First of all the name is scary. If you lost your housing and a place for all your possessions, would you want to be "diverted" when you showed up asking for help? If you finally made the decision to ask some stranger for help, the first thing that this social service provider will do in Cleveland is see if you can be "diverted." The County really should have come up with a more marketable name than diversion for the first step on a person's journey into homelessness. Social service types are not typically the most market savvy group in the community. After all, "homeless" is not something anyone wants to be labeled, and calling the group that takes children from unfit parents "children and family services" seems Orwellian.
In August, we heard from staff of diversion in a couple of different meetings, and I still have a ton of questions about the ethics and safety of the program for families in our community. The way it works in Cleveland is when you first become homeless or are in danger of being homeless you go over to either the men's shelter or the women/family shelter on Payne Ave. between 7 to 7 p.m. weekdays and 9 to 5 p.m. on the weekend. This is a problem since there is a stigma associated with shelter and a reputation in the community about these shelters. Then the head of the household completes an intake application. They head over to another room and meet with a staff member of Cleveland Mediation Center to discuss "diversion." This is a program to avoid shelter and find a more "appropriate" to stay.
This can mean the agency buying a bus ticket to live with family in another city. This a huge improvement because we have never done travel assistance in our city in the past. It can also mean negotiating with family locally to move into their extra bedroom or it can mean going back to a friend that the individual was staying with in March of this year. It could mean educating the family about the eviction process and that the family has a couple of weeks to work on alternative places to live. Or it could mean paying one month of rent to keep the family in housing. There is a possibility that the family could avoid shelter altogether with rapid rehousing back into a place to live with a commitment to three months worth of rent.
Avoiding shelter is the goal of everyone, but the implementation of some of these goals has been a problem. The goal is to "divert" 20 to 25% of the people seeking shelter. The CMC champion a "strength based system" driven by the clients to help them to figure out what resources they have available to them. They champion not judging the individual and working on "building a persons' capacity to act." In the first six months of 2014 they diverted 136 of the 711 of the single men who showed up at Lakeside shelter or 19%. CMC only diverted 17% of the women they saw and 26% of the families. Only families have access to rental assistance at this time, making it easier to provide diversion.
I have never heard a complaint from the men about diversion, but I have seen a number of issues with families misunderstanding diversion. I also know that many of the existing social service providers grumble about diversion. They say, if a person makes the effort to decide to go to shelter for help, they should be respected and provided some kind of help. Many of the women and families misunderstand the message being delivered by the diversion staff. They think that the person is saying that the shelter is too full and they need to find some other place to stay. Many walk away because they think the staff is saying, "there is no room at the inn." I worry that a victim of domestic violence will not be willing to admit to a total stranger that she is being beaten and will be diverted back to her death. I worry that a Mom will not disclose in front of her kids the violence going on within the house, and will be harmed after requesting shelter. I also see a problem with not interviewing a couple separately when talking about diversion. There is no way a woman will risk outing her partner in small room over at the Payne Ave shelter.
Other issues that I have seen is that no one knows their rights or the grievance procedure when they go through this process. There is nothing displayed that you have a right to shelter and can reject the diversion. Where do you go to complain? Are you a client of CMC or Frontline Services when you complete the intake? What are your privacy rights with regard to diversion and coordinated intake? None of this is spelled out or given to the client when they come in the door. The program has been fully implemented for the last two years, and we still don't have protections in place for the clients. There is not a piece of paper they get spelling out the process, the rights of the clients and the place that they can go if they have an issue. I just don't think that we should risk diversions for families until we have better protections and clear guidelines in place. And please come up with a better name for the program.
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