoused at Heer Park have won a temporary victory, the city of Columbus continues to fail to offer sustainable solutions to the growing problem of homelessness, or to address the underlying causes leading to homelessness. Said Myers: “I want them to know our neighbors need help NOW. This is our park, our community, our folks. We have to care.”