By, Chris Smekal and Dinah Blake
The Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless (NEOCH) held a protest on what was billed as “Homeless Independence Day,” July 6, 1999. The demonstration was held at the Welfare Building on Superior Avenue. The protest was designed to force the city of Cleveland and Cuyahoga County to finally take action to improve the city’s overflow shelters, Project HEAT, run by the non-profit Cornerstone Connections.
The Protest featured homeless advocates and homeless people from across the city who have been subjected to the conditions at Project HEAT. Protesters demanded that the county immediately withdraw the contract from Cornerstone Connection and give it to another provider in order to improve the conditions to be regular emergency shelter. The Coalition gathered to call for a more compassionate staff employed at these facilities.
Demonstrators then marched over to the Plain Dealer to protest the extreme editorials that have appeared over the last month. A June 5th article by Mike O’Malley of the Plain Dealer called the public to attention to the conditions many homeless are forced to live under if they want to stay at the Project HEAT. These conditions include verbal abuse by HEAT staff, dangerously filthy bedding, and constant fear of theft of violence while both staff members sleep during the night. Clients have also been publicly threatened with reprisal if they complain about conditions.
When the Plain Dealer article came out NEOCH called for immediate action. “The contract must be withdrawn from Cornerstone Connections,” said Brian Davis, Executive Director of NEOCH, “This agency has acted with negligence by allowing these conditions to go on for too many years. Their director is unresponsive and unsympathetic to client complaints and has been unable to change the conditions. The Board of Cornerstone Connections is unaware of conditions and has neglected to do any oversight or monitoring of the staff.”
Davis said the Coalition staged this protest after two weeks of inaction by the County to these deplorable conditions. After repeated calls, no plan of action has surfaced that will change the conditions outlined in O’Malley’s article. County Administrator, Tom Hayes, said that the County had given Cornerstone Connections time to correct the concerns raised by NEOCH. In a recent letter to the Coalition from Acting Director of Senior and Adult Services, Jane Fumich, who has been meeting regularly with members of Project HEAT, said, “We have asked the Salvation Army to meet with us to provide an update on progress/issues related to securing a property for a use as a permanent shelter for the chronically homeless made population.”
Linda, a woman from another shelter, came to demonstration despite never having been forced to stay at HEAT, “because I want to show my support against project HEAT and the conditions that have there. I know how hard it was when I was homeless. The streets were really rough and tough. It happened so fast with me –I lost my husband, my apartment and my job went; then I was homeless.”
The protest also centered around recent editorial comments in the Plain Dealer. On June 8th in the Cheers & Jeers section, the Coalition was Jeered for the “complaining that homeless …are getting a raw deal…the blankets may smell bad, the water pressure may be low…But isn’t a sleeping mat indoors preferable to bare dirt under a bridge?”
On June 13th a lengthy and misguided editorial written by Beth Barber called the homeless and their advocates “aimless and clueless.” As a part of the “Homeless Independence Day,” those gathered held a “Bethbarberque” because Davis said, what is a summer holiday without a Bethbarberque?”
Barber referred to efforts to improve conditions at HEAT as “blather about the rights and needs of ‘clients’…”. She alluded to returning to forced incarceration in asylums for people with mental illness or forced medication for the mentally disabled. Ms. Barber even called attempts to reform HEAT, “a tactic for persuading the public to pour more resources…into coaxing the dysfunctional off the street.”
Davis said again “I am appalled that the Pain Dealer printed such a cruel and generally nasty editorial. Besides being mean and full of fear, Ms. Barber misses the point entirely. We are not calling for more money. We want her tax money spent more effectively. The tax payers are paying $6000,000/year for a shelter that is dirty, cruel, and demoralizing. It is so bad that many prefer to risk their safety outside. Many agencies I the community do not even consider Project HEAT a legitimate referral source.”
Interestingly enough, Ms. Barber said in her article, “The Homeless need a bed, a shower, a toilet, referrals to social services.” These are precisely the things missing in HEAT that homeless people and advocates were demanding at the protest.
Barber met protesters outside of the Plain Dealer for a debate with the rain soaked demonstrators. She said that she did not consider cleaning the toilets as a punishment, and did not see anything wrong with homeless people being told that they had to clean toilets. Davis asked that if the editors chose to write any further editorials that they visit the facility first. He said, “Ten years of this abomination is long enough. We are a compassionate community and we should no longer tolerate these facilities that strip homeless people of their dignity. No where else in the state do permanent overflow shelters exist which circumvent the laws regarding shelter standards.”
The Coalition asked the Plain Dealer editors who came out for a better educated reporting on the poor and homeless of this community. Davis tried to dispel the myth that most homeless people were “uncooperative, the belligerent, the drunk and the drugged” as Barber referred to them in her column.
“I have a college education. It can happen to anybody-real quick,” said Susan who was asked that we not use her real name. Ruth said, “If she (Beth Barber) had talked to homeless people, she could have made a beautiful article.” Larry, who attended the demonstration said, “The way [Barber’s article] comes off, I don’t think people realize how close they can be to homelessness. I never thought I’d be homeless, and I am today. [The article] shows a lack of compassion to fellow man.”
A student who attended the demonstration, Bridget Gibbons said, “The demonstration caught my eye. I work in the building. I think it’s really sad if people are in the streets of there is shelter. I don’t understand.” Another demonstrator, Angelo Anderson II “I agree with what people are saying. They shouldn’t be treated like animals. They shouldn’t be turned away because they lost a card. A homeless shelter should be for homeless people-they shouldn’t have to clean toilets-that’s stupid.”
A number of residents including an older man on a cane who said that he would rather sleep outside and drown in his pan in alcohol than sleep in these facilities. A woman said that she lost her job as a social worker and through a series of problems wound up in the women’s overflow shelter. She said that she was shocked that people had to sleep in these conditions.
Another homeless woman said that she felt that is was unbelievable that homeless women with children would have to sleep on smelly mats with an uncaring staff. Finally, a current resident described the sweltering conditions that existed on the 90 degree weekends in early July. He said that it was so hot that the customers of Project HEAT staff relinquished and opened the doors when the fire department showed up, but forced the leaders of this modest rebellion out to sleep on the street.
Demonstration organizers said that they would continue to press the City and County for a change in the overflow shelter contract, and may have to do another demonstration if the complaints of homeless people fall on deaf ears.
Copyright for the Homeless Grapevine July 1999 Issue 36 Cleveland, Ohio