Welfare Recipients Await Impact of “Reformation”

by Alex Grabtree

The Governor signed into law a new era in assistance to the needy after the Ohio House and Senate passed so called “welfare reform legislation” (House Bill 408) with only one legislator voting against the bill. As reported earlier, there are strict three-year time limits on receiving Temporary Assistance to Needy Families in contrast to a five-year limit under the federal legislation. There is a provision that after using the three years of receiving TANF assistance the family cannot receive aid for two years. The family can reapply after two years for assistance if they show good cause.

Vital issues in Cuyahoga County and other areas of high concentrations of poverty include childcare, transportation and local flexibility in overseeing the project. There are dramatic changes in store which time will tell if they have appositive impact on our community.

It seems that legislators and human services officials as well as local officials have resigned themselves to the reality of fundamental changes in welfare and few have questioned the fundamental basis of reform, which is putting women with children to work. Cuyahoga County Commissioner Tim Hagan, who has chaired a committee to advocate for welfare reform that has a positive impact on Cleveland said, “We have to deal with the reality and that reality is this proposal (HB 408), and if we move through it well, we will at least be responsive to what is perceived as giving people the possibility of more dignity and opportunity.”

Activists have a different view of the legislation. Gail Long, Director of Merrick Settlement House said, “I question whether it is true reform or merely punitive. I don’t think it went far enough to really make a difference in terms of working with people who can and will be employed and maintaining a safety net for those who will always need some form of public assistance. I think that they will need to revisit issues like day care, the time limits for the population, transportation issues and whether there really are jobs out there for the welfare recipients.”

The Cincinnati Welfare Rights Director Katy Heins said, “This is bad public policy because it will not get people out of poverty. It is built on the myths and racism of Ohio legislators.”

The new rule allows families to keep their state paid medical coverage for one year after they stop receiving assistance. Medicaid is also expanded to include all children under 19 with family incomes at or below 150% of the federal poverty level, which is around $19,000 for a family of three.

House Bill 408 went beyond the Federal regulations in requiring TANF recipients to participate in 30 hours of work activities. The reformed welfare recipients are allowed to use 10 hours of the required 30 hours in educational or developmental activities.

Counties may exempt those with children under one year old. Families previously were exempt while their children were under three years old. Each county must have 80% of the TANF population engaged in 30 hours of work or they will be sanctioned. A sanction means a loss of funds and eventual State takeover. Those counties that consistently meet State standard will be rewarded with additional funds.

The huge problem of transportation for recipients was given a nod with a $5 million allocation for transportation initiatives and a planning committee for the future. Transportation is a tremendous problem in Cleveland where many entry-level jobs are totally inaccessible by bus.

Those families engaged in the Ohio Works First workfare (see story below) component of the TANF program are guaranteed child care assistance. Childcare subsidies were expanded to include transitional care while a family transitions from welfare to work, and those currently receiving childcare assistance. Some working poor families will be dropped from receiving assistance.

The State is matching the Federal block Grant with the minimum amount required by law. The Governor also appropriated an additional $3 million to local food banks to address the projected increase in emergency good assistance and to “make up” for the $180 million cut from food stamps.

When asked for their opinion about what all this will mean to poor people both Heins and Long saw potential risk and increases in poverty. Long said, “It could be disastrous.” She felt that there was little thought about the possibility of an economic downturn or recession hitting Ohio in three years when women were facing welfare time limits. “Where would they turn?” Long asked.

Heins went further claiming that she has already seen women and children who are homeless because of the “reform” that took place last year. “I believe that it will cause more homelessness because of the harsh sanctions. We already know of families that were sanctioned into homelessness because of House Bill 167 (last year’s attempt at reform by the Ohio Legislature).

One battle on the National level, which will have an impact on Ohio, is whether to pay people a minimum wage for workfare slots. In New York, ACORN and WEP Workers Organizing Council are attempting to organize and unionize those individuals who are engaged in workfare activities. Workfare is a program to place able-bodied adults who are not in an education or training program in community service activities. According to the Welfare Law Center, virtually all of the workfare workers earn less the prevailing wage and some even make less than minimum wage.

Copyright for the Homeless Grapevine Issue 22, August-September 1997, Cleveland, Ohio

The Battle To Win A Fair Wage

by Jean Taddie

Ohio’s welfare system has been replaced with a workfare system. Workfare means that welfare clients who cannot find employment will be required to volunteer their time in return for their benefits. Supporters of workfare believe it will improve people’s self-sufficiency. Opponents argue that citizens may be forced to work for less than the federal minimum wage and workfare does not offer a long-term solution to employment barriers.

Governor George Voinovich’s plan to “shift Ohio’s welfare system from entitlement to employment” adds thousands of low-skilled workers into Ohio’s labor force. Ohio Department of Human Services Director Arnold R. Tompkins stated in a recent press release, “If we are to meet the objective of the new welfare system, more than 100,000 current clients will need to join the labor force in the near future.

The Ohio Works First welfare plan requires parents with children over the agree of one to engage in a qualified work activity for a least 30 hours per week in order to receive TANF benefits. According to Voinovich, the plan is designed to “help welfare recipients become self-sufficient and take personal responsibility for their families.

As TANF recipients throughout Ohio are having their benefits re-evaluated, many parents are being told that they must find work, and if an offer is made they must accept the job. People who cannot locate work for pay are required to volunteer at a location deemed acceptable by their caseworker.

Opponents to workfare argue that volunteers will not receive the protection employees are entitled to under federal law. At 120 hours per month, volunteers who receive $279 in TANF benefits for their family will effectively earn less than $2.40 per hour for their volunteer time. Volunteers make much less that the $4.75 minimum wage that employees receive. Theses low pay positions cannot support a family and they threaten workers in good paying jobs.

Ron, a married father of three, lives in an Ohio community with a depressed economy and was unable to find a good job. His caseworker sent him to do maintenance work at a local truck depot in return for his benefits. Other employees resented Ron since their company didn’t have to pay him. They felt their wages and jobs were in jeopardy as they sent Ron home saying they didn’t need him and they would sign in for him. Eventually, human services discovered that Ron was not working and cut his family’s benefits for two months.

Labor organizations are concerned that working people are at risk of losing good paying jobs to workfare volunteers who receive below minimum wages. Since the cash and benefits are paid by Human Services these mandatory volunteers are little or no costs to the “employer”. The AFL-CIO Executive Council voted in February to “support and encourage aggressive organizing campaigns among these new workers.” They state that workfare volunteers should be treated as workers under the law.

Opponents of workfare argue that the program does not provide long-term solutions to families in poverty. Human Service officials develop contracts with organizations that need volunteer workers. Caseworkers have the power to tell clients where they can and cannot work. Often clients are placed into low-skilled, dead-end positions. In addition, workfare’s time requirements make it difficult for people to get an education or find a better job.

Julie is a single parent of one daughter and a physical therapy student at Cuyahoga Community College. Knowing that she would soon be required to volunteer for her benefits, Julie looked for volunteer work that was related to her career choice. So she contacted and set up interviews with eight hospitals and chose to volunteer at three of the hospitals. One week after starting her hospital-school-mom schedule, her caseworker, told that her hospital work does not qualify as an approved work activity. She was then assigned to volunteer at a community center instead.

When ten tome TANF volunteers showed up at the community center July 1st, the staff did not expect them since they had not been informed that there were volunteers coming. The volunteers were told to sign in and then go home. “We didn’t have anything for them to do, and we can’t have them sitting around here all day,” one staff member said. Currently, Julie is appealing her caseworker’s decision and is fighting to keep her volunteer hours at hospitals where she can be helpful and learn, instead of a community center that doesn’t need her.

According to various welfare rights organizers, the poverty problem cannot be solved by creating pools of free labor. Although these stopgap measures may look good politically, they do not address the real poverty and unemployment problems. Welfare clients will only be able to obtain employment that supports a family when the skills and abilities then can supply match the needs and demands of employers in our increasingly technical society. Instead of offering workers at below market wages, the skills and education of this labor force should be improved. Caseworkers should emphasize GED and post-secondary education so their clients can fill good-paying private sector jobs.

Copyright for the Homeless Grapevine Issue 22, August-September 1997, Cleveland, Ohio

Some Organizations Only Say They Are Helping the Homeless

Commentary by James Jude Patton

In my years of being on the street I met with many charitable organizations whose workers gave of their time and energy to relieve the suffering of the street people. Sometimes, I met people who were self-serving while they worked for charitable organizations. Here is one story.

It was in 1986 that I found myself in St. Louis. Altogether I had been homeless between three and four years. One day in the spring I was walking down a major artery of the city, in a prime office space district of the city. I squinted (because I needed glasses) to read the sign. It was the Lions Club.

A few days later while discussing my problems with a social worker for the homeless. I learned that the Lions Club helped people with eye problems. The very next day, I went back to the Lions Club building. Walking past the manicured lawns, I entered the air-conditioned building. Immediately to the left after entering, I met the receptionist. She had me take a seat after about ten minutes she very briefly interviewed me. She found through a question that I was homeless. She then gave me an appointment to come back in two weeks.

I waited for the appointment day with anxiety and hope. I went back on the appointed day fifteen minutes early, only to be told that I had canceled the appointment. I told the receptionist that I had not canceled the appointment. She rescheduled me for an appointment in three months. It should be noted that I saw three employees in the Lions Club building but never, oddly enough, anybody else seeking help.

I though to myself after the reschedule, “Its worth a try.” I managed to stay in the St Louis area for three months. I made it to the Lions Club professional building ninety minutes early only to have the receptionist say to me “You canceled your appointment.” I replied, “You used that one last time.” I waited past my appointment time by fifteen minutes when a man came out with a box of eyeglasses that was the size of a shoebox.

There were about twenty pair of glasses. None were any good for me. About half the glasses were from the fifties and sixties, and one was for a child. I asked to see the manager, and the man with the eyeglasses said that he was the manager. I asked if I could be seen that day, anyway. I waited for over two hours. The man that had shown me the eyeglasses came back and told me that I had to go.

I asked the manager three times, “Do you help homeless people?” The manager looked me straight in the eye and said, “We don’t help homeless people. “ To my surprise he said it to himself and barely audibly two more times. The manager followed me the short distance out. I never did see any body helped at the Lions Club building, homeless or not. Eventually I made my way to Cleveland, which I consider the crossroads for America’s homeless. I was able to find permanent housing in Cleveland. Through the Metro Health System I got comprehensive eye care and got a pair of glasses.

Copyright for the Homeless Grapevine Issue 22, August-September 1997, Cleveland, Ohio

Dreams Fulfilled on the Handlebars of a Bicycle

by Ray Tomorowitz

“Now that’s something that makes life worth living! I take exercise every afternoon that way. O, to grip your handle bars, and lay down to it (lie doesn’t hit it at all), and go ripping and tearing trough streets and roads, over railroad tracks and bridges, threading crowds, avoiding collisions, at twenty miles or more an hour, and wondering all the time when you’re going to smash up-well, now that’s something.”

Bicycle Mike did not own a bicycle. But he owned a dream. It would creep into his wine-soaked head while he slept. He was there with it now.

A cardboard box in an unknown alley seems an unlikely setting for palm trees. He had scrounged magazines from dumpsters all over the east side of town. National Geographics were his gold. Travel brochures his platinum. The interior of the refrigerator box shimmered like Key West. There were sunsets of every description over countless tropical oceans. White sand and lush vegetation whispered hidden invitations.

His tattered pants were rolled up above his bony knees. He loved the way the sand felt beneath his bare toes. The path lay clear and perfect before him. The gentle tide washed away the impressions left behind him like so many wasted years No more than two or three footprints would be visible before being swept away.

He was a man alone. On a beach between here and there. A paradise he could call his own. It felt so good to be warm. Just to be warm….

Suddenly the ground shook with volcanic-like upheavals. His little world was becoming a “Pompeii” of instability. Voices were shouting….”Wake up in there! Wake up!” His private dream was sucked away like those footprints on that beach . The only volcano now was the one erupting in his head. “Lava” was the warm bile threatening to overflow into his mouth.

A glossy palm tree shading seductive native dancers dislodged itself from the “ceiling” and became another helpless victim of this cardboard seismic activity.

Bicycle Mike collected his addled wits enough to yell, “Stop it! Godammit! Stop it! Whattya’ want?”

He was greeted by a chorus of laughter as he emerged very unceremoniously from his “hut” with a picture of a tropical fish stuck to his beard. The sleep in his eyes was just enough to cloud the vision of two small boys running off towards the mouth of the alley.

It was the price one paid for living here. He was always the target for kids cutting through.

What Mike hated most was having his precious dream interrupted again. He was thrust back into the cold dark reality of street life. He pulled the old army field jacket tighter around his shoulders as a wind whipped up the alley.

The close confines of the buildings bordering his alley seemed to concentrate the blast in a “Venturi”-like effect. It had served some good, tough. His head was a trifle clearer, and his eyes a little cleaner.

B. Mike checked for any damage to his shelter, but sound none. The earth-box-quake had loosened some of the “Flora” and “Fauna” from positions on the interior. Other than that, things were pretty much the same.

Mike was not asleep anymore. His grumbling stomach only added to that awareness. Food now became his primary concern. Perhaps with a bit of luck some wine would follow shortly.

A thought began working its way out of his clouded mind. It became more evident as he picked up the calendar from “The Castaway Travel agency”. He thumbed through it and looked at the “XXXXs”. Was it really October? Where had the summer gone? Damn! Where had his life gone? How had he come to this? Human refuse discarded in a corrugated coffin.

These thoughts were just too intense coming on top of the hangover and all. Better to revert back to more rudimentary ones. The constrictions above his belt would dictate Mike’s actions now.

He crawled backed inside the box and rummaged around under a sailing magazine until he found the can of tuna fish hidden there. With the four packs of saltines in his coat pocket, he had a meal. Thank God he’d never pawned or lost his pocketknife.

It was one of those Swiss Army ones with the multiple tools that folded up into a neat little package. He took it out of his pants pocket and fondled it lovingly. He had been good with tools once. Damn good! He knew the names of all the implements like a mother knows all of her children.

“A man is only as good as the tools he owns.” Mike had heard that somewhere. From someone who respected tools like sacred artifacts. Who had it been? His father? It seemed so long ago. Yet, he had held on to the pocketknife all these years. It was worth at lease a cheap bottle of “Red”. Now, just holding it again made a connection to some other life. Tools set mane above the other creatures on this planet. Maybe, in this case, it somehow set him above the “Creatures” that inhabited his world. Whatever the reason, he knew he would never part with his little self-contained toolbox.

Not only did B. Mike utilize the can opener, but now he sat and ate with the built in spoon and fork. There would be an opportunity later to engage the corkscrew.

While he ate, he once again perused the surroundings of his little cubicle. Those warm shores and sunny climes beckoned to him hypnotically. They teased with their false promises of virgin sand, clear blue eater, and lazy days. Why did he torture himself with a world that didn’t exist in three dimensions? Those care free seagulls and happy natives seemed to taunt him in their silent ways. “Come to us Mike come sit with us and enjoy out delights. Walk in the moonlight and smell the salty breezes.

“Damn them!” he screamed, “I’ll have no more of your staring eyes!” With that he began to tip all his glossy fantasies from the walls. Seagulls, Palm trees, orange and lemon groves, and fiery sunsets soon lay in a tattered pile on the ground.

A blast of autumn wind scooped up the pieces and carried them off. Ironically he mused, it was in a southerly direction.

Something had snapped in Bicycle Mike. The padlock to a door long closed flew off its hasp. What began to emerge from that ark closet was a small glow like a single match being struck. No, more like a halogen bulb on a bicycle generator light. Maybe the recent chain of event had created an effect.

The boys shaking his box not only woke him from a dream, but perhaps drove him from a long alcohol-induced hibernation.

Feeling the Swiss Army knife and remembering those words had stirred something within him.

He was Bicycle Mike again but exactly who was that? How had that name come to be attached to this pitiful creature? There was nothing in his immediate surroundings that even resembled a bike.

Bicycles were wondrous machines. Children first sampled freedom and speed behind the handlebars. On that maiden trip unencumbered by training wheels or dad’s supportive grip, new flights of fancy were born. A bicycle could become a horse or a motorcycle or a jet fighter soaring high above the clouds. It could take you places farther and faster than mere feet or imagination. It defied gravity, time and space, and did it all on only two wheels.

This fascination for speed and travel did not end in these early years. With advanced age came advanced machinery. The addition of multiple gearing, lightweight frames, and skinny racing tires made the possibilities seem endless.

Adventure was never more than a few turns of the pedals away. Longer distances could be traversed in shorter periods of time. Even hills were no obstacle. The world was there to be enjoyed on a perfect, nonpolluting device that actually improved your health. What achievement could overshadow reaching a destination on one’s own ability?

Life and nature could not be experienced on any other conveyance the way it could on this “magic steed”.

He knew this. He knew all of this. These thoughts were triggered the first time he saw a bike messenger ride by, pedaling for all he was worth. Mike would follow their path with his eyes until they turned a corner, or were lost in traffic.

Cars and busses were the bicycle's enemies. Belching smoke and noxious fumes at face level, or vying for road space in rude, belligerent manners.

The only threats worse than those infernal combustion machines were potholes and sewer grates. There was no denying that the city was a dangerous place for two wheeled vehicles and their riders.

Bicycles were almost as frail as the creatures that rode them, why else would these urban “pony express” riders gird themselves in plastic and carbon-fiber armor? In a confrontation with a metal behemoth there’s no question who would be the victor.

When a Bicycle came out on the “short end” of a “road war” someone had to be called in to repair the damage. Hopefully the only damage incurred would be to the rider.

Bicycle Mike could watch a bicycle speed by and instinctively know all the parts. He whispered the inventory to himself like a silent litany; “front derailleur, front caliper brake, seat tube, chain stays…”

It seemed that not all his brain cells were fried. He was starting to remember like a swimmer under water for too long, he was reaching upward for air and light. It was like a rebirth. Bicycle Mike was remembering where he’d come from, but most importantly, where he was going.

Ray Tomorowitz is a creative writer living in Cleveland.

Copyright for the Homeless Grapevine Issue 22, August-September 1997, Cleveland, Ohio

 

 

Disability Struggles Amplified On The Streets

This is the first part of a series in which the Grapevine” will follow an individual as he makes his way through the “system” and attempts to put his life together. We met up with Brian Johnson during his first week on the streets when he attended an event sponsored by the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless. Now after four months, we interview Johnson, a 37-year-old single man, after four months living on the streets of Cleveland.

He has epilepsy and does receive Social Security disability. He grew up in Delaware, but moved to Cleveland when he was in high school. He graduated from Cleveland Public Schools in 1977 but has no further education. He has worked odd jobs in restaurants and hospitals but has basically been unemployed for the last 10 years. This is his story in his words. We will follow up on some of the points that he raises in the next issue and we will check up on his progress. With the assistance of the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, we did make suggestions to Johnson about possible avenues to take in seeking a stable address and job.

Johnson has stayed with friends since 1978 and has been on the streets since April. The longest time that he spent at one job was Continuous Family Restaurant where he was a dishwasher for 7 years. “The reason why I lost that job was because I was trying to empty some trash in the dumpster and it fell and dislocated my shoulder. I was getting workman’s compensation and after that I was receiving Social Security. But that was for my epilepsy.” He was diagnosed with epilepsy as a kid.

Epilepsy affects people in different ways. Johnson said, “You can pass out and go into convulsions or you can get the jerks. I pass out every once in a while. In my case (my condition) is pretty much the same, because I have them at least once a month. Even though I had an increase in my dosage of medication I still wind up having them. I do have a hard time getting my medication. I went over to Cleveland Health Care for the Homeless and they do not have the medication that I need. They have to send me over to maybe the Clements Center to get it from there.”

“If you go over to Social Security, they put you on Medicare, but you have to wind up paying for it. Welfare – they give you a health card where you don’t have to pay for (medicine).” He recently got his welfare card. For the last two months he was unable to get a supply of medicine because of the difficulty in finding a doctor and the money for the prescription drugs.

“No one really did explain to me the system. I had to find out on my own. I had to ask people on the streets where to go to get to different places. I had asked people (staff) at the Cosgrove (meal site), who told me to go to Cleveland Health Care for the Homeless.” They did not tell him to go to the welfare office to get a health card, he had to find that out on the streets.

“Transportation is also a problem. I have to go to the clinic on 105th and Superior. There is a doctor there. She’s about to be my regular doctor now. She is the one that writes out the prescription, and how much I take and how long it lasts. Then I go to a Rite-Aid or Revco to pick it up.” Right now he believes that he will not have to pay, but before this he was expected to pay the full price, which was $50, for his medicine. He would pay for the medicine out of his Social Security disability check. “It took two or three months to get Social Security.” He gets mail at a friend’s house so he can receive his check.

“It was quite difficult (to get disability). Because, especially for a person like me who is unable to work in certain places. Then I had to take part of my money for rent, food and my medication. Then if I have to go to the hospital, Social Security will only pay for only half of the bill. The other half I have to p[ay myself. I didn’t realize that I had to pay a credit union for being on Social Security. And they are constantly calling me, wondering when I am going to pay them and all this. I felt this quite difficult within itself.”

Johnson said that the most surprising thing that he found so far was, “When I went to CHCH and they did not have the medication that I needed and they were not funding, I guess, to help single persons and the problems that they have. I felt that that was sort of a rip off within itself. They are only open for a single person every other day. Then if I have a problem on the days that they are not open, then that really becomes a problem. There is nothing that they can do. One time I was at CHCH, and I was about to pass out there and they said they seemed to have lost my file. So if I had passed out there they wouldn’t have known what to do.”

“At the moment I sleep at site A, which is part of Project Heat. It is one of the worst places that I have ever had to sleep. Since I have been homeless, I have never had to sleep on the floor, but there is a mat on the floor, and then you get yourself a blanket, and that’s it. They wake us up at 5:30 in the morning and you must be out of there by 6:30. By me…with my epilepsy…getting up at that time in the morning is really a problem.”

“I was out on the street and a friend that I have known from a long time ago, well, he took me to the sites. At the time, I had all my things stolen from me. I had no I.D. Only a card with my name on it…got me in. They told me that within 10 days I had to get me another I.D. I was quite nervous staying there, because I didn’t know what it was like. I read the do’s and don’ts of this place and what time to be in. I couldn’t understand. O.K. you in this place here and they don’t care that your stuff got stolen from you or my condition. They really don’t care. There is nothing that they can do about it. There were many times that I was feeling bad and I shouldn’t be moving anywhere and they told me that there was nothing that they could do about it. I still had to leave the building. One time I happened to leave the building and passed out there.”

“For someone that is homeless, it is a pretty good thing to get into if you have no place else to go. But the conditions that you have to go through, it is really a problem.” If you don’t know where you are going, there is a problem of transportation and then you have to tell your problems and you don’t know what to do.

For the third time he has had his bag stolen in the last four months. Two of the times he had his medication taken with his possessions. He has to keep an eye on his stuff every moment of the day to prevent it from being stolen. He says that lockers would help. “They have lockers at the site, but we are not allowed to use them. As a matter of fact they got showers there, but we have not used them yet.” He described a bathroom that is about 5 feet by 5 feet as the only facility at Site A. “How can 50 men use that bathroom with only one commode, one urinal and one sink.”

Finding a permanent place that he can afford is his greatest barrier to a stable life. Most of the places ask for more than he can afford on his disability. Johnson said, “The going to CMHA is just a wait. That means I will have to stay in these sites for as long as two years.”

He can afford $300 per month for a single place. If he pays a security deposit, that would be a full months disability plus a little more.

“My barrier to work is my epilepsy, because they are afraid. They don’t have insurance just in case something does happen. There is discrimination about my disability.” He has been fired for not disclosing his disability until after he is hired.

He does not blame the schools for not preparing him for life, but he said they certainly did not prepare him for life on the streets. “Well, I moved to Cleveland in’74 and I only went to Glenville and the classes that I took prepared me more about getting a job and keeping one. But I don’t think it prepared me as far as out on the streets.”

He has been unemployed for the past 10 years. He tried to get a part-time job. He went to the Cosgrove Center unemployment center. “They sent me out for a part-time job and I went to the interview. At that time, he was on vacation for two weeks. When I finally did see him, he said, ‘Oh well, I was out on vacation, I didn’t know that you got the job.’ I said well could you call him to find out what happened. But I still got the run around by him saying that there was no call.”

“I am about to do some volunteer work for Cornerstone Connection (Project Heat). I will be doing cleaning up.” This volunteering is so that he can get his food stamps. “It is something for me to do so that I am not just walking around. I have been spending most of my time at the library. Well, really I have been down in the Flats at the river bank, just sitting around and going to sleep.”

“My dream was being a dee jay. That was my dream job. Because I love music – Rock ‘n Roll and R & B. I love that. I always did have a dream of being one. I even tried to take it up when I was in high school, but they said the class was full so I wound up taking food service instead.”

Over the next few months, Johnson wants to help others with the experience that he has had “to help them better their way. A homeless life is what you really make of it. If you really want to better yourself, there are places where you can go. I am trying to educate others about that.”

“I am just waiting right now.” He does think that some people just lose hope, because of the waiting. “I have met people who are just sitting around, laying around and they keep saying the system is doing them bad, which I can understand to a point. But if you don’t make your first step, how is the system going to help you?”

He has not lost faith that the system will help him. “I can’t understand why a disability person in my condition, the system just forgets about us and lets us go. When I first had a job, they said that I was one of the best and then when a situation happens, there is nothing that they can do except ask me to leave. Is that the way the system works?” He said there is a lot of discrimination about people with a disability.

He hopes that he only has to stay for one more month at Project Heat. “Because I go to this church on Sundays and this pastor of this church is trying to help me get a place to stay. He said by the end of (August) IO should be in there.”

Johnson said that at this time his homelessness and seeing all the people around him that do not have a place to stay has not diminished his faith. He still goes to church and sees a brighter day on the horizon.

Johnson did however say that he sees many people who have lost hope and are in such despair that they turn to alcohol or drugs or just lose touch with reality. Theses are the people that he wants to try to help.

Copyright for the Homeless Grapevine Issue 22, August-September 1997, Cleveland, Ohio

 

 

A Sopping Sleep Out

by Brian Davis

Weather is the day-to-day enemy of the homeless. Every single day our brothers and sisters on the street engage in a battle against the elements that harkens back to a time before cell phones and electricity when man’s hold on life was less tenuous. Intense heat, extreme cold and even the windy downpour of a summer’s day are traumatic events that direct a homeless individual’s itinerary.

 The Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless along with Food Not Bombs staged a Memorial Day weekend sleep out to call attention to the growing homeless population, and the misplaced priorities in Cleveland. It rained, and rained, and continued to rain.

As we gathered at Jesse Owens Park in downtown Cleveland, strategically located across from the Justice Center and within earshot of a $247 million dollar project to bring another entertainment complex to the city, the skies became overcast. There were occasional scattered raindrops during our memorial service for those who have died on the streets or died as a result of poverty. Basically, however, it was the culmination of a beautiful day as we ate hot dogs, spaghetti, bread, and Food Not Bombs’ famous Tofu Stir Fry donated by a wonderful group of volunteers.

We discussed some of the misplaced priorities of the city, and ideas for spending $247 million dollars to improve the lives of its citizens. Ideas ranged from converting old schools to shelters, building affordable housing, and opening a day drop-in center. Pops, a self described leader in the community, wanted us to not forget about education. We all knew that it was going to rain, and we hoped that it would hold off until the morning.

As we all settled down with a little music, some poetry, and talk about previous accomplishments, and an uncertain future, fifty-eight people chose to brave the night, forgo the area shelters and sleep out under the stars. The Coalition, with the assistance of two Cleveland Heights sewing groups, were able to provide 40 sleeping bags, and a couple of volunteers brought tents for the demonstrators.

Just before we were about to distribute the sleeping bags, one of the guys I was talking to turned and ran off. He returned later, and said, “Sorry I had to leave, but I lost my wallet. I wanted to retrace my steps to see if I could find it. Now I am homeless and I do not exist.” I had to add to his troubling day by telling him that all the sleeping bags were already given out. We did have space in a tent for him.

At just after midnight, it began to rain. It rained for the next twelve hours. It steadily got colder with a crisp spring wind coming off of the lake. When it started to rain a couple of the people sleeping in the park decided to seek the “comfort” of a doorway or overpass to get out of the rain. One guy gave me his blanket, and said, “You’re going to need this if you are staying out here.” I thought that I had come prepared with two blankets and many layers of clothes, but I took the third blanket anyway.

At 3 a.m., I woke up to find that I was sleeping in a puddle. Being new to the life, I had foolishly chosen space under a tree to lay my blanket. The rain gathered around the tree, and turned my bed into a tub. The blanket on which I was sleeping was soaked, as was the blanket on top. Luckily, I had that third blanket which had remained fairly dry. I put aside the two wet blankets and wrapped myself in the one dry blanket, and got up to survey the situation.

Only eight or nine people were still out in the open inside their sleeping bags. There were 21 still in their tents with some of the tents quickly taking on water. The rest were under the Shoreway Bridge or across the street in doorways, with some returning to the shanties or other temporary locations that for the most part are out of sight. I wandered around thinking and talking to a volunteer who could not sleep.

Life changes when there is no place to go. At 3 a.m. in Cleveland on the weekend there is no place for a homeless person to go to get out of the cold. The shelters have long since closed their doors, and every place else has a big unwritten neon sign that says “Homeless People Not Welcome!” I quietly used a port-o-john at a nearby construction site, and returned to the park. I knew that I only had a couple of hours left, but what about my brothers and sisters in arms? It is dangerous to say, but many have accepted the life on the streets and do not see a future. Once my neighbors on the streets lose that anger and hope, it is a quick slide into a life with personality disorders and mental illness marked by paranoia and delusions.

I did learn that the blanket of choice for a homeless individual is an acrylic blanket. Cotton and wool both absorb water and get very heavy. I covered myself in that acrylic blanket that the more experienced homeless man had left me. I lay down on one of the benches and closed my eyes. When a homeless person is on the streets or in an extremely crowded shelter, their nightly ritual really cannot be called sleep. Sleep should be a relaxing and rejuvenating experience, which prepares us for the next day.

Closing my eyes on the streets is a gamble that the body demands, but the mind advises against. Will I be awakened forcibly by the police? Will I be robbed? Is it even worth resting on a hard piece of concrete in the rain and cold?

I stayed on the concrete for another hour or so until the volunteer who I walked around with at 3 a.m. came over to conduct a sunrise service of reading the Bible. Religion is a big part of a homeless person’s life. A few find their way out of the cycle of poverty through religion, while most are told that they can find a way out through religion. Many services are operated by religious denominations, and so preaching, praying, and crosses are a part of the life. I will tell you that at 6 a.m. in rain soaked clothing with a difficult day ahead, it was impossible to focus on the words of Jesus Christ.

I put the wet blanket with the others from the night, and went looking for food. A few of the donuts that Daniel, a local humanitarian, had dropped off the night before were not wet. But I needed coffee. I wandered up to Terminal Tower, and asked a couple of the guys up there for information. They laughed and said, “Go back to sleep. Nothing opens until 8 a.m.” I went into Tower City with my pious volunteer friend looking for a bathroom and a warm place to rest.

The bathrooms were locked and the security guards moved me along when I tried to rest. They said, “No loitering in here.” I told them that I would be happy to buy something and sit, but nothing was open. It seemed that orders are to keep those that look like walking poverty indicators to keep moving, because every time we sat down we lowered property values. I am convinced that if I were clean cut and wearing a suit that I could set up a campsite in there.

At 8 a.m., a couple of restaurants opened, and I got a cup of coffee. This would all be a lot easier if I knew there was some place to go later in the day or some place to sit down out of the cold. On the weekend, there is absolutely no place for a homeless person to go to get out of the elements. Think about this. The 3,000 to 5,000 people who live on our streets every night in Cleveland do not have any options of a place to spend the day on the weekend. There is no place to get their life in order, or make telephone calls, or store their clothing, or get away from the weather. It is no wonder that chemical addiction is such a huge problem. There is a certain amount of warmth inside a bottle or in the haze of an illegal drug. And once our friends plunge into the bottle is there any hope for a brighter day if they choose to crawl out?

We arrived back at the park, and now a few people were stirring. Those living by the schedule of the overflow shelters were accustomed to a 5:30 a.m. wake up call. A few of the guys figured out how to use a coffee maker in the rain to brew hot coffee without shorting it out. The only problem was that the sugar is all wet, and had solidified.

We congregated under the awning of a nearby building, and waited. We waited for the rain to stop. We waited for a local church to open for their noon meal. We waited for a second chance. We waited for a miracle. There were no deadlines and no discussions about the world around us. We talked about only about things that impacted our lives and the injustice of it all. To outsiders, we would talk about sports or politics just to be polite. But standing in the rain waiting, we only talked about “important” things. There is an unwritten rule to never get too close to anyone on the streets. Both physically and emotionally, the rule is to keep a certain amount of distance. It seems that the thinking is that, “I am facing enough personal tragedy without having to deal with a relationship crises.” We quietly looked out on the world and waited.

No matter how many times a homeless person told me that the city needs a drop in center or told me that there is no place to go to the bathroom in this city, it took on sense of reality and urgency when I experienced it myself. The sleep deprivation that all of our fellow citizens experience when living on the streets is debilitating. I knew that it was my responsibility to begin to clean up, but all I could think about was sitting down in a warm spot and actually sleeping. To be able to push yourself to accomplish anything after spending the night on the street is an amazing feat. I did get a glimpse into the reason behind that distant stare in some homeless people’s eyes. I think that I had that distant look of physically standing in a rainy park while mentally sleeping in a nice warm bed with a space heater.

There are many reasons for a person to be homeless including poor decisions to domestic violence to a fundamental lack of education. Each person has some degree of responsibility for the direction that their life took, but in a land of such wealth and opulence is it really necessary to have our fellow citizens sleeping on the streets?

We are entering another millennium, and just as we take that step into a new era we will see an explosion in the homeless population caused poor decision made on the federal level. Both welfare “reform” changes and the reduction in subsidized housing will decimate our urban centers by the year 2000. The time to put poverty back on the top of our lists of priorities is now. The choice is housing or homelessness, and believe me the bill for preventing homelessness is a fraction of the bill we will all receive for providing services to a families who are already on the streets.

 Copyright for the Homeless Grapevine Newspaper Issue #22 August 1997; Cleveland, Ohio.