By Brian Davis
On a local and national level, we have seen another tough year for those without homes. From an alarming number of communities, we have seen legislation making it illegal to be homeless. A local church set up barriers for homeless people to keep them away from the door. For every step forward (an increase in the Department of Housing and Urban Development budget) we have taken two steps backward (increased welfare sanctions, and continued losses in housing).
Three years ago, before welfare reform and before we started seeing large scale reductions in housing, I had hope that with better coordination of services we could begin to reunite large numbers of people with a stable lifestyle. Now we are the point where it will take a large scale community effort just to maintain the status quo.
In late 1997, the City of Cleveland won the right to license our vendors when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal of the Grapevine vendors. The City of Cleveland has as yet chosen not to enforce their licensing privileges. However, in other cities we have seen Pandora’s Box thrown wide open. The city of Miami has a new paper, Street Smart, which is facing litigation by the City of Miami to force their vendors to get a license. We have heard rumbling of Los Angeles, Santa Cruz, a Chicago suburb, and Cincinnati debating the issue. We do not know how many cities without street paper will not see a new paper spring to life because of the threat of licensing.
On the positive side, we did see an increase in the HUD budget, which is no where near the need, but one has to accept the victories no matter how small. What we have seen across the country is a continuing decline in affordable housing. In many communities huge public housing projects are being destroyed. On its face this is an attempt to de-concentrate poverty in the inner city, which is a worthy goal. But the underlying result is a destruction of existing communities and a reduction in affordable housing. There will not be a one to one replacement of the properties that are being taken down. HUD has reported a huge gap in the amount of affordable housing and yet we are reducing the opportunities for stable living arrangements for poor people at the same time.
In Ohio, we have sadly marked the one year anniversary of welfare reform with one-forth of the total population no longer receiving benefits. Again, not a bad thing if these families were living in a more stable lifestyle, but we actually have no idea. Studies have shown that only 25-50 percent of those moving off the welfare roles move to employment and even fewer move to meaningful employment. It will take a crisis before our elected “leaders” realize that we need to mobilize every resource to make the first three years of our children’s lives the most nurturing and free of stress of their life. That is the opposite message we deliver when we sanction a Mom under welfare reform.
We have seen a growing gap in service to homeless people as a result of changes in the medical service delivery system. With managed care the homeless do not fit in the health organization’s bottom line, and the state has done nothing to protect the health of those who stay on the streets. It is increasingly difficult for a single homeless person to gain access to health care through Medicaid and even more difficult to gain access to care that treats an individual back to good health. We have managed care rules based on saving money which are set in stone. They make no special protocol or rules for those who cannot recuperate in a stable environment.
A surprising level of anger came out of this State and manifested itself in the November election. The governor of Ohio refused to accept money from the federal government to put people in jobs. He refused to allow people who cannot fine a job a waiver from the Food Stamps rules as is allowed by the Federal Government. Then in the November election, Governor Voinovich boasted of the number of people who are no longer receiving welfare assistance. He did not mention the number of people working who were on welfare last year, because no one knows how many people are working. As has been said many times in these pages there is an increasing level of anger toward poor people. From championing the death penalty to support of the end of the social safety net in political campaign was alarming.
In Cleveland, we have seen a larger number of people who are having a difficult time finding access to health care. We have featured detailed stories in the Homeless Grapevine which show how people on the streets have a difficult time accessing health care with the new Health Maintenance Organization’s rules which are directed at people with homes. Recently, we saw the organization that was entrusted with assisting those who are medically indigent expand their focus at a time when we need a health care for the homeless people most.
We have seen a net decrease in affordable housing but because of the vigilance of a number of organizations like the Cleveland Tenants Organization and the Alliance of Cleveland HUD Tenants who have drawn a line in the sand we have seen a temporary stay in future reductions. With the appointment of former Community Development Director Terri Hamilton to the position of Executive Director of the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority we look for a brighter future and closer communication with the homeless community. We see some of the problems with the Section 8 voucher program beginning to be addressed, and we look for continued improvement for 1999.
On a political front, the citizens of Downtown Cleveland voted in a former outreach worker in the homeless community, Joe Cimperman, to Cleveland City Council. He in turn sponsored legislation that would require homeless service providers to be appointed to local homeless service provider’s Boards. We have gone another year and still have not been able to close Project Heat, the overflow shelter system. The Heat shelters are mats on the floor in the evening and are beneath the dignity of a human being. They are worse than the conditions at the jail, and yet people enter them voluntarily every night. It is no wonder that there is a lot of anger and distrust of the system.
Then we have the unfortunate situation of a Catholic church putting up barriers to prevent homeless people from sleeping outside the church’s door without the permission of the city. The City of Cleveland has as December taken no action on this act of hatred.
Two other positive developments in 1998 were the forum with City Council member Frank Jackson which allowed over 100 people who stay on the streets to express themselves and have their thoughts recorded and acted upon by an elected official. And we held a unifying event called the Homeless Stand Down which featured services and workshops for homeless people, but most importantly two days of respite for over 1,000 people on the streets.
The National Coalition is looking for another increase in the HUD budget and the Health and Human Services budget. Advocates at the state level are looking to find a stable source of funding for the Housing Trust Fund, a program to build affordable housing and services to place people in housing. Locally, advocates are working on three initiatives to strengthen oversight locally, improve homeless people’s access to affordable housing, and build stronger links with the health care community. The most important work will be to continue to amplify the voice of the homeless.
Copyright for the Homeless Grapevine NEOCH December 1998 – January 1999