Contentious Homeless Congress Meeting

Commentary by Megan the Intern

    On May 14th the monthly meeting of Homeless Congress was held at 1pm at Cosgrove, and a large number of people attended because of the speaker from Cuyahoga County.  34 were shelter residents and 16 represented other community organizations came to hear from County Councilwoman Yvonne Conwell. Some of the organizations represented included Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland Mediation Center, Laura’s Home, Cosgrove Center, Norma Herr Women’s Shelter, 2100 Lakeside Men’s Shelter and NEOCH.  County Councilwoman Yvonne Conwell was one of the founding members of the new form of government and had previous experience working in the social service community.  Conwell’s presence caused the large turnout and the tension to run high.

    The meeting began with introductions, followed by a summary of the agenda by the executive director of NEOCH Brian Davis.  First on the agenda Councilwoman Yvonne Conwell addressed the audience, describing her role as a council member and as vice president of the Department of Health and Human Services committee.  Following the address, Brian Davis presented the Congresswoman with some of the major concerns of Congress members, and invited her feedback. 

     Residents of the shelters and permanent supportive housing units attend the Homeless Congress meetings every month to work on issues that impact all their lives.  For this meeting the topic of discussion focused on the lack of enforcement of the recently approved and published list of County regulations for shelters.  Not only are the regulations not enforced, but there are no means to enforcing them.  There is no one to go to within the County to tell that there is a problem and no one goes out to the shelters to see if the regulations are being followed.  This is such a great concern of Congress members because it jeopardizes the civil rights, health and safety of homeless people.  With no forum outside of the shelters or other social service providers that can address the concerns and grievances of its residents, the rights, health and safety of residents are at the mercy of shelter employees.

       The topic of enforcing shelter regulations stirred up quite a debate between those employed by Norma Herr shelter and the members of Congress.  One of the regulations discussed as an example was bed rest.  The proposed regulation states “The shelters must accept ‘bed rest’ orders from legitimate health professionals including Care Alliance.”  Residents of the shelter reported that the shelter was not accepting bed rest orders from Care Alliance, (considering them illegitimate) the health care provider recommended by shelters. Shelter residents also reported that when bed rest orders are accepted, they are only allowed 1-2 hours of rest before being told to leave the shelter. Others said that they were flat out denied bed rest and told if they were too sick to leave they should go to a nursing home. Norma Herr staff disputed this, stating that they do honor bed rest orders even from Care Alliance. 

    Staff of the Cleveland Mediation Center claimed that they serve as an impartial third party forum to enforce shelter regulations and investigate grievances.  This statement caused an uproar among Congress members. CMC staff said that they can address any of these concerns and have had many meetings about these conditions for the past month.  Many in the audience pointed out that the Women’s shelter has been a problem for years and things have not changed.  Even the men at the meeting were tired of waiting for a change in the women’s shelter.  One member pointed out that CMC is on the payroll of the Norma Herr shelter, and cannot be considered a third party.  CMC also argued that the 42 grievances collected by NEOCH in one week against the women’s shelter were impossible to investigate due to the fact that half of them were anonymous. 

        NEOCH disputed CMC’s claim by pointing out that grievances with names were not addressed or investigated.  CMC and Norma Herr disputed this by stating that disputes are a process that takes time.  CMC stated that the organization is making an attempt to improve standards by implementing listening circles designed for shelter residents to address their concerns.  When current residents of Norma Herr were asked if they have noticed any improvements they reported that they had not.

    In an effort to wrap up the meeting, Councilwoman Conwell gave some closing remarks.  She stated that she had compassion for both sides in the debate.  Councilwoman Conwell stated that as a former employee of the women’s shelter, she knows that some shelter residents are truthful and others are not.  Therefore, she believes grievances should be dealt with on a case by case basis by a neutral party.  The problem with this logic is that truth cannot be determined without an objective third party. Congresswoman Conwell also added that she would try to arrange a meeting with the county council committee to discuss improved shelter standards and regulations.  While such a meeting might improve the letter of the standards and regulations, with no means of enforcement, it will not likely improve the spirit of such regulations.

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