second of a two-part series
by Kathy O. Smith, co-chair,
Social Concerns Committee,
SouthWest Unitarian Universalist Church
Are there solutions to homelessness in Cleveland?
It certainly sounds like an impossible task – to solve homelessness in a large metropolitan city such as Cleveland. But this has always been the goal of the 10-year old Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless (NEOCH), directed by serious social activist, Brian Davis.
In the Sep-Oct issue of The Homeless Grapevine, northeast Ohio’s street newspaper, an editorial by Brian Davis, et al, presented some startling and controversial solutions to the problems of homelessness in Cleveland, discussed below. A month later, he announced a Homeless Sleep-in Protest, set for the week before Christmas. He said that men from the homeless community were tired of being turned away each night from the “sorry-no-vacancy” Homeless Shelter at 2100 Lakeside (City and County funded, run by Salvation Army), and were going to camp out at visible public places in protest -- places like Public Square, Shaker Square, City Hall or Playhouse Square – if the City and County did not come up with a solution to this crisis of forced sleeping on the streets.
What? Do homeless people have a right to a place to stay out of the weather? Aren’t we enabling them, if we don’t let them feel the consequences of their actions? But then, how do you draw the line between providing life-sustaining help and enabling a person? In the past 12 years, the Shelter never used to turn anyone away. Then after the new shelter was rehabbed and opened last year, a 410-man limit was imposed, which was quickly surpassed. So the County created three overflow shelters, but these are now closed or soon to be, and there are over 100 men turned away at the main shelter every night. These forgotten citizens decided they’d had enough of this. So they got 600 men to sign a petition asking for a resolution to the situation, they met with elected officials, and they patiently waited for a solution.
In due time they decided the officials needed some more pressure. With the support of NEOCH, they asked the community to help publicize their protest, by sleeping outside with them on December 18, and to donate or loan sleeping bags or tents, provide vans to transport the homeless people to the public protest sites, or just show up with food, supplies, signs or hot chocolate, to show their support. With plans in place, NEOCH stated, “If there is no resolution of the overflow problem, we will announce the site of the protest on Thursday, December 18.” And lo and behold, a City Councilman came up with a plan. They would house the men at the long-closed Aviation High School, located on the shores of Lake Erie in downtown Cleveland. The protest was called off, temporarily, to give the City and County a chance to work out the details of the plan. Who would’ve thunk it? A street protest and sleep-in on behalf of one of the most ignored groups in our society. What creative thinking! And it worked.
So what else does Brian Davis have up his sleeve? Well, he decided to attack another part of the problem – community aversion to homeless men loitering around Public Square and city streets. He noted that one of the problems in a homeless person’s life is that he or she is constantly hassled by communities and police, to “move on, move on”, sometimes being chased and beaten. Downtown businesses are concerned about the image of an unsafe environment for their customers. Police are worried about the criminal element. Pedestrians are embarrassed by panhandlers and beggars. Families are appalled by persons performing natural bodily functions in public. Others are offended by seeing persons feeding addictions in public, or otherwise “self-medicating” for their woes.
In the editorial, the Grapevine editor suggests ways to help move people off the streets by:
1) creating pay-for-stay facilities, non-profit, sliding scale, for those who work for low wages;
2) creating daytime and nighttime drop-in centers with services;
3) requiring emergency shelters to take in all who apply;
4) providing public restroom facilities and drinking fountains on Public Square;
5) filing a lawsuit against makers and distributors of alcohol.
Let’s take the suggestions one by one, and see what he has to say.
1) Construct a Pay-to-Stay facility, not-for profit, with sliding scale charges. “There are as many as 40% of the men’s shelter population who work or have some income. Unfortunately, in Cleveland we only have the Jay Hotel [$25/night] available to people who can afford to pay rent but have problems signing a lease. While there would be costs associated with starting a Pay to Stay, it would be much cheaper than a shelter, and would be self sustaining after the renovation and start-up costs.”
2-a) Restore daytime drop-in services to the Bishop Cosgrove Center at East 18 & Superior. When the women’s shelter was moved to the Cosgrove Center, its daytime services to men were ended, forcing men to loiter in the streets. “Since it costs $400,000 to operate this center, the Cleveland community will need to work together on this, to allow 200 people to stay inside and out of the elements. We have a compassionate and broad range of groups that will try to serve others down on their luck by providing food, clothing and blankets no matter what laws exist. Some cities have unsuccessfully tried to ban feeding programs, with little success and high legal expenses.”
2-b) Open an overnight drop-in center in one of the many abandoned buildings in the industrial area of town. “This would be a safe place for people to go or sleep or get coffee or just a place to sit. There are plenty of organizations that would be willing to donate assistance in setting this up. We have to believe that downtown businesses would be willing to pay for a security guard at the facility, in order to assure it would be a safe place, and if it meant that people did not sleep on Public Square. We believe that homeless people could be trusted to manage the facility themselves so that we would not need to pay an agency or church to manage it. After all, in the 10 plus years of homeless people sleeping on mats on the floors at “Project Heat” there were no serious injuries. If the City convened a meeting of every church group that feeds outside, City officials could attempt to redirect those energies toward feeding the people at this nighttime drop-in center. But it will take the City of Cleveland to convene this community response. Having the police do “sweeps” of the homeless does not help solve the problem.”
3) The Men’s Shelter at 2100 Lakeside should accept anyone coming to the door, and have less rules. The main shelter needs to go back to its roots, and serve those in need out of a sense of mission, and not just based on the rules of its funding groups. Before, you could always get food and shelter if you wanted it. “Subtly, the shelter was beginning to have the atmosphere of a corrections facility. For many, the shelters had too many rules for an adult, and they chose to live with the relative freedom of the outdoors. The reality of it is that in the shelters an individual has to fight for a bed, shower, clothes and food, while sleeping outside, the individual is sought out by church groups and people who want to give stuff to those who are outside. By creating a less restrictive environment, we could convince many to come inside. The City and County need to more actively manage the men’s shelters, and start utilizing volunteers and community teams and all resources.”
4) We need to make Public Square a truly “public” place, and build trust with the men who sleep outside. Quoting the director of the Coalition and the editor of the Grapevine, Brian, “My suggestion is to approach the Growth Association or Downtown Partners, and ask them to pay for fixing the drinking fountains on Public Square and to provide a couple of Port-o-Johns (placed out of the way) available to homeless people [as well as shoppers and bus passengers!] In exchange for these conveniences, ask that the guys refrain from publicly drinking alcohol and take on nightly clean-up duties to keep the space clean. This would be a first step to re-integrating them back into society, and this could happen immediately. I think that if you made this deal with the men and tested it, after three months we would all see a noticeable improvement downtown.”
5) File a lawsuit against makers and distributors of alcohol, to force them to pay for residential treatment for substance abusers. “Just like in the tobacco lawsuit, they produce and market an addictive substance that, used as advertised, causes some to overindulge. Take what we learned from the tobacco case, and use it to get public health dollars into the city for substance abuse. Giving out tickets for public intoxication or open containers does not solve the problem.”
Brian concludes his article by saying, “The Grapevine editors realize that these are sometimes counter-intuitive suggestions, but we are sure that this would reduce the number of homeless people downtown to nearly unnoticeable numbers. We feel that this will have a significant impact on panhandling and the image of the City. The strategies that most cities have taken are expensive and have failed; it is our hope that we can choose the better path.”
Whew! But don’t forget the other aspect of homelessness – the root causes of homelessness discussed in Part One of this series – lack of affordable housing, and increasing poverty due to the lack of a living wage. The above suggestions are only part of the solution. The rest will come when folks decide that we – the people, businesses, community organizations, and government -- must do something about our social and economic structure, so that even the least of us have a part in the American dream.
[If you are stirred to help NEOCH and their quest to help the homeless, donations are welcome, and may include a subscription to The Grapevine. Each issue includes a page of “volunteer opportunities in homeless service.” Feedback in the form of letters to the editor is also welcome, directed to NEOCH, 3631 Perkins Ave #3A-3, Cleveland, Ohio 44114 or firstname.lastname@example.org .]