by Ellen Kriz
The policy of diversion was introduced by the National Alliance to End Homelessness and first implemented in Columbus. It is now a nationally growing trend aimed at reducing homelessness and preventing potentially distressing episodes in the shelters. In nearly every city in the United States including Columbus, when the shelter is full they close the door. This blunts the impact of diversion since the shelters turn people away for a lack of beds every day. This program begins when an individual or family applies to an emergency shelter. An interview process known as a Coordinated Intake System determines whether the person(s) can find safe, stable housing elsewhere and can be “diverted” from the shelter. Oftentimes, this means trying to return the applicants to wherever they stayed the night before. Cleveland began incorporating diversion into its shelter system last year, and the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless is skeptical about the purported benefits of this new policy.
NEOCH is concerned about diversion because it could deny social services for those in need, and in practice, there seems to be some confusion about diversion processes. Clients have complained that they did not understand the diversion questions and were under the impression that there were no beds at the shelter. This is problematic because Cleveland has maintained a position that individuals who seek shelter are never denied a bed for the night. NEOCH fears that diversion will be used to reverse this admirable tradition. Entry-level staff at the shelter might use diversion to reduce crowding or discourage populations that are particularly difficult to care for from applying. It is troubling that some families, perhaps the most challenging population to accommodate, could be encouraged to move back into an abusive household. NEOCH questions whether the staff that administers the interviews is qualified enough to detect signs of abuse in a relatively short period of time during the interview process. NEOCH doubts that many women would reveal an abusive past so willingly to a total stranger.
Ruth Gillett from the Cleveland/Cuyahoga County Office of Homeless Services (OHS) and Dan Joyce, the director of the Cleveland Mediation Center (CMC) which staffs the Coordinated Intake System, were asked to explain the new policy and the ramifications for those seeking shelter. Joyce emphasized that diversion is not used to deny shelter. CMC focuses on returning applicants to safe housing for the night by helping pay utility bills and otherwise sustaining a permanent home. Joyce admitted that CMC does not believe that all needs should be met; their focus is housing. If mental issues come into play during the interview process, the applicant is referred to Mental Health Services (MHS). Joyce was defensive when the qualifications of his staff were called into question. The interviewers are not mental health professionals, but they are trained in conflict resolution, mediation, and identifying domestic abuse. Joyce noted that just recently a man came to the shelter and that CMC considered diverting him to his sister’s home. The staff successfully identified that this man was recovering from substance abuse and that his sister was a threat to his sobriety, so he was not sent back to her household. Although this anecdote sounds promising, it does not address NEOCH’s main fear that women and children could be placed in harm’s way because women are afraid to admit that domestic abuse occurs in their homes.
Gillett similarly insisted that the intent of diversion is not to push people away, but to stabilize housing and prevent potentially traumatic shelter stays. She asserted that, in this way, diversion is especially crucial for families since children who spend time in shelters reportedly have more mental problems. The majority of children who enter shelters are less than two years old when a lack of stability is detrimental to their health. In response to the domestic abuse issue, Gillett admitted that it is simply impossible to predict how a person will react to the questions and whether he or she will choose to hide information. Diversion is not a solution to all of the problems that surround homelessness; it is a response to a housing crisis. Even so, out of the 5,200 people who were sheltered in an emergency shelter last year, only 20% were diverted successfully. Although Gillett understands that this is not a groundbreaking success, she emphasized that diversion is just one of many efforts to provide good services for those in need.
Both Joyce and Gillett welcome a dialogue with NEOCH so that all parties involved have a clearer understanding of diversion and its practical implications. They are willing to consider suggestions that might improve protocol to make diversion processes more accessible and easily understood by shelter applicants. It seems that diversion could become a permanent fixture in Cleveland, and like any new policy, it will likely undergo numerous modifications before it most effectively serves those struggling to maintain housing.
Copyright Cleveland Street Chronicle/ NEOCH July 2012 Cleveland Ohio