A New Era for the Women's Shelter...Trend or Outlier?

NEOCH has long documented the history of abuses and neglect at the Norma Herr’s Women’s Shelter. “Abusive”, “toxic”, and “predatory” are just some of the words that have been used to describe the inhumane conditions there. Thus, it is with great optimism that we regard the momentous occasion of this past Tuesday, May 1st: the day the YWCA began operating Norma Herr Women’s Shelter full-time.

First and foremost, we want to acknowledge and respect the struggle many have endured to reach this point of optimism. For over a decade, NEOCH has organized hand-in-hand with the women of Norma Herr, outreach workers, and service providers to build awareness of the issues at Norma Herr. Particularly, we want to honor the courage and bravery of the many women who spoke out against the terrible conditions at the shelter despite being fully aware of how speaking out could negatively affect their stay at the shelter. We are all indebted to the bravery of these women and other activists.

Second, thank you to Margaret Mitchell, Teresa Sanders, Nicole Evans and the rest of the team at the YWCA. Their leadership, courage, and love for our community has answered NEOCH’s long call for new service provider at the women shelter. NEOCH believes that the YWCA will bring a client-centered approach that will respect the dignity of all the women that walk through the doors. It is deeply appropriate that an organization whose mission it is to “eliminate racism and empower women” would have the courage to redo how services are provided to women in crisis in our community.  We know it is not a easy task to run the women’s shelter, but is is one of the most important in our homeless services system. There will be complaints, complications and very little thank you’s from this point forward. There will also be those that are wanting to partner with you and see you succeed. Count NEOCH as one of these partners. So before NEOCH receives our first “official” complaint and continues our advocacy work, on behalf of the NEOCH and our members, thank you. Thank you for your work, your mission, and your courage.

The YWCA’s transition into being a new provider comes at a time when NEOCH is under new leadership. I started this position in July 2017 and have been running ever since. I have about 10 years of experience volunteering at the Catholic Worker drop-in center on the west side of Cleveland, and I still volunteer there in the evenings. One of the saddest realities is when women who are experiencing homelessness ask me for a ride to the place where they are going to lay their head that night. I ask them if they want to go to the Women’s Shelter and they tell me, “no way,” and would instead have me drop them off under bridge or at another precarious place. This has happened countless times in the last 4 years. Thus, during my first few months as the director of NEOCH, I sat down with both Margaret Mitchell and Teresa Sanders to talk about the YWCA taking over operations once the County had opened the bidding process. I understood that this was an opportunity to rewrite how services are provided to women  who are experiencing homelessness in our community. I have gone to county council multiple times to support your work. I have sat in meetings with elected officials to support this transitions. We are on board the YWCA train that is coming to Payne Ave., and we want to build with you, as we want you to succeed to providing the best services possible.

While we are excited and hopeful about the fact that YWCA is running the shelter with increased resources, we want to acknowledge that it is not enough.  The needs continues to grow and more resources must be provided to continue supporting people facing a housing crisis. We have a lack of affordable housing in our community. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a person needs to make $15 a hour to afford a 2 bedroom apartment. This has led to to a increase of 24% in family homelessness over the last two years.  Furthermore, a homeless prevention program is almost non-existent in our community. Everyday, outreach workers and case managers scramble to help families and individuals pay rent and utilities so prevent evictions. They jump from organization to organization asking for support, trying to pull enough funds to prevent someone from becoming homeless. Cuyahoga County had 18,385 evictions in 2017 - mostly for non-payment of rent. Without a comprehensive plan to develop Cleveland without raising rents, we will see more and more homeless, and thus more and more (avoidable) stress placed on the shelter system.

We need to make sure that financial resources are available to the people that need them most. There seems to be plenty of money. Sadly, the county seems to have unlimited funds for other projects that don’t benefit poor, the near-homeless with insecure housing, and people experiencing homelessness now. The county gave a 2 million dollar loan for this high end apartments that will rent “for 1,300 to 1,600 a month.”. The County structured a $140 million deal to help billionaire Dan Gilbert pay for stadium renovations. And who knows how many undisclosed millions of dollars–in the form of tax cuts–were offered to Amazon in the attempt at obtaining “HQ2”?

When it comes time to supporting issues for those experiencing homeless, the County needs to stop looking in their couch cushions for spare funds but rather open their wallets to provide substantial resources. This struggle is a reminder that we are indeed a welfare-state, except our welfare often goes to billionaires instead of those that really need it. We are however excited that the County did eventually offer more funding for the Women’s Shelter. We only hope that it represents the beginning of a trend of vibrant support for social services for families and individuals experiencing homelessness. This is an optimistic moment for Cleveland’s homeless, and we need to build on this momentum.

By Chris Knestrick and Vishal Reddy

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