A Look At Homelessness In Ohio and Cleveland (Part 1)

part one of a two-part series

A synthesis of information with commentary by Kathy O. Smith, co-chair,

Social Concerns Committee,

SouthWest Unitarian Universalist Church,

Berea, Ohio

Will homelessness ever go away? 

Blessed are the homeless, for they shall inherit our homes.... Really?

"Joe Homeless" wrote a book about how he became homeless after an injury so bad he couldn’t work anymore, couldn’t pay rent, got evicted, and no family or friends would take him in. He lived for 10 years under the subway platform in New York City, supporting himself on proceeds of soda cans refunds, to keep himself high on crack. But eventually he pulled himself out of it enough to write for a homeless newspaper, then to write the book.

But who are the homeless? In Cleveland, and nationwide, some are single, some have a partner and children with them. Some live in emergency shelter, some in motels, some in abandoned building and cars. A few lucky ones are chosen for transitional housing. But all are unable to afford housing. All are caught in the vicious cycle of living in temporary shelters for 30, 60 or 90 days, then moving in with somebody, then living on the streets for a while, then back to temporary shelters again.

"Some?" "All"? How about some numbers? Okay, here’s what NEOCH tells us. That’s the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, 3631 Perkins Ave. 3rd floor, Cleveland 44114. On any given night in Cleveland, there are about 3,000-3,900 homeless people according to a CSU Levin College study in 2002. But there are only 2,000 beds available in all the Cleveland shelters and facilities. Over half of the homeless are single males. But 40% of the homeless are in families with children. Half of the homeless women and children are fleeing domestic violence. About one third of the homeless are children under 18. We might think that homeless people are exclusively the single unemployed, mentally imbalanced, drug addicted, and veterans. But 70% are NOT mentally ill, 60% are NOT chemically dependent, and 70% are NOT veterans. And 40% do have jobs. The fastest growing population is families with children. So much for stereotypes… So what do homeless people have in common? Brian Davis, NEOCH director, says it is: "...lack of family support. They have alienated their family, or their family is also impoverished, or they do not have a family in the area. But this does not cause homelessness. We ourselves have cut huge holes in the safety net, and these allow families to fall into the shelters."

So just what are the root causes of homelessness? We cannot begin to address the problem until we know what is causing the increasing numbers of homeless. A National Coalition for the Homeless fact sheet says: "Two trends are largely responsible for the rise in homelessness over the past 15-20 years: a growing shortage of affordable rental housing, and a simultaneous increase in poverty." A report by the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio states, "While the economic picture for the country points to some economic recovery, Ohio is not one of the states seeing improvement. Ohio rated second to last among states in job growth from the end of 1997 through last year. Ohio Policy Matters reported Ohio lost 118,500 or one out of seven manufacturing jobs from March 2001 to March 2003. The impact of these losses continues in September 2003 with 6,500 Ohioans running out of unemployment benefits. With loss of manufacturing jobs for 38 consecutive months, Ohio has seen huge increases in foreclosures and evictions, followed by a 30% increase in request for emergency or temporary shelter from 2002 to 2003." This sounds like poverty on the doorstep to me.

So what is lack of "affordable" housing, the other "root cause"? Federal guidelines say that 30% of your income is the most that should be spent on housing, in order for it to be "affordable." The Ohio Coalition report shows that two people working fulltime and only getting minimum wage would still not be able to "afford" a one bedroom apartment – they need to make a combined $11.65 per hour, and minimum wage is now at $5.25. They’re in a critical situation! And for a family with children, a two-bedroom apartment is almost impossible – the two adults would need a combined income of $14.46 per hour. In the Cleveland area, they would have to work a combined 112 hours per week at minimum wage to be able to afford a two-bedroom apartment. So much for one parent staying at home to raise the kids! A single person is almost forced to "double-up" with someone, to split the rent, in order to keep a roof over her or his head. Tragically, families with children are among the fastest growing segments of the homeless population. In addition, almost every major city in America has seen dramatic reductions in the number of affordable units available to lower income individuals, as the federal government tries to get out of the business of owning housing.

Is there ever to be a cure for this complex problem? Some say no, "the poor will always be with us." The Bible tells of beggars, lepers and cripples outside the gates of cities. Over 2000 years later, third world countries are filled with crowds of the starving -- refugees from war, religious persecution, drought, floods, and epidemics of disease. "Affordable housing" and "poverty" sound minor next to those problems, like maybe they’re just "American" problems. Has anything changed for us? Are the homeless always to be with us? Are we, like the well-read social historian Ralph Ryan III claims, on the average just 6 months from homelessness ourselves?