County Debates Time Limits on the Emergency Shelters

Commentary by Brian Davis

 Cuyahoga County is one of the last communities in the United States that does not turn people away from shelter.  If a person or family seeks shelter, we will find a bed.  It may be an overflow bed at first, but we will not turn a person requesting help back to the streets.  The County is now debating whether the publicly funded shelters will put a time limit on the shelters which would effectively end the guaranteed access to shelter.  There is a concern with the rise in numbers of single adults seeking shelter and the length of stay that continues to grow. We never look at what is the cause of these shelter increases like a rise in poverty, or unemployment, or entitlement changes, but we try to solve these problems divorced from the rest of the system.  The proposed solution is to put a time limit on the shelters and discharge those who refuse to go into housing.  The County staff have repeatedly brought these suggestions to the Homeless Congress in Cleveland and asked for input from the residents of the shelter. 

 This may seem crazy that people would turn down housing and the knee jerk reaction is to punish people with a night on the streets to change their mind.  But it is not that simple.  There are thousands of reasons to turn down housing and we cannot make a blanket rule that meets all the challenges faced by homeless people.  They could be targeted by gangs or an abuser in the neighborhood that was selected for them.  They may need some support and do not want to be left alone to die without anyone noticing.  They may know that they will not be able to afford the unit and will be evicted in two or three months making them unable to find housing in the future.  They may feel that the location is unsafe or may be nearly impossible to get to a job from some locations.  There are a few who have a disability that clouds their thinking, but most have other reasons for turning down housing.  Even for those who have a mental illness, it is not easy finding a “payee” to take care of their finances. 

 The Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless opposes time limits for shelter.  We believe that this only sets up an unnecessary barrier that leaves people sleeping on the streets.  It does not accomplish the goal of freeing up shelter beds as much as the deplorable conditions of some of the shelters does.  It will just result in more people sleeping outside, which should not be an effective public policy. 

 We are the richest country to ever exist.  If we cannot offer a bed to taxpayers so that they do not sleep outside, then there is something wrong with us.  If we keep saying that the shelters are the triage like a hospital then act like a hospital.  Emergency rooms serve everyone who walks in no matter how many times they have been in the hospital.  The purpose of a shelter is to keep people safe and if they are sending people out in the cold because they have stayed too long, then the shelers are not fulfilling their primary purpose.  This is especially true for women who are more vulnerable to horrible outcomes if they are not in shelter.

 The system is so fractured and uneven that women receive a far inferior service compared to men.  It is not fair that we criticize people struggling with housing when they receive vastly different experiences with the social service community.  How about we start blaming the staff for not being trained properly or for mistreating residents or crushing their will with oppressive policies?  If the staff were better prepared to help homeless people with housing and income then maybe there would be shorter lengths of stay.

 We should be proud that we have always opened our arms to embrace people struggling with addiction, employment, debt or housing.  We have never turned people away in Cleveland and we should champion this fact.  This has resulted in far fewer people sleeping outside when compared to almost every other major American city in the United States.  We have fewer people who die on the streets and we have far fewer health issues associated with people attempting to sleep upright (on a bus) or outside.

 Our faith community is called to shelter homeless people.  If our publicly funded shelters go forward with a time limited shelter system, the faith community will step forward to keep men and women safe.  These private shelters will have nothing to do with the County’s management system, counting, coordinated intake or the other requirements placed on shelters that receive government funds.  We will create two separate systems for homeless people if we go down this path. 

 There are 21,000 people on the Public Housing waiting list and for most people there is a 3 to 5 year wait for affordable or subsidized housing.  The welfare safety net system was torn apart years ago.  The job training programs do not serve homeless people very well, and even those who receive a disability check cannot afford a to rent a place.  We estimate 54,000 people need some subsidy to be able to afford rent locally, and debt is a huge issue with most people struggling locally.  With all these problems that we have to overcome, we do not need to complicate those living in poverty shelter time limits.       

 Copyright Cleveland Street Chronicle March 2017 Issue 24#1