CMHA Faces Federal Cuts

by Jason Grunspan

Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority has made great strides to improve their reputation which was tarnished by mismanagement and scandal during the 1970's and 80's, yet there remains conflicting opinions as to what the CMHA is and what it should be. One question raised by a number of homeless individuals and advocates is the CMHA's role in the housing of homeless persons. In the past, the government has given a 90 percent preference to homeless persons and those residing in transitional housing facilities but several homeless and formerly homeless people expressed frustration with the CMHA application process and didn't believe that the homeless were getting preference.

One formerly homeless woman currently living in a CMHA unit said that when she first applied the waiting list was six months long but that it took her five years to get housed. "If CMHA has a preference how come I waited five years?" she asked. Another man who had stopped into the Bishop Cosgrove meal site said that he had filled out an application and had more than enough money from his job to pay rent but hadn't been able to get a unit.

Much of the confusion is over what the preference which is now 50% entails. Karen Coats -Wilson, Chairwoman of the CMHA Board of Commissioners said "the preference is not a guarantee that nine out of ten people who have been homeless will be housed." She said a 90% preference does not guarantee a homeless applicant a place to live but bumps them up to the top of the list when applications are being considered.

The applications are rated on a point scheme and a homeless applicant would be given a certain amount of points for being homeless or in a transitional facility. "But all these points do is to establish a list within that population." Coats Wilson said. This would bring into question what is meant by preference. The waiting list which has been closed for over two years will be opened anew in March.

Contrary to the prevailing opinion, CMHA is not the housing of last resort. Federal rules for admission are meant to prevent housing authority units from becoming emergency housing. CMHA's Chief Operating Officer Ronnie Davis commented that "[Department of Housing and Urban Development] policies are forcing us to treat those who are not the poorest." This will include a 13 million dollar cut and a minimum twenty five dollar monthly charge which will be instituted May 1st. HUD is the primary funder of CMHA.

Executive Assistant Scott Pollack said there are about 700 residents listed as having no income and that he didn't know what impact the new provision would have on these residents. Under the new policy, working CMHA residents who currently pay 30 percent of their income for rent would pay the higher of the two amounts. Pollack said "The twenty five dollar fee is not something we make out on."

He pointed out that the main effect it will have is that the federal government won't have to spend as much money on HUD. He said HUD will compensate for the amount of money that the CMHA collects in rent by reducing the CMHA's budget by that same amount. "The benefit goes to HUD. We don't have much of a choice other than the negative one of having to impose it." He said that the 13 million dollar cut will reduce CMHA's total funds in both operating and capital by 15 to 20 percent. " It will mean less money available to renovate units and we'll probably have some layoffs or a cut back in employee hours."

The CMHA had no available records of the former status of applicants currently living in CMHA units but noted that almost half of their high-rises were built for seniors who occupy about 30% of all units. Coats-Wilson said it's a principal concern of the CMHA "to try to adopt a policy that's responsive to the needs of the community".

Because of stigmas attached to the homeless community some residents might be skeptical about living next to formerly homeless persons. James Beverly, a tenant and president of CMHA's county wide tenant body, said that he had no problem with homeless people. Despite a largely successful effort to improve its image there is still a negative stigma attached to the CMHA as well. The high crime rate induced the implementation of a fully credited police force in the late 1980's. One formerly homeless man said he wouldn't consider living in the CMHA for fear of gangs. A current CMHA resident said, "The crime is bad but we've worked on cleaning it up and gotten results."

Another question is whether the CMHA sees itself as a place of permanent residency or as a stepping stone to privately owned housing. In HUD's latest blue print of revised public housing provisions they state that their highest priority is to "convert public housing into a platform from which residents can lift themselves and push off to a life of self- sufficiency."

This will include a tougher screening process, the revising of admissions policies to meet locally designed preferences and the new rent rule to reward those who work. This attitude would designate the CMHA as more of a stepping stone. CMHA responded that, "although the perception is that public housing has become more permanent, the average stay of a CMHA resident is six years." Beverly, who is 61, said that at his age job prospects don't look good and that he's planning on staying at his CMHA home.

The CMHA has recently taken a step to bridge a gap between themselves and area service providers by cooperating with the Office of Homeless Services in a program called "Horizons for the Homeless", which will set aside 450 Section 8 vouchers for families coming out of transitional and rehabilitation facilities in Cuyahoga County. The CMHA accepts and processes referrals made by the twelve providers that offer transitional shelter and support to families. Social workers will continue working with families coming out of transitional housing for six months to give support and prevent relapses.

Another program, operated by the Y-Haven, will house 38 men a year on one floor of the King Kennedy high rise. The men will come from Y-Haven's substance abuse program. Y-Haven would not respond to inquiries, but CMHA Project Administrator Eddie Robinson said the program, which is scheduled to begin sometime in March, was well designed. "A program like this is needed in Cleveland." HUD has provided the CMHA with a grant to fund the south high rise at King Kennedy. The first three floors of the building will be used as a social service mall: a conglomeration of social service offices. This will make it easier for those who need to be in continual contact with social services. This cooperation with area service providers will help the CMHA to fulfill their quota of occupied units while at the same time helping people make the transition from dependency to self sufficiency. "It's a mutually beneficial effort," said Ruth Anne O'Leary of the Office of Homeless Services. Davis said that for now there are no additional programs in the planning stage.

Of the 11,780 units currently under CMHA management as of December 31, 1995, CMHA listed 8,406 as occupied, 3,021 under modernization, and 353 were vacant or being prepared for occupancy. Some of the homeless, having no where else to go, use these unoccupied units as shelter during the cold winter months.

One homeless man said that he and a friend stay in a boarded up CMHA unit. He said they'll stay their several days out of the week. The electricity works and they've installed a smoke detector, heater and television. They have befriended some of the maintenance men who won't bother them unless someone complains and there is only one tenant who will occasionally complain. For the most part he and his friend are left alone. When asked if he knew of other homeless using abandoned units he said, "There's lots of them." He said you have to be careful because they've seen others who were not get picked up by security for trespassing.

Though the homeless population continues to grow, HUD and its Housing Authorities are moving in another direction. Pollack believes the changes are the result of a national attitude change as well as Congresses perception of the welfare state which is that federal subsidies are being abused and perpetuating the cycle of poverty. This will place the burden on the surrounding communities and private sector. "Funds are not always going to be there, we have to come together closely as a community," Coats Wilson said.

Copyright NEOCH and the Homeless Grapevine published March – April 1996 – Issue 14