Central Intake Only Way to Enter for Shelter

By  Grace Gamble

In June of 2012, the Greater Cleveland shelter program expanded and formalized its Coordinated Assessment and Intake Program, Central Intake, which controls the admittance and dismissal of individuals from shelter.

Ruth Gillett , Director of the Cleveland/Cuyahoga County Office of Homeless Services, said, “our community has been working on implementing a Coordinated Assessment/Intake since FY 2008 when a pilot was established at 2100 Lakeside (the largest men’s shelter in Cleveland). With the Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-housing Program (HPRP) funds…Cuyahoga County was able to expand this effort to the Community Women's Shelter.”

 This expanded effort has resulted in an updated system for the shelter program in which individuals seeking shelter must first meet with a homeless social service provider from the Mental Health Services (MHS)  agency at 2100 Lakeside Men’s Shelter to assess their needs.

 The MHS staff person along with staff from Cleveland Mediation Center work to find alternative placement outside the shelter. Diversion, which Gillett calls “the most effective intervention prevention” method, is a way for those who have recently maintained housing or have an income sufficient to purchase housing to find an alternative to seeking shelter.

 Those to whom diversion does not apply undergo an intake with a Mental Health Services staff member. At a Homeless Congress meeting in the summer of 2012, Ed Germerchak of Mental Health Services compared this intake to visiting a hospital.   Central Intake seeks to serve the precise needs of the individual by assessing which shelter is best for him or her. Although these intakes are done at 2100 Lakeside or the Community Women’s Shelter, the homeless person does not have to seek shelter at one of those facilities.  In fact, a woman with a child never stays at the Community Women’s Shelter.  They will be transported to one of the other family appropriate shelters in the community.  

 Moreover, if the ideal shelter is not available for the person at the time, they are placed on the shelter’s waiting list. Central Intake has the policy that a bed is never denied. Therefore, those individuals on the waiting list for a shelter are granted a bed in the Zelma George Emergency Shelter, an out of county shelter, or even a hotel.  The summer is always especially busy for families seeking shelter.      

 Like Cleveland, many other cities have tried to implement a centralized intake system. For many cities, such as San Francisco, this has proven successful. The HUD report, “Centralized Intake for People Experiencing Homelessness: Overview, Community Profiles, and Resources” includes the positive outcomes of San Francisco’s centralized intake program.  The report states that “rapid, efficient intake and assessment has helped families get assistance faster” and, “a fragmented family service system has been replaced by a coordinated, more efficient approach.”     

 In contrast, other cities have struggled with a centralized intake. Columbus previously had a system similar to that of Cleveland. Unlike Cleveland, however, Columbus did not ensure that every individual had a bed at night. Thus, loitering around the shelter where Central Intake was located became a huge issue.

 In an attempt to reverse the loitering issue, Columbus made intakes available only over the phone. Unfortunately, the change created more problems and the loitering did not cease.  Columbus officials ended the central intake at a specific facility and changed to a phone based system.  The only way to access shelter in Columbus is to call a central number, and then you have a limited period of time to get to that shelter bed.  The inability to find a phone to use, the long waits on the phone and the lack of transportation has caused issues among homeless people in Columbus.

 Mimicking the national results, the local opinions of Cleveland’s Central Intake are also mixed. Community Organizer at the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, Brian Davis, recognizes that Central Intake “does provide advantages for the community because there are a smaller number of people doing the initial intakes and so [there is] a smaller chance of getting it wrong.”

Likewise, a shelter provider who did not want to be identified said, “Our experience with Central Intake has been largely favorable. Since [we have been working with Central Intake] for awhile now, there hasn’t been a significant change. It does seem as if there continues to be a struggle to get all providers on board but definitely overall seems more cohesive.”

 Another provider added that this individual felt they were clear on their role and the role of Central Intake, and added,  “Overall, I feel it is going okay. I believe Central Intake is trying to be cognizant of our eligibility criteria, and the types of families we can best serve. I also feel they are being responsive when we are having difficulty with a family and need assistance with meditation.”

 In contrast, this same provider stated, “the challenges have been some clients coming to us without a clear exit plan identified, which makes things difficult, especially now that funding for housing assistance is more limited; and finding after the family had been assigned that alter their appropriateness for our program.” Another provider added “They still don’t have an understanding of level of care. Whoever is making the referrals has no ideas where the folks should go. We get plenty of inappropriate referrals.”

In response to these challenges, Gillett explained that shelters may need to assess their services and staffing abilities and adjust these according to the people that they are currently serving as a part of the overall system transformation that Central Intake is implementing.

  She said, “[Coordinated Assessment/ Intake] is focused on assuring that the resources committed through the Continuum of Care are responsive to the needs of the homeless persons. So, if current programs…are not able to meet the needs of the persons seeking shelter, it is incumbent upon the Continuum of Care to adjust the available responses to be more helpful to what people really need.”

 The main challenges that the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless sees with Central Intake include the fact that the Central Intake should not be at a shelter. Davis reiterated that the point that many homeless do not choose to seek shelter and thus would not find a shelter a logical location for finding help with housing or other barriers to stable housing. He suggests to instead establish a drop in center isolated from the shelters like the Veteran’s Administration has recently designed.

 In response to this, Gillett noted that “The VA is clearly a different system” than Central Intake. She added that their new Centralized Resources and Response Center was established because it was one of nine VA’s in the country selected to receive special funding for a stand alone facility.

In addition, Gillett adds that, throughout the past four years, it has been observed that “the most effective prevention intervention, that was most clearly linked to reducing entry into shelter, occurred at the door of the shelter…through diversion.” She added that “prevention that occurs early in the process of someone experiencing housing instability may stabilize the household, but is not linked with a reduction in the number of households entering shelter-which is a measure that Housing and Urban Development looks at in evaluating performance outcomes.”

 Another concern of the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless is that “the science behind Central Intake is not worked out yet. There are no questions you can better manage the time a person spends homeless through a common intake and better referrals,” said Davis. With the many challenges posed, Davis suggests the following to improve Central Intake: “Move it to a neutral location. They need some strong oversight of their operations by government or another independent non-profit. They need a way for a client to grieve to make sure that they are not improperly denied shelter.”

While many mixed opinions exist and challenges have clearly arisen, as a shelter provider states, “it is a new system for everyone, and it is to be expected that we will be working things out for awhile.”

 Copyright  Cleveland Street Chronicle  Cleveland, Ohio October 2012  NEOCH