Why do We Need a Shelter Minimum Standards Bill?

Commentary by Brian Davis

In February 2013 in Tallahassee, Florida, a shelter director went undercover to another publicly funded shelter in her community and found that the staff were propositioning the female clients and threatening those who slept at the shelter to keep quiet. There were huge problems with bedbugs and staff taking items from clients.   The women were afraid to report these issues for fear that they would face retaliation, and they would end up living on the streets, which was viewed as the worse than reporting the harassment. Once this came to light there were many staff changes including the director being fired and the County/United Way stepping in to review the shelter, but how long did these women suffer?  This could happen anywhere and this could happen in Cleveland! This is why we need local shelter standards with proper oversight of the $25 million in public money given to the shelters. This is the opinion of the Coalition staff, the board and the members of the Homeless Congress who sleep in the shelters. 

We are not saying that all shelter staff are bad or abuse their power.  We are just saying that we do not know if this is happening unless we improve oversight of the shelters.  We cannot just put in a contract that they should operate quality shelters and hope that they abide by the rules written in the contracts.  We can’t even say that shelter staff in Cleveland ever get to see the standards written into the contracts signed with Cuyahoga County when they start working since they are not available on a public website. 

We know from the Stanford Prison experiments that if you put good people in a situation in which they have absolute power over another it is ripe environment for abuse.  We do not want to see similar accounts come to light in Cleveland in the media.   We have heard that Cuyahoga County is satisfied with the improvements that Cuyahoga County staff made in the contracts.  Homeless people are not satisfied and want the County to pass stronger regulations to involve oversight including unscheduled oversight visits and third party arbitration in which an impartial authority resolves grievances.  We heard from women at the shelter threatened every night with eviction for minor issues like talking too loud.  We heard about issues with staff dismissing complaints against subordinates, and facing assaults in the men’s shelter by staff.   On behalf of the Homeless Congress, we are asking that the County Council pass something to improve the conditions within the shelters.  

We thank Councilman Julian Rogers from listening to the concerns of homeless people at our March Homeless Congress meeting, and for visiting one of the shelters in April.  We heard from Councilman Dale Miller who said, “Thanks for sharing the information on the Tallahassee problems.  We certainly want to make sure we don't have similar problems here.”  When these candidates were running for office and soon after they were elected six declared that they would support legislation to regulate the shelters.  We are still waiting for the legislation.  Not contract improvements or an unelected body passing regulations.  We want our elected officials to live by their pledge to pass some kind of legislation.  Anything that regulates the shelters will be fulfilling this promise.  If they don’t want to pass the 12 pages of regulations we suggest what about just protections against discharges and a fair grievance procedure?

Mike McGraw, a reporter for the Street Chronicle, asked County Council President, C. Ellen Connally to comment about the regulations of the shelters.  He asked, “How do you explain the fact that no shelter standard regulation bill has come to the floor of Council for a vote since the new form of government came into being two years ago?”  C. Ellen Connally responded to his e-mail with this statement, “Once elected, Council members set about learning about all kinds of county services, including those administered by the Office of Homeless Services.   I am aware that NEOCH presented its request for shelter standards legislation at Council’s Health, Human Services & Aging (HHSA) Committee sometime during the 2011 calendar year.  Members of the HHSA committee did further research and met with representatives of NEOCH, and the Shelter Advisory Board.  These members were satisfied that the shelter standards requested had already been agreed to by the community after considerable discussion with all those involved with the shelters.   I know that the standards are a part of the RFP issued by the county when contracting for these services. Any agency receiving funding must certify their compliance with the standards.” 

Neither C. Ellen Connally nor any member of the Office of Homeless Services ever asked the Homeless Congress if they were satisfied with the shelter standards in the contracts of the shelters.  No one is asking the people who sleep in the shelters if they mind being threatened with discharge on a regular basis.  No elected official that provides 80% of the funds for the shelter ever asked if the grievance procedure is fair in Cuyahoga County.  Finally, no one in Cuyahoga County can say with any certainty whether the shelter staff are mistreating the women like they were doing in Tallahassee.

 Copyright NEOCH and Street Chronicle May 2013, Cleveland, Ohio