Due Process Overdue in Shelters According to Homeless Coalition

By Pamela Vincent

     Earlier this year the Office of Homeless Services asked the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless (NEOCH) to conduct meetings with homeless people in an effort to solicit their comments about programs they utilized.  These programs are under consideration for funding renewal with the Department of Housing and Urban Development.  NEOCH recently completed a report based off of surveys and comments collected at those meetings that describes the concern of 130 homeless people with regard to the shelters and social services (To see the full report visit the NEOCH website at www.neoch.org under resources.)

            The surveys were distributed during the meetings held at 5 shelter locations, which were moderated by Dan Kerr, a doctoral student at Case Western Reserve University.  Kerr was hired by NEOCH to facilitate the meetings as an unbiased but compassionate participant in the plight of the homeless.  Kerr is the founder of the local chapter of Food Not Bombs and is working with men from the shelters to form an independent union of temporary laborers.  He is not currently affiliated with any social service organizations.

            The results of the information clearly show that homeless people are not happy with the current system and the shelters and social service programs are not achieving the success or meeting the goals they originally intended to accomplish.  The percentage of homeless people being linked to permanent housing system wide is only 31%.  Studies nationally have found that without any transitional or supportive services 33% of the homeless people find their way off the streets and find permanent housing.  Transitional housing is defined as housing with supportive services that extends from 4 months to 2 years.

            To address some of these concerns the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless proposed a mandatory arbitration system to address grievances and bring homeless people into the decision making process.  These arbitration boards would allow residents to discuss with management the operation of the facility and some of the rules that prevent stability.

            The Office of Homeless Services advisory Board voted against mandating arbitration within the shelter system.  The City of Cleveland has a space on the Advisory Board, but had no comment for this article and staff of the Office of the Homeless Services also refused to comment.

            In addition, according to NEOCH, homeless people are being terminated from the transitional housing programs with little or no warning and without the due process that would enable them to either protest the charges against them or make other safe housing arrangements.  The transitional housing units enforce zero tolerance towards drugs and alcohol and will immediately terminate any violators and place them back out on the streets where they receive no assistance for their addictions.  Often an entire family is displaced from transitional housing because one member violated the rules of the program.  Is it fair to penalize an entire family and put them out on the street?  Many of the shelters close their doors after 7 or 8 p.m. or are full by the time and cannot take these displaced individuals in for the night.  In addition to an arbitration board, NEOCH is asking that transitional housing providers give a lease to homeless people who enter transitional housing separate from the social service contract that each individual signs upon entering the program.

            Chip Joseph of Y-Haven, states that “transitional housing is a therapeutic community for people that want to change, and that using drugs or alcohol are grounds

For immediate dismissal from the Y-Haven program.” He also asked, “how can you offer a lease for no rent?”  Many of the programs offered by these agencies have reduced or free rent but the residents receive none of the rights of renter and are held to a higher standard then those with a lease.  Renters are protected under the Ohio Landlord Tenant Laws.

            NEOCH staff asked shouldn’t a therapeutic community provide assistance to members who relapse?  In an interview, Brian Davis, NEOCH director, asked “Doctors take a Hippocratic oath to “first do no harm” when treading patients.  Shouldn’t all caregivers abide by the same philosophy? “How is sending someone out on the streets in the dead of winter providing care or helping that individual?  We all know that rules are necessary for the housing units to function orderly but steps should be put in place to protect the individuals from further harm and relapse.  After all recovery is not instantaneous but rather a daily process and an ongoing struggle for many of the homeless.  One setback can put them back at zero and leave them without the will to start all over again through the long, arduous process, “ Davis said.

            The Salvation Army PASS program, and Family Transitional Housing had “no comment” when asked about leases.  Transitional had “no comment” when asked about leases.  Transitional Housing for women said that they would be willing to discuss the issues.  Another transitional provider who did not want to be named said, “the residents sign an agreement to be clean, for as long as they’re here and if they’re not we move them to another facility or shelter…. no one relapses in recovery or you’re not in recovery. “  This individual worries that that if the residents have a lease and violate the terms they don’t know how long it will take to get them evicted.

            NEOCH’s position as outlined in a position paper that due process should be put in place at all agencies and that staff should never threaten homelessness as a punishment.  Those that do should be punished and if an individual is terminated from a program they should be given a written copy of the reason for the termination with the grievance procedure on the back of the sheet including outside agencies that could help.  There must be universal rules regarding banning and termination of an individual that cannot solely involve in-house staff.

            Chance butts, a former resident of transitional housing, talked to us about his experience with the system.  Chance left the program of his own accord and is currently attending college full time.  He claims the rules he experienced at the Volunteers of America Transitional Place (TLP) worked against the residents going through the program.  “Residents are asked to pay a $200.00 donation per month to live there.  They call it a donation but it’s really rent.  You can stay there from 2 months to 2 years but, no one I know has gotten help to obtain permanent housing.”

            Butts went on to say, “Every time they got an employee or counselor working there that can help the residents fully utilize all the agencies and get back on their feet, they got fired for being too helpful.  It’s like they just want their money and the agencies don’t communicate with each other so the system is not as effective as it could be.  The residents at TLP are kept on a rigorous schedule, which can be overwhelming, to them.  Aside from their jobs they have 7 meetings per week for counseling, house chores, weekly house meetings and they do their own laundry. 

            He claims that the staff unfairly treats some of the residents better than others and that most of the staff are not trained properly to do their jobs.  This complaint is among homeless people that utilize the shelters.

            NEOCH has listened to the grievances of the homeless and is proposing solutions to their problems.  They compiled a list of the following requirements:

  1. Mandatory Arbitration Boards- They are urging OHS and the City of Cleveland to mandate that all agencies receiving public money quickly phase in a plan for arbitration boards within the shelters.
  2. Due Process in the Transitional Shelters – All transitional facilities must sign a lease with their tenants that have a firewall between services and housing.  Homeless people with medical problems such as an addiction should not be treated as criminals and expelled from their housing.  The system should not make more people homeless than they provide housing to in one year.
  3. Due Process in all Shelters- No o ne should be exiled to the streets to possibly freeze to death or die in a dumpster or abandoned building.  Shelters should not send people out to the streets without a plan for relocation to a safe environment unless there is a criminal matter (in which case the police would provide housing in jail.)
  4. There should be a Transfer Plan in Place –

If all else fails or the shelter staff feels it necessary for a person to leave the facility for the safety of other clients or staff, there should be a system wide protocol for dealing with transfers to other facilities.

            In addition to proposed changes within the shelters, NEOCH is asking for changes from the organization designed as the oversight body in the community – the office of Homeless Services.  OHS must take responsibility with grand visions of coordinating services and ‘ending homelessness.’  What has happened is the opposite with homelessness at an increase.  OHS needs to take some simple actions some of which include:

a.  Extensive training of all staff to include referral information, handling grievances, conflict management, disability services.

b.  Coordinate meetings with the Executive Directors on a regular basis to talk about policy and build strength, unity and collaboration within the system.

c.  Homeless Accountability sessions should be held monthly by the staff so they can hear from homeless people and listen to their problems and find ways to address them.

d.  Tie funding to the impact the service is having on the community and the integration of services within the system.

e.  Make demands on the other government agencies to stop the flow into the homeless system (prison, welfare, hospitals, mental institutions, and alcohol treatment facilities).

f.    Streamline paperwork.  Shelters and services should provide one reporting tool to all funders including foundations, all government agencies.  They can no longer tie staff to reports instead of moving people into housing.  These could be make available on-line.

The document circulated by NEOCXH stated, “The consequences of not making the improvements are that more and more homeless people will stop

trusting and using the system that was put in place to help them.  Also, both the City and the County would be exposed to serious negative publicity in opposing the empowerment of homeless people.  Tragically, countless homeless people will die on the streets this winter because they are unable to access the sanctuary of our publicly funded shelters.  If the OHS advisory board rejects this plan they must have an alternate plan to address the needs and avoid the consequences mentioned here.”  NEOCH feels this is a long overdue discussion that must be resolved quickly.”

   Copyright NEOCH published December 2001 in Cleveland for Issue 51