Blankets, Water, And Bad Ideas

By Gregory Flannery

Editor, Streetvibes, Cincinnati Ohio

People are living in tents and shacks in isolated pockets of Cincinnati.  They generate trash, as we al do, but they don’t have an easy way to dispose of it.

Last month a religious group decided to help, visiting homeless camps and removing trash.

The cams were cleaner for a while.  The volunteers were proud of their work.  But does this kind of volunteering, helpful in the short term, make the problem worse?

The consequences of charity aren’t always positive.  That’s why some people donate to a large non-profit organizations but spurn implications.  For some people, charity is first and foremost a religious act.

To social workers engaged in the complex business of helping people living an almost feral life, simple acts of charity sometimes can be impediment to bringing them indoors, making it easier for them to stay on the outside.

Enabling Homelessness

Members of John 15:12 Ministries visited homeless camps Oct. 9 after first distributing trash bags to residents who wanted their assistance.  Rumpke, a trash disposal company, sent garbage for the volunteers to fill.

John 15:12 Ministries take its name from the statement by Jesus of Nazareth in the New Testament.  “My command is this:  Love each other as I have loved you.”  The organization’s goal went beyond tidying up homeless people’s quarters, according to an announcement distributed the week before the event.

“The most important part of this event is to show them we love and care about them, just as Jesus loves all of us,” the announcement said.  “To learn from them and about them, and to just be good neighbors.  This is an awesome opportunity to get out on the front line and truly see what homelessness is about.”

But homeless camps are not the place to “see what homelessness is about,” according to homeless advocates, who point out that the greater majority of homeless people don’t live outdoors.  They stay in shelters or double up with family or friends.

Moreover, some advocates for homeless people are comfortable with the religious thrust of this kind of volunteering.  But Annette Melk, who organized the Oct 9 cleanup, said her group doesn’t push religion on homeless people. 

“We build personal relationship with the homeless, encourage them and build friendships with them,” she said. “We don’t push church on them.  If they want to pray with us, we pray with them.”

John 15:12 Ministries visit homeless camps to provide rides to church for those who want to attend.  The volunteers provide a variety of other services as well.

“John 15:12 Ministries is heavily involved with the homeless,” Melk said. “Our founder is down at the homeless camps several times a week.  We do water runs numerous times a week, and they give us the jugs back.  We take firewood in winter.  Someone just donated 72 blankets.  I just got off the phone with a guy who as 12 tents.”

That is a problem, according to some people who work to get homeless people out of camps and into treatment and housing. While firewood and blankets have obvious benefits for people living outdoors, what’s really needed is housing.  Come homeless people have addictions, and others have mental illnesses.  If they are comfortable outside, the argument goes, the incentive to get treatment and housing might be lessened.

“I want people to continue helping,” says Lea Drury, an outreach worker with Lighthouse youth Services.  “However, there is a fine line between helping and enabling, and we all need to work toward being on the same page.”

Lighthouse, Programs to Assist in the Transition from Homeless (PATH) and other programs in Cincinnati send trained outreach workers to find people staying outdoors and connect them to professional services.  Religious volunteers would be more helpful if they collaborated with the professionals, according to Josh Spring, executive director of the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless.

“We want to see collaboration between the people who are doing this every day and the volunteers [who] feel a call to do this,” he says, “If a group is going out and visits a camp and one of their new friends says, ‘I have this issue, and I’m ready to do something,’ we want those volunteers to call PATH.  We want everyone working together, having their own role, getting everyone connected to the bigger picture.”

We Don’t Ask

That kind of collaboration hasn’t been achieved yet.  Earlier this year Melk attended a meeting of the Homeless Outreach Group, made up of social workers, advocates and police officers who specialize in working with homeless people who live outdoors.  The meeting didn’t go as planned.

Melk said John 15:12 Ministries protect the locations of homeless camps, knowing that publicity can lead to hate crimes, vandalism and assaults on the people who live there.  She declined to tell Streetvibes the location her group planned to visit on Oct.9.

 “We are going to the camps prior and let them know what we’re doing and ask if it’s OK to bring guests,” Melk Said.  “We definitely are going to respect their wishes and get their permission.”

Having asked residents’ permission, Melk later invited a reported to join the volunteers, but Streetvibes declined.

The kinds of precautions Melk described only go so far.  After the Oct. 9th cleanup, John 15:12 Ministries posted photographs of its project on Facebook.  Several of the photos make the location of homeless camps easy to identify.

Melk said the volunteers don’t ask homeless people about any criminal records they might have.

 “We just go out and hang out with them.  We are more concerned with being a friend – not judging them, not holding anything in their past against them.”

Open - mindedness can lead to unexpected trouble, however.  When Melk met with the Homeless Outreach Group, she showed slides of her group’s work.  She told the social workers that some camps residents have visited the homes of volunteers.

That elicited concern from the social workers. One told elk that a photo showed her client and asked if Melk knew the person is a former sex offender.

“We don’t talk about that, we just trust God.”

Faith is generally considered a virtue.  But without knowing a person’s behavior or mental – health problems, are the church volunteers putting people at risk?

Melk left the outreach meeting in tears, according to several people who were present.

Spring and Drury said they both welcome the assistance of religious people and other volunteer but want to make sure the assistance is actually helpful.

“I value all people with a passion for helping homeless folks in Cincinnati,” Drury says.  “On a monthly basis homeless outreach service providers come together to discuss what’s working and what’s not.  We are trying to ensure our efforts are focused on guiding a person out of homelessness when that is their goal.  That being said, I’m concerned that going into camps and removing trash may be less than helpful to our struggle.  I would like to see faith-based outreach groups in collaboration with us in an effort to end homelessness”

Caroling At The Camps

Its work with homeless people has given John 15:12 Ministries a certain kind a street sense.  Organizers warn volunteers, for example to be wary of the kind of help they give.  In an e-mail, Kathy Casper, the group’s founder, described a request that was not granted.

“There is a fine line between helping and enabling,” Casper wrote.  “We want to help and be good stewards of God, but yet not enabling.  That is a hard one to explain and comes with experience.  Just keep in mind, when visiting with the camps you do not need to give them everything that is asked of you (and they will ask).  Example: this weekend one asked someone in my group for a ride to the store.  He said, ‘Sure! Annette will take you’ When I asked that was needed, she wanted beer,  I then told her no, we do not do beer runs.”

“We have several transformation stories of people who have moved on and are now leading productive lives,” She said.   

Casper raved a about the good that was done Oct. 9th.

“The impact of what took place that day cannot be put into words,” she wrote.  “People who have never been to the camps or even around the homeless were out socializing in the camps as well as picking up trash.  The experience was greater than just picking up trash.  It provided those our society deem unworthy with dignity, a sense of self – worth and the knowledge that people do care.”

Spring, however, says the problem of homelessness is more complicated that un- trained volunteers appreciate. 

“The complicated factor for me is we’re taught to do all this is a professional format,” he says.  “Then what is the role for people who want to do something but don’t have that training?  At the coalition, our position is they should be on the front lines, advocating for change.  But some people prefer to work with individuals.

“Each has a role.  That’s why we need to figure out how these go together.  It doesn’t make sense for both groups to work with the same people and have no connection.  That just causes more confusion for the people we’re all trying to help.”

“Meanwhile John 15:12 Ministries is preparing for another visit to homeless camps – this time to sing Christmas carols.           

Copyright Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless and The Street Chronicle published Sept. 2011 Cleveland, Ohio

Hand Up Gala A Success

Hand Up Gala a Success

By: Brian Davis

Nearly every non-profit in the community has a special event in which their members dress up, go to a fine dining restaurant, listen to speeches, and participate in a silent auction.  The Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless has hosted a benefit similar to this for the last six years.  We also invite a number of beneficiaries of our program to attend, and we usually have a speaker from our Street Voices project talk to the members and thank them for helping the organization serve the public.  This year we decided to turn the fundraiser on its head.  We partnered with Catholic Charities to send out the invitations to our members and supporters, but the nice meal was served to homeless and hungry people of Northeast Ohio instead of our patrons. 

The Bishop Cosgrove Center (a program of Catholic Charities) and NEOCH partnered on the first ever “Hand Up” Gala on November 9, 2010 to provide an amazing meal to homeless people prepared by Chef John Aldewereld of San Souci Restaurant at the Renaissance Hotel.  This special meal benefited both charities as they prepare for another difficult Cleveland winter.  We asked the public to support the Coalition and the Bishop Cosgrove Center so that we can do our valuable work throughout the year.  The help provided homeless people a fantastic meal that would normally be served as part of our annual event.  The invitation said, “Put away your evening gowns and you will not need that strategy guide on when is the best time to bid on a silent auction item.  This year, we need your support to provide a memorable meal to people hurt by the loss of a job or the foreclosure of their home.”

Everyone who bought a ticket will be entered into a drawing to win some fantastic gifts provided by area business partners.  All proceeds support the costs associated with running the two organizations.

Executive Sous Chef John Aldewereld and his assistant Michael Lyon served a four star meal. The Cosgrove staff and volunteers created a wonderful ambiance for this once-in-a-lifetime meal featuring table cloths, china, and floral centerpieces.  There was a jazz ensemble, and the Brush High School Chorale singers entertained the crowd.  182 people were served, and 30 people volunteered on the day of the event including board members from both agencies.

            This event is supported by sponsors including Keybank, Avalon Foods, Berghaus Flowers, and Morgan Linen. Thirty-four businesses donated items, and all the pictures and supporters can be viewed on the NEOCH website.

Copyright Cleveland Street Chronicle and the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless published in December 2010.

Ohio Hate Crimes

Ohio Identified as the Third Most Dangerous State for Homeless People

Over the past eleven years (1999-2009), advocates and shelter workers around the country have received news reports of homeless men, women and even children being harassed, kicked, set on fire, beaten to death, and decapitated.   A new report released by the National Coalition for the Homeless documents a rise in hate crimes against homeless people.  In Ohio, the number of hate crimes directed towards the homeless population rose to 13 in 2009 making Ohio the third most dangerous state in the union. Currently, the federal government does not recognize the homeless population as a protected group, vulnerable to hate crimes. The report, Hate Crimes Against the Homeless: America’s Growing Tide of Violence, documents all the attacks (just under 120) with 43 incidents resulting in death in 2009.

  The FBI classifies a hate crime as “A criminal offense committed against a person, property, or society that is motivated in whole or in part, by the offender’s bias.”  In 2008, there were seven hate crimes in the United States against protected classes that lead to death according to FBI statistics while there were 27 hate crimes against homeless people that lead to deaths according to the NCH research.

In 2009, Ohio officials reported a serial killer targeting vulnerable homeless women and a number of attacks on campsites in Cincinnati.  Ohio was identified as the third most dangerous state in the United States, and fourth most dangerous state in the last 11 years. 

Perhaps the most widely publicized case in Ohio was that of Anthony Sowell, the alleged serial rapist and killer.  According to police and prosecutors, Sowell targeted homeless women in the Cleveland area, and is currently waiting trial on these charges.  Sowell is innocent until proven guilty, but police investigations allege that he would lure these women to his home with the promise of drugs or shelter.  By the time Sowell was discovered, he had allegedly killed 11 homeless women, six victims in 2009 alone, and their bodies were found inside and around property in which Sowell was living.  After his arrest, two survivors came forward stating they had been raped by Sowell.

While cases like Sowell’s receive a great deal of media attention, many of the violent attacks of the homeless receive minimal exposure.  In the past ten years, hate crimes against the homeless have occurred in ten of Ohio’s cities.  Those attacks consisted of 43 non lethal attacks and 17 fatal attacks.

In 2009, Cincinnati police reported that two separate hate crimes were committed against two homeless gentlemen.  

Nationally, states are beginning to recognize the need for homeless people to be added as a protected class because of their vulnerability and fragility.  The Hate Crimes Against the Homeless Statistics Act of 2009 is pending federal legislation currently before Congress.  The City of Cleveland passed an ordinance in 2008, making repercussions for “intimidation” and harassment more severe if these crimes are perpetrated against an individual because of his/her homeless status.  The Ohio legislature has re-introduced a bill (HB 509) to classify intimidation as an offense against homeless people in order to provide some additional protections.

Copyright Cleveland Street Chronicle and Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless published in December 2010.

Funding for Hunger and Homelessness Under Threat

Recent Increase in Demand for Services Show the Need for Additional Hunger and Homeless Funding in Ohio

 Activists are preparing for massive cuts to hunger and homeless programs in Ohio and from the federal government over the next two years.  The Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio kicked off a campaign to showcase effective programs in Ohio in an effort to demonstrate their value and need for continued funding.  These include Ohio’s largest shelter, 2100 Lakeside operated by Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry and Ohio’s largest food distribution center in the Cleveland Foodbank.

“Northeast Ohio never recovered from the 2001 downturn, and we are struggling every day find space in church basements to provide a warm space to everyone looking for shelter,” said Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless Executive Director Brian Davis.

Focusing attention on hunger and homelessness issues is especially important in Ohio as legislators begin conversations on how to balance a gaping hole in the state budget that’s estimated at $8 billion. The USDA’s recent report on household food security indicated that more than one in seven Ohioans faced a daily risk of hunger. Ohio ranks 9th highest of all states on the measure of food insecurity.

Homelessness is considered a lagging indicator of a troubled economy, meaning that people exhaust all other options before accessing shelters for help, says Bill Faith, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio (COHHIO). “Across the state, the numbers tell the story of increasing hardship among those who’ve lost their jobs, are in foreclosure, or have unexpected medical bills,” says Faith. 

In Franklin County, the Community Shelter Board will spend 3,000 percent more this year than last on overflow costs for family shelters. In the Miami Valley, the two primary family and single adult shelters saw a 35 percent and 27 percent respective increase in occupancy in the first two months of November 2010, compared to the same period last year. And in Cuyahoga County in September alone, 275 men who had no previous experience with homelessness, entered the county’s largest shelter.

The Hunger and Homelessness Awareness week coincides with the launch of the 20th anniversary of the Ohio Housing Trust Fund, a flexible funding source that responds to growing homeless numbers as well as to the critical housing needs of Ohio’s military veterans, senior citizens, people with disabilities and working families.

            “The priority of the OHTF has always been to direct dedicated funds to those most in need,” noted Faith. “This is a unique funding source that becomes even more important when social service safety net programs are cut to the bone.”   

The OHTF began in 1990 when voters approved a constitutional amendment making housing a public purpose. Following years of advocacy from COHHIO and member groups, the Ohio legislature approved in 2004-2005 an increase in the recordation fees to create a permanent dedicated funding stream for the Ohio Housing Trust Fund.

Since then the OHTF has distributed more than $369 million to a diverse universe of projects, including adult and youth shelters, affordable housing development projects, home repair, rehab and energy savings projects, Habitat for Humanity of Ohio, funds to enable home ownership, support services to help those in need stay in their homes, and service coordination for seniors, among other projects. “These funds have been the safety net needed for more than a million people in every county in our state, with half or more going to projects in rural counties,” said Faith.

Copyright Cleveland Street Chronicle and the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless published in December 2010.

Learning for Life Program Overview

The Learning for Life Program

By: Angelo Anderson

Getting a GED has become a lot easier in Cleveland now that we have the Learning for Life Program. The open to and in your neighborhood concept means easy access to many people who may not have transportation to out laying areas.

The Learning for Life Programs is helping three adults tutoring programs in Cleveland at the West Side Catholic Center, Thea Bowman Center, and LMM/2100 Lakeside Men’s Shelter. Each program provides its own tutors and Site Manager to help each adult scholar study in the skills needed to reach their goals. Most of our scholars have the goal of passing the GED test. Some are trying to get into job training programs or college.  Everybody who attends wants to improve their reading, writing and/or math skills to work towards a better life.

Each class received the Learning for Life Starter Kit: books, tests, and classroom materials for learners starting at all levels.  Learning for Life provides a secure database so adult learners can move between the three sites without having to start over.  Scholars studying at all three sites are eligible for Learning for Life Scholarship to pay the GED testing fee & bus passes for those who pass GED practice tests.  Starting in the spring we will also share tutor training and an annual graduation/recognition ceremony.

Any adult who wants to improve their skills can come free of charge thanks to our wonderful volunteer tutors. We need both adult learners (scholars) and tutors who are willing to make a commitment to come to class regularly. You can also sponsor the scholarship program by donating to the West Side Catholic Center with the note “Learning for Life.” Stop by at the beginning of class to find out more:

 LMM/2100 Lakeside Men’s Shelter

2100 Lakeside Avenue, Cleveland, OH 44114

Tuesday & Thursday 1-3pm

* Ask for Marcia Bufford

 

West Side Catholic Center

3135 Lorain Avenue, Cleveland, OH 44113

Tuesday & Thursday 1:30-3:30pm

*In the new building

 

Thea Bowman Center

11901 Oakfield Avenue, Cleveland, OH 44105

Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday & Thursday 1-3pm and 5:30-7:30pm

*Enter parking lot from E 120th & Union, go past the child care center to the far red door.

Become a Learning for Life Scholar, tutor or sponsor today!

Copyright Cleveland Street Chronicle and the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless published in December 2010.

Profiles of Leonard and Homelessness

Profiles: Leonard Homelessness in Cleveland

By: Holly Lyon

 It is early December in Cleveland. A few snowflakes are falling but the ground is still bare, it is quite cold. I am in great discomfort as I walk the brief distance from my office to my car.  I think about this as I speak to a middle aged man who has been experiencing homelessness for over a year. He tells me his homelessness is “purely economic.”  Although “Leonard” has experienced homelessness before, it has been brief episodes.  He has struggled with addiction in the past but he has been sober for over five years.  He commends himself for remaining sober through the loss of his job, housing and his current state of homelessness.

September 4, 2008 was the last time he received a paycheck.  Prior to this two year period of unemployment, his longest stretch of unemployment was six months.  His current unemployment was the result of a merger between two companies in Florida.  “I’m like everybody else, one of the many that lost their job through no fault of my own.”   He speaks with obvious fondness of his job at a logistics company in Jacksonville.  His face warms and his hands become animated, his head turns towards the window next to us.  He describes his 8x8 office with the view of a river and the stevedores working on ships.  He smiles as he stares out of the restaurant window, and I can tell he is not seeing Superior Avenue, in the grey beginnings of winter.

I ask what his childhood was like. “Leonard” grew up in the Baltimore, Maryland area. His father was a doctor, his mother a minister, and he has one sister.  His mother was originally from Cleveland, but now both parents are deceased. He glances to the corner of the room and shakes his head a little as he tells me how much he misses his parents, even though they passed away years ago.  He has one daughter, 20, whom he speaks of with great warmth; she is a college student at Vassar College in upstate New York. 

What was your fist experience with shelter like, I ask.  “Leonard” said it was “scary,” that level of communal space sharing.  He had never been in the military or in jail, so sleeping in an open room with strangers was an adjustment.

A previous resident of Cleveland, he took classes at both Cleveland State and Kent State.  “Leonard” wanted to study architecture.  He worked several years in Cleveland with the developmentally disabled.  He returned to Cleveland shortly after the loss of his job in Jacksonville, with the hope of getting involved with a friend’s business.  He has not found work since he moved.  He has stayed with both friends and family until a little over six months ago when he entered the shelter system. “Leonard” came to the realization that he has no other place to go right now and that he is thankful he has a place to stay, but at the same times he talks about how hard it is to be homeless.

“Leonard” explains “people think if you’re homeless you’re stupid or an addict, that you did something you should not have done, and that’s why you’re homeless--you deserve it.”  He holds back emotion as he tells me that it is hard to know that prejudice exists, but worse to see homeless people believe that they do deserve to be homeless.

The transitional shelter he lives at houses residents for up to six months.  His six months are almost up and he is hoping for a three month extension.  If that does not happen, he will have to go back to the entry shelter and start the process of finding housing all over again.  On the job front he is optimistic about an upcoming opportunity, but admits his mind is preoccupied with the pending three month extension.  “Leonard” has a great deal of work and life experience to offer and he holds out hope to use these skills with an upcoming opportunity in a green job project.

Copyright Cleveland Street Chronicle and the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless published in December 2010.

Profile of a Woman Struggling with Immigration Issues

Huge Immigration Barriers to Establish Housing Stability

By:  Holly Lyon

On top of struggling with poverty, finding a job, maintaining a shelter, Collen is struggling with bureaucratic nightmare of becoming a U.S. citizen.  Collen lives in a downtown shelter in Cleveland, and has become active with a number of advocacy efforts locally.   I pick her up and as she settles in, I ask her how she has been.  Although she presents a calm demeanor, it is obvious Collen is worried.  She explains that she is trying to obtain a social security number which will enable her to gain citizenship.  Obtaining permission to become a US citizen is her biggest obstacle now, as it is preventing her from securing a job and housing for her family.

I ask how her children are.  She tells me that they are well, but that she has her son in counseling to adjust to their current living situation.  Her son, thirteen, lives in a residential school setting.  Collen also has a daughter in college, she then is homeless when her school is on break.  They have all struggled with friends to maintain housing and keep the family together.

Housing is critical for Collen’s family. Collen is not native to the United States, although she has been in the States for over twenty years, renewing her visa but never becoming a citizen.  Now she is facing the reality of having to return to her native country of Trinidad to apply for American citizenship.  This may result in indefinitely separating her from her children, both of whom were born in the United States.

Although her children are not currently living with her that has not always been the case.  In fact, the majority of her children’s childhood was spent living together as a family with the assistance of public housing.  She talks about the neighborhood where she lived in New York City having a lot of drug traffic, and how it was important to create a safe environment within their apartment and building.  She explains how she took them to the library and organized picnics with other families who lived in the building.

As she talks about her children, I comment to her that she has done a lot to make sure her children are educated and well taken care of.  She tells me in a candid but humble tone, “I could not give them everything they needed.”  She explains that it was many people and organizations in the community that assisted her.

It is not surprising that Collen talks at length about navigating the social service system, as it consumes much of her time.  She commented “you only get half of what you need.”  She explains she wants to get back into housing, but is worried that stimulus funding, called Homeless Prevention and Rapid Rehousing funds, only supplies economic support for a short period of time and that once that assistance ends, the income that she receives will not allow her to sustain a household.

She is worried, Collen explains. She has not worked a steady job for 20 years.  When she first came to the States, she lived in New York City and worked as a messenger.  When she became pregnant with her daughter, her self-sufficiency was compromised.  Her boyfriend and the father of her daughter had a heart attack close to the birth of their child.  Initially she retained her job as a messenger, but left due to her daughter needing to be taken out of daycare. An eviction followed. 

She briefly described living in a home with a family member; the home had no electricity or running water.  Shortly after this experience she entered a shelter.  She comments that “there are people in the United States that live like those in third world countries.”  She speaks with both gratitude and vexations about her experiences with social service providers.  She mentions the disparity in the quality of education, living wage and a social service system that sustains people at a level of poverty and leaves people both the client and the social services provider “totally frustrated”. 

The last thing I ask Collen is what she wants for her future.  She says she wants to work, but she also wants to go to go to college, so she can get a job to support her family.  Lastly, she discusses wanting to stay active in the community, beyond her homelessness.  Although she recognizes, she may have to leave the States, she continues to work towards self sufficiency, an education and citizenship. 

Copyright Cleveland Street Chronicle and the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless published in December 2010.

Shelter Standards Commentary

Kicking People to the Streets during the Late News

Commentary by Brian Davis

Imagine fleeing your home at 9 p.m. one night out of fear that your husband might harm you or your children, and you show up at the shelter only to find that the government takes no interest in maintaining a standard of care.  Imagine being asked to leave a friend’s couch to arrive at the men’s shelter and being kicked out during the 11 p.m. news for speaking out about having to provide a social security number or have your bags searched in order to get a bed.  These are not fictional stories thought up by disgruntled anti-government bloggers, but they are the daily experiences of the homeless population of Cleveland.

Government does a once a year inspection of some of the shelters, and takes no part in any grievances filed by homeless people.  There is no standard for the minimum level of care.  There is no requirement to report violence that takes place at the publicly funded shelters to anyone at the City or County.  No one in government ever finds out that people have died or had serious medical emergencies as a result of infections while staying in a shelter.  When filing a grievance only people paid by the shelter ever hear that complaint.  No government official ever reviews these complaints.  There is not even any standard for training of shelter staff. 

The Homeless Congress and the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless are urging the new Cuyahoga County Council to pass a law to regulate the shelters.  We need a place to go within government or at least a group funded by government to collect the complaints of homeless people about shelter and report those to City and County officials.  We need some protections so that moms are not kicked out of the shelter at 9 p.m. without a place to go.  We need a place to go to complain if the shelter is not providing a safe place to sleep.  Homeless people want some protection against retribution if they lodge a complaint about a staff person. 

This summer we saw two glaring examples for why we need a law that will protect homeless people while they sleep in a shelter.  The biggest issue was the movement by government of 100 women from the Community Women’s shelter to a facility with only one shower.  Once staff from the Coalition began looking at this facility, we found that 80 men had been sleeping in this shelter for nearly 10 years without the proper number of showers or toilets.  This saved the County and City money, but dramatically reduced the quality of life for thousands of homeless people.  Government sanctioned the use of this building as a shelter, and allowed homeless men and women to suffer in these deplorable conditions for 10 years. 

We also found out that one facility in Cleveland was telling women that they cannot allow boys to live in the shelter who are over 10 years of age.   This is a clear violation of both state and federal law, which local authorities have not addressed.  The State of Ohio determined this to be age and sex discrimination seven years ago, and yet this facility has continued to violate the law.  The federal government outlawed this practice with the passage of the HEARTH act in 2007, and yet no one from the City or County told this particular shelter to stop this illegal practice.  So, a woman had to further break up her family because she had a teenage daughter and a 13 year old son.  In the most difficult time for this family, they are further stressed by having to give their youngest child over to a friend until they can find a better living situation.  

In the 1980s, when we saw the explosion in shelters, they were mostly run by churches.  We believed that these were all temporary and America would solve the problem and move on to some other issue.  It did not make sense to tie the religious groups down with additional regulations for a temporary situation that they were doing out of the goodness of their hearts.  We now have 25 years of shelters that are permanent fixtures in our community.  Nearly all of them are run by non-profits using public dollars.  We now need a law to regulate the shelters.   We need to treat these facilities as we treat any other residential facility with oversight and minimum standards of care. 

We just want women and children to live in humane conditions, and for the City and County to take this problem seriously. We believe that with minimum standards people will move through the shelters quicker.  Residents will not get so disgusted with the treatment that they receive that they just give up and resign themselves to a life of homelessness.  We want an impartial group to rule on a grievance before the individual is kicked to the curb.  We want to bring some justice to the problem of homelessness.

 Copyright Cleveland Street Chronicle and the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless published in December 2010.

Community Women's Shelter Reopens

Community Women’s Shelter Renovated, Re-Named Norma Herr Women’s Center

By: Rosie Palfy

            After years of dreaming, planning and fundraising -- the waiting is over. The largest homeless shelter for women in Cuyahoga County has finally been renovated. The Community Women’s Shelter has a new look, a new name and even a new address.

            The two separate buildings that housed the old shelter at 2219 Payne Avenue were renovated and connected with a walkway to form one large facility. The refurbished shelter looks brand new on the inside and has taken the address of the old shelter’s second building at 2227 Payne Avenue. A grand re-opening celebration was held on October 26 and the shelter was re-named the Norma Herr Women’s Center in honor of a former resident.

            Susan Neth, the executive director of Mental Health Services, called the renovation “a labor of love that was shouldered by many -- the city, the county and the philanthropic community.” The project, a joint venture between the City of Cleveland and Cuyahoga County, was a culmination of years of planning and fundraising by many dedicated volunteers. The Cleveland Foundation and the George Gund Foundation each contributed large grants to renovate the buildings owned by Emerald Development and Economic Network, Inc. The Ohio Department of Development and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development also provided financial support.

            “Today is just a wonderful day. It’s been a long time coming,” said Kathy Kazol, executive director of EDEN.

            According to Kazol, both the building and the project went through many transformations. That process was due to changes in the economy and was also reflective of the shifts in the community’s thinking and philosophy of how to deliver services to homeless people over the last five years.

            “In the beginning we thought of the shelter as the end place and now we think of the shelter simply as a stop along the way… What we are really focused on now is finding people a home,” said Kazol.

            Cuyahoga County Commissioner Peter Lawson Jones said the center is a place where women can come with a sense of dignity, while feeling safe and secure to “plan their comeback in life.”

            “If there’s any trait you need in life, you need to be able to be resilient. You need to be able to bounce back… and that’s what this place is. It’s a trampoline for those women and families who want to get back on their feet and actualize their human potential,” said Lawson Jones.

            Neth told the audience a touching story about the first time she met Norma Herr on the day MHS assumed operations of the women’s shelter more than six years ago. At the time, Herr was the oldest resident in the shelter, in her ‘70s, elderly, frail and alone.

            “I was humbled by Norma Herr… Untreated mental illness had ravaged her life. Schizophrenia had devastated her relationships with family and friends. She had endured 17 years of homelessness and despite her attempts at staying isolated within this shelter, the younger women in the shelter were drawn to her,” said Neth.

            Herr would sit by herself in the corner of the room, and the women would move their chairs closer to where she sat, attempting to engage her in conversation. They told her stories, talked and laughed. They even called her “mom.” On Herr’s darkest days, when she was the most challenged, the women sat with her quietly in the corner, Neth said.

            MHS’ staff tried to help Herr get treatment for her mental illness and help her obtain housing, but she adamantly refused. She also rejected every attempt that was made to help her see a nurse for the physical pain she was suffering. Herr often talked about her two daughters, but she wouldn’t allow the staff to contact them and let them know that she was alive and safe.

            “It wasn’t until Norma was most vulnerable and dying from inoperable cancer that she consented to us making that phone call,” said Neth. “We called and the daughters came to Cleveland. The family was finally reunited and those final weeks of Norma’s life were surrounded by love.”

            For Herr’s daughters Natalia Rachel Singer and Mira Bartok, the event served as both a tribute to their mother’s memory and a celebration of her life.

            “Our mother was a loving, gifted human being, a brilliant musician, lover of the arts, a believer in human rights, social justice and she was also afflicted with a terrible illness that robbed her the ability to pursue her dreams,” said Bartok.

            Singer said the shelter’s staff reconnected her family and every day a group of women came to visit Herr while she was in a hospice facility. The daughters got to meet the women who found refuge at the shelter and were now part their mother’s new family.

            “There were women here who loved and revered my mother and called her ‘mother’ even when my sister and I could not… Every woman had a devastating story to tell -- stories of abuse, addiction, poverty. But everyone had hope in their eyes and had stories of survival and joy, funny stories. They laughed and cried,” said Singer.

            During the 17 years they were estranged from their mother, Singer and Bartok both became accomplished writers. Bartok wrote about her relationship with her mother and their reunion in a memoir called The Memory Palace which will be released in January 2011. She hopes the book will help raise public awareness about mental illness and homelessness.

            Bartok said many people believe they are immune to homelessness. When people see a homeless woman on the street, she wants people to stop and think, “She could be my mother too, and in this current economy she could be me. Until everyone understands that, we will continue to be plagued with homelessness in this country,” Bartok added.

            The women moved back into the renovated center on November 16 and had their own celebration. Members of the Browns Women’s Organization served a traditional Thanksgiving-style meal to more than 100 women and gave each woman a gift bag with toiletry items.

Copyright Street Chronicle and the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless published in December 2010.