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Overflowing Shelters

A history and recommended solutions
April 9, 2005

Prepared by the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless
With input from local area social service providers and homeless people in 2004-2005

Problems with Overflowing Shelters in Cleveland

History of  Overflow Shelters: Men’s

1990-1999:  Project Heat started in the late 1980s at 2219 Payne Ave for both men and women.  Then for the next dozen years homeless people were housed at various locations throughout the City (three, four or five sites) with a population that fluctuated from 120 to 220 men per night.  The conditions were deplorable with mats on the floors in various public buildings from the bottom floor of the Human Services Building, churches, or even the auditorium of the Justice Center.  Cleveland Health Care for the Homeless, First United Methodist Church, and Cornerstone Connection were the service providers.  There were many disinterested staff and some very committed staff who were mostly coming from a second job, and many slept all night.  They provided mostly a security function.  In 1993, County workers objected to the shelters in their buildings at night citing  “health concerns.”  The needs did not dramatically change and the conditions were not very humane.  Many choose to sleep outside rather than go to Project Heat, and others were banned from coming into the facilities.  There were a number of people who were permanently barred and homelessness continued to grow throughout this decade.  In 1998, there were between 60 to 75 people sleeping on Superior Ave. rather than go to the overflowing shelters.  There was a public protest, a series of Plain Dealer articles, and the beginning of the Mayor’s sweeps in 1994 through 1999, which shone a spotlight on Project Heat.  Yearly cost of the Men’s Overflow was not divided between men and women until 2000. Total government allocation in the last few years of Project Heat was $441,300 and total budget was $541,000.  An estimated breakdown by population would be $264,780 from public sources and $324,600 as the total budget for men.

2000:  The county got involved in the problems at Project Heat and proposed a new expanded shelter in one location to serve the 250 men using Project Heat at the time.  With some fanfare, Salvation Army took over the shelter and its overflow function with an original goal of serving 250 people a night and then 350 per night after renovations were done.  A week after opening the shelter had more than 250 people, and by the end of the first year had an average of 350 people per night.  It was very crowded, but the number of people sleeping outside dropped dramatically to only a handful.  There were problems with fire codes and safety of the residents was a big concern.  Cost of the Shelter:  $800,000 in government support and total budget was around $853,000.

2001-2004:  Salvation Army in 2002 added over one hundred beds after renovations were complete.  They started placing people in those beds, but the nightly population continued to expand to around 450 per night.  There were small increases in the number of people sleeping outside every year with NEOCH counting 19 people on Thanksgiving 2004 and only 11 in 2003, 9 in 2002 and 6 Thanksgiving weekend in 2001.  This is the lowest number of people who slept outside for the year because many return to their families over the holiday weekend.  By 2004, the average nightly census at the shelter had grown to 550, a 57% increase over the number in 2000.  The cost of the shelter had expanded to $2 million in government support and $2.144 million in total budget.  

History of Overflow Shelters: Women's

1992-1998:  Project Heat or Project Cots in the beginning served both men and women, some in the same location.  This did not work very well.  There was also an effort in the 1980s to provide hotel vouchers to families and sometimes women who became homeless.  This grew expensive and the emergency shelters began to multiply.  In 1992 or 1993, the overflow shelter with approximately 35 spaces was located at First United Methodist Church in the basement.  The conditions were deplorable with mats on the floors, an elevator for handicapped individuals that was often not utilized.  Often families would avoid the shelter.  Although never proven, the impression among clients was that the staff would call the County and have a file opened on a mom that brought her kids into this environment.  The staff were typically working a second job and often slept through their shifts.   First United Methodist Church created an organization called Cornerstone Connection to administer the program.  Many choose not to go to Project Heat by sleeping on couches of families or staying with an abuser.  There were many a handful of women who were permanently barred and homelessness continued to grow, especially family homelessness through this decade.  By 1998, Cornerstone Connections was serving about 70 women per night and often as many as 15 children.  Total government allocation in the last few years of Project Heat was $441,300 and total budget was $541,000.  Total government allocation for the women’s shelter was around $176,520, and a total budget of $216,400 for the women.

In 1998-1999, the women’s shelter began a collaboration for day services between Cornerstone Connections, YWCA, and Care Alliance.  This provided 24 hour services to women, but it meant a great deal of transportation.  They would sleep at First Church on East 30th and Euclid and would be provided day time services by two different staffs at 2219 Payne Ave.  Then on the weekend they would be provided day services by the Cornerstone Connections staff at Payne Ave.  The women were still estimated at around 70-75 per night, but the children had grown to around 25 per night.  Shelter expenses for just women also increased in 1999-2000 to $436,034 with $392,900 coming from government sources.

2001:  The County ended its relationship with Cornerstone Connections/Project Heat when the church could no longer serve the population.  Rising complaints and too little space forced the move to the vacated former Site A building, which was a garage on East 18th across from the Cosgrove Center.  The shelter was managed by Catholic Charities, and when the place became full the overflow was placed next door at the Cosgrove Center.  The shelter smelled of bleach, had a leaky ceiling and the women stayed in the drafty garage day and night.  They still slept on mats, but a few dozen or so beds were built.  A Plain Dealer investigation in December 2002, led to the quick removal of the shelter from the garage to the Cosgrove when “black mold” was found and conditions were exposed as deplorable.   The cost of shelter dramatically increased for public sources in the move from Cornerstone Connections to Catholic Charities, jumping to $1,033,997 in 2001 and a total budget of $1,047,047. 

2002-2003:  The Women’s shelter moved into the Cosgrove Center gymnasium, temporarily displacing the men during the day.  Eventually men could come for lunch but not much else.  Catholic Charities saw an increase from 85 people a night to around an average of 105 people per night with 70 beds available.  There were many disputes about moving the shelter including renovating First Church, Metzenbaum Center, renovating St. Augustine in Tremont plus numerous other proposals.  A very broad community process was constructed including homeless women to find a new location.  In early 2003 after many proposals were turned down and a scandalous article in the Plain Dealer alleging abuse and sexual activity between clients and staff, the Catholic Diocese gave the County notice that they would leave the shelter as of April 2003.  The community discussion ended after the ultimatum and tensions between the City and County grew substantially.  The budget between 2002-2003 had grown again to $1,064,266 in public money and $1,086, 266 in total budget.

2004:  In early 2004, with very little discussion and over the objections of the local Councilman, the County decided to utilize the Care Alliance building since they had virtual site control as well as part of 2227 Payne Ave.  Without an RFP and without much discussion with the women at the shelter, the County awarded the contract to Mental Health Services over the objections of NEOCH.   Shelter census grows again to average 116 people per night in 2004.  Care Alliance was going to take a lot longer to move from the health clinic at 2227 Payne Ave, which does limit the space for sheltering the women.  The number of families using the shelter had dramatically increased over the last two years, and by the end of 2004, 29% of the population was under 17.  Again shelter cost had dramatically increased to $1,656,000 in government funding and $1,684,000 in total budget. 

The Future for Shelter Overflow by Continuing Down this Path:

A.   The County/City public sector will run out of money and limit shelter access as nearly ever other city in the United States does.

B.   The cost of shelter and the cramped conditions will continue to increase every year with every five years the need for a new facility opened. 

Implications for the Future under each scenario:

A.     Out of Public Money. Nearly every community in the United States limits access to shelter.  This has not caused a decrease in the need, but merely caps spending on shelter activities.  What does this mean for the City of Cleveland?

1. There will again be individual’s who pass away from hypothermia on the cold or wet streets of Cleveland.

2.   We will return to the days of 60 people or more sleeping on the heated sidewalks of Superior Ave.

3.   Cleveland will have more panhandlers downtown.

4.   Cleveland will begin to see encampments in abandoned industrial, residential and park areas.

5.  Shelters will have a choice over whom to serve and therefore the hardest to serve will be left to fend for themselves.

6.   The health care needs of the population will dramatically increase because men who rarely come inside get sicker and are more susceptible to disease.  Sleeping in public often deprives people of sleep and the chance for the body to recover.

7.   There will be more encounters with the police by homeless people, because pedestrian and businesses complain. 

8.    There will be a sharp increase in the number of people with a severe mental illness.  Sleeping in the public space also adds an element of paranoia to a person’s life.

9.    There will be a decrease in the number of people that have access to help.  Most services are accessible only through shelter, and therefore by limiting shelter a segment of the population do not get access to services.

B.   Opening more and more facilities. Cleveland has built an impressive emergency response to homelessness with a network of shelters and overflow shelters to assure that those who want shelter receive assistance.  We have reduced the number of deaths due to hypothermia on the streets to only 1 in the last four years.  We have seen the number of people sleeping on the streets decrease to under 20 in the last four years.  Unfortunately, we have seen the need for shelter grow dramatically:

C.   Shelter costs will continue to grow in order to meet demand.  Based on the last 10 years, here are the projected costs for shelter based on the average costs over the last 10 years. These are the costs for entry shelter or overflow combined (not emergency shelters or transitional.)  These increases are not usually in small increments as listed, but are dramatic increases probably in one or two of the years.  The cost in 2004 was 5.6 times the cost of 10 years ago for men, and 9.4 times the cost of shelter of 10 years ago for women.  We have rounded this down to 4 times the cost for men and 6 times the women since government always undervalues the cost of human services. 

2005:  Men: $2.4 million                 Women: $1.75 million

2006:  Men:  $3.12 million              Women: $2.625 million

2007:  Men:  $3.92 million              Women: $3.5 million

2008:  Men:  $4.64 million              Women: $4.375 million

2009:  Men:  $5.36 million              Women: $5.25 million

2010:  Men:  $6.08 million              Women: $6.125 million

2011:  Men:  $6.8 million                Women: $7 million

2012:  Men:  $7.52 million              Women: $7.875 million

2013:  Men:  $8.24 million              Women: $8.75 million

2014:  Men:  $8.96 million              Women: $9.625 million

2015:  Men:  $9.6 million                Women:  $10.5 million

D. The number of shelters will grow.  This means a need to locate more shelter space with periodic neighborhood battles over shelters.  Based on the previous numbers from the past 10 years, here are the projected number of homeless per night in the overflow or entry shelters in Cleveland.  This assumes that Cleveland continues to see decreases in affordable housing, slow growth in jobs, little changes in discrimination, and continued increases in the number of individuals without healthcare. 

2005:  Men:  620                 Women: 143

2006:  Men:  690                 Women: 169

2007:  Men:  760                 Women: 196

2008:  Men:  830                 Women: 223

2009:  Men:  900                 Women: 249

2010:  Men:  970                 Women: 276

2011:  Men:  1,040              Women: 303

2012:  Men:  1,110              Women: 329

2013:  Men:  1,180              Women: 356

2014:  Men:  1,250              Women: 383

2015:  Men:  1,320              Women:  409

E. The length of time that individual’s stay in shelter will increase.  This is because the overflow system will become increasing complicated and people will be bounced around before they are able to find stability.  It is likely that there will be modest increases in programs to serve homeless people, including housing, jobs as well as improvements in the emergency services, but it will not be sufficient for the expanding population.  If the last 10 years are any indication, emergency and long term solutions no where near meet the demand.  It is also likely that the individuals will have more episodes of homelessness before they find stability.

F. While not as large an impact as without shelter, there will be increases and strain on the health care, corrections, mental health and alcohol and drug systems.  Often, people in shelter get comfortable in that they have three meals and a place to sleep and they also become isolated or lost.  This will especially be true the larger the shelters get and the more shelters that exist.  It takes some fortitude in order to be noticed within a large shelter, and the larger the shelter the more people that are left behind.  A look at the trends in emergency medical runs to 2100 Lakeside over the last year show:

Month                                                       Responses

February 2004                                                 32 Ambulance trips to 2100 Lakeside

March                                                                                      42

April                                                                                         37

May                                                                                         17

June                                                                                         24

July                                                                                          28

August                                                                                      36

September                                                                                27

October                                                                                   28

November                                                                                27

December.                                                                               35

January  2005                                                                           36

February  2005                                                                        45

If we do not begin to address the growing shelter population, we can expect growing health care, mental health and corrections funds spent on very unstable populations in our city.  We can expect that with more people in the shelters there will more of a need for emergency care from publicly funded systems.

G. There will need to be an evaluation of the increasingly large overflow facilities.   Do large 100+ bed facilities keep people homeless for a longer period of time?  Are the structures created by the community lengthening the time that an individual stays without stable housing?  Can an individual find assistance when in competition with over one hundred other people?  All these questions will have to be answered in the next 10 years as shelter populations increase, and most likely the sizes of the facilities will increase.

H. There will be fewer resources for other human services, housing, or assistance programs.  This is a cyclical problem with more funds spent on shelter there will be less available to solve the long term solutions to homelessness.  This will feed more people into the system and we will need more shelters.  It is an endless cycle that we can never get this problem under control.  We will have increases as far as the eye can see.

I. There will need to be opened a new facility for men in 2006 to replace and expand Aviation and late in 2006 to accommodate the growing number of women.  The Aviation High School property has a short life span and is currently full.  Without addressing the structural problems within the system, we will have to build more shelters.   The planning must start immediately so that they will be in place by 2006.  Neighborhood opposition and local politics make this very difficult, and complicate the process.

Our Recommendations:

A group of social service providers and representatives from NEOCH including homeless people have met to discuss this growing crisis.  We have proposed an alternative in order to address, in the short term, a resolution of this problem.  We propose the following goal:

A.  Find an alternative placement for 1,900 men who stay or will stay at 2100 Lakeside in the next year.

B. Find an alternative placement for 400 women who stay or will stay at Community Women’s Shelter in the next year.

We have looked at the future if the current environment is not radically changed.  There are worthwhile efforts currently underway, but these efforts are similar to swimming against the current.  For 10 years, we have seen decreases in affordable housing in the thousands, and with huge deficits at the state and national level government, resources to assist are drying up.  Most of the current plans require huge allocations of additional resources, which do not exist.  The reality is that a few hundred units that are planned will have no impact at all on the shelters. 

We applaud the City/County planning process underway as a critical and necessary step to address this crisis.  Unfortunately, this crisis is immediate and needs to be addressed now.  The overflow problem cannot wait for a long term planning process. We have a critical need right now knowing that Crawford Aviation will take over the Aviation High School, and the health clinic is taking longer than expected to move out of 2227 Payne Ave.   Both entry shelters have an immediate need for more space, fewer people, and certainly more attention toward the problem of overcrowding.

The reality is that if the public sector systems (Corrections, Mental Health, Alcohol, etc.) could just take 35 people out of the shelters per month we would solve this problem.  The shelters have for years accepted the problems of every other system.  We have not demanded resources or alternatives when other huge systems “dump” their clients into the shelters.  The current shelters provide free housing for the mental health community and alcohol/drug treatment programs.

We cannot get mired in the numbers debate, because this does not help house anyone.  We cannot think of solving the problem of 200 people who use Aviation or the extra 30 people who come to the Women’s shelter.  That is solving the problem only on a daily basis, and does not address the crisis.  It is critical to keep in mind that the two shelters have thousands who utilize the facility every month.  NEOCH estimates five people waiting for every bed at the shelter.  So we must find alternatives to the overcrowding on a monthly and yearly basis within the shelters.   There is so much unmet need that we cannot think small in this discussion.  The long range planning process has to address the resources and preservation of thousands of affordable housing units needed. 

In the short term we recommend:

1.  Redirect a small portion of the current overflow or shelter system funding (public or private) to provide resources to innovative programs.  Seek proposals from community groups who could get the largest number of people out of the entry shelters for the least amount of money.   Provide extra points for leveraging private sources, sustainability of the project, and the ability to quickly place the individuals into stable housing.  This would need to be around $250,000 challenge grant.

2.   Continue to work to improve the current shelter system.   This will not have a huge impact, but could reduce the number by as many as a dozen people a month.  The system is integrated and the providers work well together, but there could be a few improvements.

a.       Enforce current rules on discharge.  Those discharged from the emergency shelters end up at the overflow shelters.  The more tolerant the emergency shelters, the less likely people will go back to 2100 Lakeside or the Community Women’s shelter.

b.      Figure out ways to open up spaces within the current system.  The basement of Harbor Light, the old Veterans room at VOA, and other shelters could have space for the men and women at the entry shelters.  Are there strategies, besides additional funding, that other spaces could be made available?  If the County Commissioners or the Mayor called these providers to help, would that make an impact that others have not had the ability to make these spaces available.

c.       Ask the current shelters to relax their rules to take in a more diverse population and be more tolerant over infractions of the rules.  By moving more people forward this would take off some of the burden from the entry shelters.  We need to stop the flow back to the entry shelters by those who make it into emergency and transitional shelters.

3.  Engage the religious community to get back into serving homeless people.  When this crisis started religious institutions stepped forward to address the problems.  Government support over the last 10 years have transformed the landscape away from religious groups bringing their own resources to this crisis to relying almost exclusively on public funding.  We need to re-engage the religious community, and allow them to re-commit to serving their own missions of providing comfort to the poor.  We need to open an immediate dialogue to make it easier for religious groups to provide shelter, housing or assistance to homeless people.  This could mean providing space in the existing shelters that would be supported and supervised by volunteers from a religious community.  Again, this might need to involve community leaders or local elected officials to convene this discussion.

4.  Ask the five systems that contribute to homelessness to review their discharges to shelter.  The County and City should ask the mental health providers, alcohol and drug services, corrections department, health care providers, and the other emergency and transitional shelters to begin to keep track of the number of referrals to 2100 Lakeside or the Women’s Community Shelter.  This should be posted on a monthly basis with a goal of reducing these numbers to zero within the next year.

5.  Get a commitment from every local system that contributes to homelessness to remove a segment of their own population.  This needs to be modeled after the commitment made by the Veterans Administration, which has stepped up to provide resources and alternatives to the current shelter system.  The VA has provided funding with the per diem program to provide funds to the men’s shelter and has provided staff to assist.  If each of the major systems contributing clients were to remove a small number of homeless people from the entry shelters every month, we could eliminate the need for overflow shelters.

a.       Corrections.  Have advocates, providers and representatives of government meet with the corrections community to ask for a commitment to move 35 people every month to the entry shelters.  With 55 people each month coming directly from prison and over 900 people a month with recent experience with the corrections department staying at 2100 Lakeside, the correction’s department moves a substantial number of people into the shelter.  We are not asking them to take responsibility for all recent felons just a small percentage. 

b.      Mental Health:  Have advocates, providers and representatives of government meet with the Mental Health Board to ask for 35 people to be removed from the entry shelters every month.  With 325 people each month at 2100 Lakeside with a severe mental illness .  We are not asking them to take responsibility for all severely mentally ill just a small percentage every month.

c.       Alcohol and Drug System:  Have advocates, providers and representatives of government meet with the Alcohol and Drug Board to ask for 40 people to be removed from the entry shelters every month.  With 1,170 people each month at 2100 Lakeside with an addiction .  We are not asking them to take responsibility for all severely mentally ill just a small percentage every month.

d.      Jobs and Family Services: Do the same with the welfare system seek a number 20 women with children to be removed from the shelters and taken responsibilities by the Employment and Family Services.

e.       The other shelters: Many shelters are quick to force people to leave their facilities and return to the two overflow shelters—often for minor infractions.  We need all the shelters to assist in reducing the overcrowding and take some responsibility for people entering their shelters.  The City and County needs to put some pressure for all the shelters to take more responsibility for the entire homeless population.  The providers work well together, but now need to work to end the problem of overflow (see point #2).

6.  Create additional resources to address the overflow problem in our community.  Through lawsuits or soliciting corporate or religious support to the current effort, additional resources could be developed.   Corporations should be willing to contribute in order to keep homeless people from sleeping on the streets.  We can prove that in 1998 with a broken overflow system, we had over 60 people sleeping on Superior Ave.  In 2004, there were 19 people sleeping between Public Square and East 20th St.  The creation of an decent entry shelter has made a difference.  The churches that could not provide space or volunteers could be tapped for additional resources.