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.