The following is an interview with Louise Simmons, Director of the Cuyahoga County/City of Cleveland Office of Homeless Services. The interview was conducted by Angelo Anderson and Bryan Davis and transcribed by Tanya Goff.
Angelo Anderson: Please start out with your name and a little background.
Louise Simmons: My name is Louise Simon, and I’ve been a Clevelander all of my life and worked in the homeless field for over a decade. I had been on the board of NEOCH at one point, and had to resign at the time that I took position as manager of the Cleveland/Cuyahoga County Office of Homeless Services. I’ll be leaving June 16.
AA: Describe your job with the Office of Homeless Services.
LS: The office was created to coordinate and implement the Coordinating Council’s plan on homelessness. That was an 18-month process whereby the community came together and developed a plan. There was a consensus of what the community felt needed to be done in order to address the homeless problem in Cleveland and Cuyahoga County. There were eight goals identified and goal number eight was the creation of my office. The goals of my office were to bring people to the table, to help coordinate services, making sure there weren’t duplications of services, and to try to work to the benefit of the area providers to try and bring additional federal dollars to the table.
AA: With the loss of General Assistance do you think you will see an increase in the need for your services?
LS: I definitely feel that there will be an increase. I saw an increase in 1992 when it was first cut. We saw a lot more people coming into the use of Project HEAT…I believe that our office will play an active role in helping coordinate services, particularly for the individual population.
AA: What new services do you think should be developed because of the loss of GA?
LS: WELL…THE office of Homeless Services completed a $25.5 million proposal to HUD to fund what we call the Continuum of Care. And a big component of the Continuum of Care is a multi-tiered developmentally sensitive shelter particularly for men. It would allow for a basic shelter like Project HEAT for people who want to continue to abuse substances; so that there would always be guaranteed a place to stay. But if a person is wanting to better (himself) and get out of his situation, there would be another level they would go to. And then, even a higher level that they would go to where there’d be more responsibilities, more independence, more privacy in their units.
One of the things we have found is that you have project HEAT and then you have the Y-haven. You have no rules and regulations or you have all these rules and regulations or you have all these rules and regulations and you know you get your own room with your own key and all that stuff, but there is nothing in between.
I think that there needs to be the creation of jobs. I think that the men need to be—and the women, but I’m particularly concerned about the male population—I think that there needs to be people out there that are helping to work with various corporations and agencies out these and looking for positions that homeless persons can fill. Even if it’s in the mailroom, it’s a starting place.
AA: Now, you hit on a good point. You find so often in Project HEAT that they do work but that the money is just going “up in smoke.” What would you think would be a good way to give the men some guidelines for Project HEAT to try to encourage them to stop the usage of over-abuse of the system? I mean, we don’t want to see anybody out on the streets, but at some point you’ve got to help yourself.
LS: I think that the problem with Project HEAT is that it was originally created to address the issue of frostbite. It was created to just get people off the street so that no one would freeze to death. It was never intended to be what it is now and I certainly don’t like what it is now and certainly don’t like what it is now. I’d like to see something different. I think the only thing we can do at this point is guarantee a person safe, warm place to sleep every night and to have some support staff there to help them when they are ready to make the move. You know, I don’t think we can implement a lot of rules and expect people to jump through hoops. I think they have to be willing to do it.
AA: Okay, how long should society be expected to just give out a free ride? Because basically if you look at it—and I’ve been in the program—if you look at it that’s really what it is. It enables you to go to work and spend your money on drugs as if that’s what you want to-do. And how long should you stay in this program and not better yourself? I mean, one of the guidelines should be making the effort to better themselves. Don’t you think?
LS: I don’t know if there can be guidelines. I think that there can be. Again, I go back to the fact that you need to have. Project HEAT right now does not have, in my opinion, the qualified staff it needs to help some of these men with some of their problems. And, I think if you (should) have the appropriate support staff that is qualified individuals, whether they are former clients, which can be very helpful to that population, or people who are specialists in chemical dependency issues to be there when the person is ready. Right now what you get is a mat on the floor, and here is a slip of paper with some referrals. You don’t have anyone to really take your hand, in a sense, the next day and walk with you to the treatment center.
One of the other things we had done is we were awarded $956,000 to do an innovative grant whereby we would have outreach services to the homeless. The thought behind it is that there would be a team of people that would to out under the bridges and various parks and try and bring people in. And then they’d bring them to a central location. They would give them a medical assessment. They’d have the ability to shower. They’d get a hot meal, have the needs assessment done, and they’d be able to sleep there. And then the next morning there would be a case manager who would come in and say, you know according to the needs assessment you could use help doing A, B. and C. And so when the person wakes up in the morning someone is there that is going to help them. They are not just turned out on the street.
AA: Is there a provision in there to help the person who enters this program and is trying to get back with is family. So that there is some kind of support there because it seems that’s also a major part of recovery.
LS: There (are) a lot of different aspects of the overall, but what the Office of Homeless Services has had to do is just coordinate what we have out there and what we need. For instance, there is a program called Shelter Plus Care for someone who is chemically addicted, mentally ill or has AIDS. It is basically a Section 8 certificate (low income housing rent controlled voucher) that can help that client. So once the client’s gone through the innovative program, whatever we call it, and, say they are ready for housing reunification. Then these Section 8 vouchers kick in for that person that was chemically addicted, mentally ill or has AIDS. So there is that housing piece which is missing in a lot of programs that we now have.
Brian Davis: How did you do in accomplishing your eight goals?
LS: I think we did pretty well. The first goal was to end homelessness through
Empowerment, which I think is a very broad goal and it, has to be woven unto everything that we do. We have increased the number of transitional housing units for families. We have increased affordable housing through Shelter Plus Care. We have done little bits and pieces of a lot of them. I would love to be able to leave my job knowing that I was no longer needed, but I think that if Cleveland is awarded the $25 million that we are hoping to get, it will take care of a lot of the goals. It would allow for a central intake so someone who is coming from anywhere could come to one location and get help.
BD: What would you like to have accomplished but didn’t?
LS: I don’t know if Ill be around to see the central intake, and the mult-tierd shelter be developed. I wish I was around for that. Id like to see more jobs created for the guys. I’d like to see more individuals, corporations, and businesses get involved. I think often-times (people) have a misperception of what a homeless person is. I encourage people to come and see Project HEAT. I don’t know, I think the first time that I saw Project HEAT it was a real eye opener. It was just unacceptable. So hopefully it will change.
BD: I have spoken to the people at the City Mission, and they say that 92 percent of the people that come in are homeless because of substances abuse. Hey say that substance abuse should be the primary objective.
LS: But I’d have to wonder are they using because they’re in a situation? Not necessarily as an addiction. I’ve met people who’ve said, “I was never like this before,” but they got into this and they just got into a habit or routine. And it’s not necessarily an addition much as it is that they’d be in a lot of pain and so they use this to relieve the pain. I guess I would probably wonder..why do they feel that is the priority and what do they feel the office can do? I mean the office is a quasi-governmental entity. We’re not a direct service organization. We can’t provide services, but depending on the proposals that we receive for certain types of services, we could certainly have an impact on the type of services we provided for that population.
BD: What are you going to be doing after this job ends?
LS: My husband and I are relocating to Minneapolis, so I’ll literally be out of the state.
AA: Will you be trying to look for work in the same area there?
LS: Hopefully, I’ve truly enjoyed working with the homeless population, and I think that Cleveland has a wonderful group of providers. We’re very fortunate. I think Cleveland is ahead of the game as opposed to a lot of cities in that we have the Office of Homeless Services. We have a community wide-plan. Now HUD is looking for a consolidated plan or they’re asking for a continuum of care, and Cleveland has that already.
BD: What is the possibility for more single room occupancy housing?
LS: There was a proposal submitted this past round for a supportive housing program, which is the $25 million we did and then also the $12.4 million in another shelter plus care. And then there was I don’t know the figure was but Bill Rossinger was working on a SRO proposal about 80 or 90 units all told under the Famicos Foundation.
AA: How much of an impact would 80 or 90 units make?
LS: Not much. To be honest. In my opinion, not much. The YMCA was filled when it was open and that was 268 units.
AA: Thanks for your time.
LS: Thank you.
Copyright NEOCH and the Homeless Grapevine, Issue 10 May – July 1995