A Place to Start, Two Years Later

By Anne Nickoloff

A short, plainly-dressed man presses his left thumb into the electronic fingerprint scanner for the ninth time.

 Sitting across from him, John Thomas patiently waits for the thumbprint reader to get a good image. Thomas is a big guy with a big laugh, who makes easy conversation out of hard topics.

 “You just get out?” asks Thomas.

The man's expression is blank, tired.

“Yesterday.”

 The process of checking in to 2100 Lakeside Emergency Men’s Shelter is routine. A fingerprint, a name, a few questions, then a second process at the information center. The questions here involve just the basics. It’s not too nitpicky; never once does Thomas ask about the man's crime or addictions. Never once does he ask about his sexuality.

 The answers to those questions aren’t important here.

 Thomas punches at an old computer’s keyboard with his index fingers, entering the man's information that does matter. “How long you in there?” he asks without looking up.

 “Seven," says the man wearing light grey sweatpants and a t-shirt with one sleeve rolled up, revealing a tattoo on his upper shoulder.

 “Seven what? Months, years?” Thomas asks as he clicks through different pages on the dusty computer screen. Behind the man, a few drips of water plop down from an unseen ceiling leak.

 “Years.”

 A pause, punctuated by the final click of the computer mouse.

“Glad to have you out."

 The man follows a worker down green-striped halls to the information center, passing by fliers and bulletin boards. High up on the wall, an air freshener spritzes out clouds of mist every now and then. Guys shuffle or sit, heads down. Hand sanitizer stations are as common as light switches.

 The shelter stands on a bleak street littered with potholes, in a faded brick building with faded green address numbers that read “2100." It's the address, and the nickname.

 Inside 2100, six different sections (here, they're called communities) house different types of men, with over 350 beds available per night. Thomas walks by each of them like a frequent tour guide. With his flat-brimmed hat and a Michael Jackson t-shirt, he is far from the image of authority.

 There’s one community specifically for veterans, another for men with psychological needs. One for men who require drug treatment, another for working men ready to move out. A community for new arrivals, and a community for urgent stays.

 That last one is the Emergency Community. With 70 beds, 15 mats pushed up against a side wall and a separate room for overflow, it’s the biggest community here.

 The main room is filled with bunk beds, and after its daily cleaning, its walls are sterile white, save for a few inspirational quotes:

“Knowledge is power,”

“Believe you can achieve,”

“Character has no color."

It’s around 11 a.m., and the smell is gone now.

 "We're showing you the good side. Come around at 8 p.m.," says Bill Walker, with a grumpy edge to his voice.

 Walker’s job includes scrubbing down the Emergency Community room after the men leave at 8 a.m. Near the entrance to the area is a large wall mural painting, created by a staff member’s grandson. According to Walker, the artist was killed shortly after finishing.

 The painting is an inspirational collage of famous people featuring the likes of Nelson Mandela and President Barack Obama. Sandwiched between a few recognizable faces is a man who works here— the guy who almost everyone says hello to when he shows up in the morning.

 Mike Sering towers above most other residents when he walks down the hall. He's the vice president of housing and shelter for Lutheran Metro Ministry, which runs 2100. In the Emergency Community’s hallway, Sering’s painted caricature is smiling, his cartoon hand throwing up a peace sign.

 Many different men walk by the mural every day. Men of all different colors and backgrounds, all with different stories and problems. Regardless of addiction, criminal history, sexuality or temperament, all men have a place to stay at 2100, unless they pose a danger to other occupants.

 Since Lutheran Metro Ministry took over the building in 2005, the shelter has accepted almost everyone.

 But for this shelter and many others, universal acceptance is not a simple thing to do.

 In March of 2012, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) released the official rule titled “Equal Access to Housing in HUD Programs Regardless of Sexual Orientation or Gender Identity.” The title’s a mouthful; instead, it’s regularly known as the “HUD LGBT” rule.

 The rule is far reaching, applying to any form of housing which receives HUD funding, including shelters. Specifically, the rule prohibits inquiries about sexual orientation or gender identity as a way to choose potential tenants. It prevents discrimination based on these characteristics.

 However, there’s a small exception that applies for places like 2100. While the same basic rule stands, emergency or temporary shelters are allowed to inquire an occupant’s sex to help place them in buildings with shared bedrooms or bathrooms.

 According to Sering, the rule has helped to specify previously grey areas. Lutheran Metro Ministry has discussed the topic since it first took over operations of the building. Back then, Sering asked other shelters about their policies. He remembered hearing a range of answers, some of them reasonable, others along the lines of, “If you can write your name in the snow, then you go to the male shelter.”

 Sering explained: “So, that wasn’t in line with how you identify yourself. I think the rule was willy-nilly; anyone was doing whatever they were doing. There wasn’t consistency. I think we’ve gotten a continuum together on that.”

 Thomas, who communicates with the residents on a daily basis, can see that the shelter abides by the rules, and that most of the guys are good about following them.

 Although it’s been over two years since the HUD LGBT rule became official, many organizations were not as proactive as 2100 shelter. “I would say that it’s largely unknown to a lot of mainstream housing providers,” said Kris Keniray, the director of enforcement at the Housing Research and Advocacy Center.

 Keniray, who attended Oberlin College for women’s studies, was excited when the rule first came out two years ago. “I think it’s a step in the right direction, and short of an act of Congress to change the [Fair Housing Act] law, [HUD] really did what it could to expand protections under its umbrella and in its reach,” she said.

 She still admits that transgender homeless persons can present problematic situations for all-male or all-female shelters, even if these applicants are not common.

Kelly Camlin, Sering’s coworker, met some of the transgender occupants, who wear wigs, dresses and traditionally feminine clothes. When asked, they identify as male; they prefer to stay there rather than on the streets.

 That isn’t always the case.

“Usually we have a couple people in that category [transgender] at any given time,” said Sering. “I think we had a rough reputation before, which is getting better, but still, people could be uncomfortable coming here.”

 In the past, 2100 was known as a place where occupants had to sleep with their shoes on to avoid having them stolen. New programs like the Social Enterprise branch, cheap housing projects and community beautification have helped to improve 2100’s image, though it’s a slow process.

 The pipes still drip, ceiling panels still bloom with dirty water stains and the janitors still joke about duct tape holding the building together.

 "I'm not gonna tell you this is a Cinderella place, 'cause it's not,” said Thomas. “But it’s the best shelter there is."

 The HUD LGBT rule’s arrival wasn’t a big concern for 2100, because, according to Sering, they were already following similar rules for years prior. They treat every man who comes in as a part of the greater community, and expect them to respect each other, regardless of who else may be sleeping in the other bunk.  The issue for 2100 Lakeside shelter before the HUD LGBT rule was that they were one of the only facilities willing to open to their doors to those transitioning from their birth sex, while most of the rest of the shelter network were confused or unwilling to provide shelter to any transgender person.

 “A lot of these guys, they got a heart of gold,” said Thomas.

 Whether it’s stashing food in their pockets to feed the pigeons and cats outside, or reading the announcement board for illiterate occupants, or setting an example for newcomers, the men at 2100 aren’t necessarily what the stereotype of homelessness suggests.

 In almost every major room or hallway, photos of success stories hang with short descriptions of where the men are now. All of them stayed in 2100 at some point.

 Jane Sheets, a volunteer at 2100, claims she knows the secret for these men to get back on their feet. Eighty-one years old and still busy, Sheets comes in to help occupants learn more about interview processes. A man sits across from her at a table in the cafeteria, his head down, eyes down, expression tired.

 “One secret I share with every guy I meet, is that when they go to an interview, they have to have a story,” says Sheets.

Despite having a criminal past, which applies to two-thirds of 2100’s residents, it’s as simple as explaining a story, explaining the difficulties of trying to get better, and working to get out of the shelters. Even if the job is a minimum wage gig, it’s something.

 In the same way, the building itself is something, after getting out of jail or off the streets—for any type of man.

 And the HUD LGBT rule was a place to start for equal rights. Maybe a federal law would be a place to end.           

 Sheets gestures to the man sitting across from her. “He thinks his life is over. At 29!” She laughs, and Thomas joins in.

 The young man’s flat face turns up a bit. The corner of his mouth twitches, becomes a tiny smile.

 It’s a place to start.

Copyright Cleveland Street Chronicle  May 2014 Cleveland, Ohio