The homeless citizens of Cleveland are anxiously waiting out the final months of the Michael R. White administration. They have endured 12 rough years of winter from City Hall and are looking forward to the spring days of a new administration. The White administration has swung from ignoring poverty to criminalizing homelessness. We have seen an organized effort to restrict pedestrian access to the Homeless Grapevine, a concentrated effort to kidnap and dump homeless people to the outskirts of town, and most recently a clean sweep of homeless people downtown.
We have seen huge estates grown in our neighborhoods, built on the rubble of affordable housing. We have endured the construction of playgrounds for the rich suburbanites downtown while most drinking fountains were removed from our public areas. Homeless people have very few places available to them for relieving their bodily functions, and routinely suffer confiscation of all their possessions. Our friends who spend their nights on the streets have seen dramatic increases in hate crimes and never a peep from City Hall. The coalition for the Homeless has had to spend a great deal of staff time and resources battling attacks on homeless people over the last 12 years instead of spending our time on working on solutions.
However, some progress was made over the last 12 years because of the concern of lower level staff members within the administration. We created and expanded the permanent housing program called Shelter Plus Care with much support from Cuyahoga County. We have ended the deplorable Project Heat overflow shelters and are currently working on an entry point shelter for families to replace the mats on the floor that existed for the past 10 years. We have tremendously expanded resources and services available in the community, but have yet to figure out how to get the most impact for the money we receive.
The antagonism by the Mayor is not unique to Cleveland. In many progressive cities, mayors that grew up in the city and were always viewed as friends of the poor turn around and sell homeless people to the business community. We have seen mayors in Chicago, Atlanta, Seattle, and the king of all sellouts, Mayor Willie Brown of San Francisco turn against homeless people in order to pacify downtown corporations who fear a loss in tourism with visible poverty.
Brown of San Francisco ran on a platform of ending the previous Mayor’s draconian policy of aggressively confronting homeless people. Brown promised not only an ending of the criminalizing of homelessness but instituting a plan to significantly reduce the number of people who are forced to sleep on the streets. San Francisco is now viewed as one the unfriendliest cities toward homeless people and population have skyrocketed. This is the unfortunate paradox of the modern urban landscape. The harsher the policies toward poor people, the more alienated and untrusting they become and the population grow. Homeless people are not usually willing to move out of a community because they have family or a high degree a familiarity with a neighborhood or section of town.
Now, we have the choice of a corporate attorney with a background in education policy or a friend of big business who is running on her commitment to increasing safety forces and assisting children. Attending a number of candidate forums one thing is clear – either candidate will have a sizable learning curve to overcome in order to serve the needs of poor people especially in the area of housing. The Cleveland Tenants Organization town hall forum centered on housing and homeless issues and highlighted the knowledge gap on these issues by all 10 candidates who ran for office.
None of the candidates separated themselves from the field with broad promises or bold initiatives. There was little understanding across the field of the differences between public housing and the landlord based subsidized housing. Almost every candidate had spent little time on the problem of homelessness. One candidate, William Denihan, put a great deal of time into answering the questions about housing and homelessness in the newspaper circulating by the cosponsors of the debate, but did not have the fire onstage to generate excitement for his candidacy. Mary Rose Oakar talked about the Seattle plan for dealing with homeless people, which comprehensively addressed families that become homeless while leaving the rest of the population out in the cold. Oakar also endorsed universal health care only in the city of Cleveland, which did not seem practical.
The two candidates who will compete in November were short on details and did not actually make many promises. Both candidates will probably be better than the current occupant of the Red Room at City Hall. Both ail probably end up beholden to one interest group or another and will side with big business over poor people more often than not. Peirce is an unknown and we do not know how he will react to downtown business groups who come to his office complaining of the panhandlers that are taking over the city. Having spent eight years in Washington D.C., he may be able to say to our business community, “Go visit our nations capital if you want to see panhandling out of control and third world type homelessness.”
Campbell has a good family history for working with people of low income, but she has disappointed us before. She ran for state representative on a child friendly ticket, but voted for the most harmful piece of legislation toward children in our state’s history – welfare reform. Only recently she spoke at a rally called by the Day Labor Organizing Committee, and the next day told labor groups that she could not commit money to an alternative community hiring hall as the DLOC is proposing. We have no idea how she will respond when businesses knock on her door to tell her that homeless people are destroying the Flats.
This is an unnerving time for homeless people. We anticipate that we will not face the criminalization of the last 12 years, but we could again be ignored. We also could see one of these candidates step forward on a plan to stop the flow of homeless
people into the system and move people out of the shelters. We could forge a new partnership between homeless people and the City administration to begin to house the citizens of Cleveland.
Other cities have put in place plans to better serve homeless people and are five to 10 years ahead of Cleveland. This is largely because our current Mayor took a back seat to addressing the problem of homelessness. We can only wait to see how the new Mayor of Cleveland will address his citizens who happen to become homeless.
Copyright NEOCH published 2001 Cleveland Ohio Issue 50