How Did Cleveland Get So Many Sleeping Downtown???

Remember that from 2000-2002, we had a much smaller number of people sleeping outside downtown for more than two years.  The strategies of providing spaces and services worked.  The strategy of police arrests of the White Administration from the 1990s had not worked, but after all the lawsuits we had begun to turn things around.  We had put in place the proper shelters, drop in services, showers, and meals to attract people indoors.  What has changed over the last year??

  1. Ending the night time drop-in for men:  The limiting of the meal site/drop in center at the Bishop Cosgrove Center at East 18th and Superior to only offer lunch has forced many men onto the streets during the afternoon and evening.  This was a valuable service in the community that was forced to limit access because of funding.  This displaced the men who do not want to go into shelter.

  2. Food is readily available. We have a compassionate and broad range of groups that want to help homeless people downtown.  Couple this with the fact that the trained outreach workers are very good at what they do, and it is very easy to survive on the streets.  This is not to say that the existence is not tough, but getting food, clothing and a blanket are not that difficult.  This makes it easier to choose to stay outside. 

  3. Shelter rules are too strict.  For many, the shelters have too many rules for an adult, and they choose to live with the relative freedom of the outdoors.  No matter how unsafe it is or how bad the weather, they will choose to be outside.  The reality is that in the shelters the individual has to fight for a bed, shower, clothing, 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.

  4. The changes in weather:  There are always more people outside in nicer weather because the shelters have so many rules.  Since 2000, we have not seen nearly this number of people outside and downtown as we see today. We will always see an increase in the summer, but no where near what we have seen this last year.

  5. The shelter may be forced to limit the number that enter in November:  With the closing of Aviation High School, we may have to start limiting access to the shelters at the beginning of the winter.   There are not very good plans for serving the overflow populations.   The result is that many may chose to sleep outside instead of in the shelters. 

  6. There is no facility in the community for couples or Moms and Dads to stay together. The entry shelters only allow one sex in their facility.  So Moms and Dads usually have to split up when they enter the shelters.  In all of Cuyahoga County there are only a few shelters that allow Moms and Dads to stay together and those are usually full.  Most of the beds for intact families force the couple to prove that they are married by showing a marriage license.  There are no beds in the community for couples to stay together, and so often they choose to sleep outside.

Steps necessary in order to significantly reduce the number of people sleeping outside in Cleveland

  1. Return the Drop In Services to the Cosgrove in the evening:  This will keep a large number of homeless people from being outside during baseball games, theatre shows and other events that attract people to the Downtown.
  2. We need to coordinate the distribution of food and move people inside:  We know that we cannot restrict churches from giving out food, but we certainly can make it more humane.  We could offer a place that churches could go inside to offer food.  We could also coordinate when church groups bring food downtown so that there is not the duplication and excessive amounts of waste and trash.
  3. The City needs to reassert authority:  We need to urge the City of Cleveland to re-establish control over the shelters.    The shelters need to return to their roots of serving those in need out of mission and not just based on funding.  Start utilizing volunteers, community teams of support, work together on solutions.  The shelters need to maximize the use of the resources and space that they have available.  We should not have the ability to pick and choose who we serve and exclude so many from the shelters.
  4. We cannot do anything about the weather.
  5. 2100 Lakeside should accept anyone coming to the door even after Aviation closes. The main shelter needs to accept everyone who comes to the door.  We need a place for people to go when the shelters are full.  Just a place with beds and bathrooms while we work to close all of the shelters.   There are at least two other providers that are willing to accept whomever comes to the door.  With better coordination and a demand that the rest of the shelter fully utilize their space, 2100 Lakeside could serve a more manageable number of guests.
  6. Open an overnight drop in center: Reopen a night time drop in service in one of the many abandoned buildings in the industrial areas of town.  This space could be a safe place for people to go or sleep or get coffee or just a place to sit.  I 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.   NEOCH would be willing to donate assistance in setting this up.  I believe that we could pay a security guard to be stationed at the facility and it would be a safe place for the people.  I am sure that the local businesses would be willing to pay for a security guard, if it meant that people did not sleep on Public Square.  If the City convened a meeting of every church group that feeds outside, you could redirect those energies toward feeding the people at this night time drop in center.  It will take the City of Cleveland to convene this community response.
  7. We need to build trust with the men who sleep outside.  My suggestions is to approach the Growth Association or Downtown Partners, and ask them to pay for the fixing of the drinking fountain on Public Square and to provide a couple of Port-o-Johns (placed out of the way) available to homeless people.  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 3 months, we would all see a noticeable improvement downtown.
  8. Construct a Pay to Stay Facility:  There are as many as 40% of the men’s shelter population that work or have some income.  Unfortunately, in Cleveland we only have the Jay Hotel available to people who have problems signing a lease, but can afford to pay rent.  We propose starting a not for profit Pay to Stay that could respond to the emergency housing needs of homeless people.  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 startup costs.
  9. Address the Alcohol and Drug Problems: Sometime, we are going to have to address the alcohol problems that exist in our community.  We can give out tickets for public intoxication or open container, but that will not solve the problem. I see only three options to address this problem:
    1. File a lawsuit against the makers and distributors of alcohol, and force them to pay for residential treatment.  This would be similar to the tobacco lawsuit, in that they produce and market an addictive substance that, used as directed, causes some to over indulge.  Take what we learned from the tobacco case, and use it to get public health dollars into the city for substance abuse.   At this time, we are almost to the point that the only residential treatment that is available in the community is through the courts.

    2. Demand the state of Ohio funded Alcohol and Drug Board to provide residential treatment to all of the people in need.  They have failed miserably to address the problems of homeless people with addiction problems.

    3. Turn over space in the community for alcoholics who are without housing to drink without being harassed.  (Whiskey Island is the appropriately named space.)  I am kidding about Whiskey Island, but alcoholism exists, and we will not stop addiction by giving out open container tickets.  Let us find a safe space to address this problem.

I know that these are sometimes counter intuitive suggestions, but I am sure that this would reduce the number of people downtown to unnoticeable numbers.  This will have a significant impact on panhandling and the image of the City.  I agree that something needs to be done, but we have seen what can be done successfully. We have also seen cities fail in their strategies.  My proposals are not very expensive, and would have a huge impact on the problems downtown.  The strategies that most cities have taken are expensive have failed.

What to Do About Pan Handling in Cleveland?

  1. Do not over dramatize the problem!  A quick scan of the panhandling problem in Cleveland in comparison to other cities will show that we really have a minor problem.  We also do not have nearly the number of persistent or aggressive solicitors.

  2. Do not forget the bigger problem.  We cannot take our eyes off of the bigger problem, which is people sleeping outside.  In many cities, panhandling seems to be an easier problem and so business groups go after the panhandlers instead of trying to solve the problems associated with homeless people sleeping outside.

  3. Panhandling is an old profession.  In addressing this problem, we must keep in mind that panhandling has existed for thousands of years through Roman dictators, communist dictators, and fascist leaders.  Panhandling has plagued many societies throughout history, and very few have successfully ended the practice.

  4. Panhandlers are not always homeless.  It is important to keep in mind that not all panhandlers are homeless and not all homeless people are panhandlers.  A city can do a great job of providing shelter and yet still have panhandlers or conversely can ban panhandling and still have homeless people.

  5. Education has its limits.  Some cities attempt to campaign against panhandlers with brochures and slogans, ambassadors to surround and isolate panhandlers, or even going to the point of installing meters that people can donate to instead of to panhandlers.  All of this has its limits.  Some people want to have the opportunity to give their money to people in need without the middle man, without the church taking a cut or the non-profit taking an administrative fee.  No matter how much education, there are many who want to donate.  NEOCH is not opposed to this idea, but realize that it will not eliminate panhandling.

  6. Competition does work.  Having a strong, active and widespread street newspaper project makes it difficult for panhandlers.  Employing homeless people to be bell ringers for the Salvation Army is direct competition.  Even having artists that collect money for playing, singing, or doing magic will make panhandlers leave.  If a person has a choice between two live people one with a product or talent and the other asking for charity, the commercial activity almost always wins.  Some cities hold auditions and then place the best street artists around the city in an effort to discourage pan handling The panhandler will move on.

  7. If you can’t beat them… We have seen the success of hiring panhandlers in the Flats to distribute passes to the nightclubs and bars.   The individual can make the money they need by being paid for every coupon that is turned in, and it is inexpensive advertising.  The panhandler will not have time to ask for money if they are giving out coupons.  The business strikes a deal that the distributor of passes will not ask for money.  This strategy also is rough competition to other panhandlers.

  8. Law Enforcement does not work.  Crack downs on “aggressive solicitations” do not work, and are expensive for a city.  Police have much more important things to do than to chase down panhandlers.  Invariably in this town an aggressive solicitation campaign would be challenged in court, and would cost the city increased legal bills. Not to mention the fact that the large number of tickets makes it more difficult to get into housing or find a real job.  Panhandlers will always find a way around the rules.  For example, Cincinnati made it illegal to ask for money with words, so the panhandlers and their activist friends just distributed signs that asked for donations. 

  9. Figure out the homeless outdoor problem and the City will reduce the number of panhandlers.  With a great deal of attention on solving homelessness, the panhandling problem will significantly diminish.