Editorial: Stop the Homeless Death Penalty

            The homeless death penalty is imposed almost every night in Cleveland.  The most extreme punishment possible within the criminal justice system is the death penalty.  It is the forfeiture of an individual’s life as punishment for an especially heinous crime.  In the shelter system, the most extreme punishment possible is to be kicked out of the shelter and on the streets.  This could result in death from the elements or by a criminal act.  Unfortunately, we impose the death penalty of punishments on homeless people nearly every night.

            Shelter workers routinely march through the facilities telling clients that if they do not shape up they will kick them out onto the streets.  This punishment is taken too lightly with little regard for the consequences.  In the past year, we have seen an individual crushed to death after falling asleep in a dumpster in order to stay warm.  We saw a homeless man who was beat up who then picked himself up struggling into an abandon building only to die later that night.  We have seen a homeless man murdered by the railroad only a couple yards away from the shelter.  Finally, many have died because their body shut down from alcohol abuse while staying on the streets.

            If shelters were constructed with a primary mission of keeping people from dying on the streets they need to renew this commitment.  There is no place to prevent people from being exile from the shelters.  There is a significant lack of coordination to address this growing problem.  There is a significant lack of coordination to address this growing problem.  Unless there is a criminal matter (in which case the police would provide temporary housing in jail), there should not be a thought of sending someone to sleep on the streets.

            In discussing these issues with some of the residents of various shelters they came up with the guidelines that need to be adopted locally.  There must be universal rules regarding banning and termination of an individual that cannot involve solely in house staff.  Before a person is banned or terminated a supervisory staff person not involved in the altercation should be consulted.  Staff that threaten homelessness, as a punishment should be disciplined.  If an individual is terminated from a program they should be given a written copy of the reason for the termination and on the back of the sheet the grievance procedure including outside agencies that could help.  Without fail, the shelter should make every effort to transfer the person so that they are not stuck sleeping outside like an animal that had an accident on a new rug.

            Homeless people have said that if all else fails or the staff feels it is necessary that a person must 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.  The client should be first isolated from the rest of the population, and they arrangements made to go to another facility that may be better suited or may be better able to handle the individual.  This will require greater cooperation among all the facilities.  It is our experience that most people leave of their own wishes, but for those that do not, a plan must be in place.  This must apply system wide across the board of all types of shelters.

            There is a significant due process problem with shelters kicking homeless people to the streets.  There are many mentally ill people who are suspended or banned from shelters. These cases raise the issue of whether their banning had anything to do with their disability.  Were they unfairly punished for a personality disorder manifesting itself due to a mental illness?  Since very few shelters monitors have the ability to make these type of diagnosis, it would seem only proper to keep people in shelter.  These facilities and the City of Cleveland as well as Cuyahoga County bear some responsibility for not developing a cold weather plan if someone dies on the streets this winter.

            Those social service providers that offer transitional shelter or support services for people and families that are allowed to stay in the facility for up to two years need to separate the housing that they offer from the social services.  We all champion housing as a human right, but it is hypocritical to exempt homeless people from the right because they are n transitional housing.  Many of the transitional providers ask the men or women who go into the program to pay a service fee or pay rent but do not extend the right to a housing lease to those individuals.  Those who offer the housing free of charge still must respond to the homeless population better than landlords who are quick to evict people.  These social services are providing a service because our government has privatized shelter and should act in the best interest of the community, which is to keep people from becoming homeless as soon as possible. Currently, the transitional shelters will evict a person that very same night the person comes back drunk.  Many if not most of the transitional programs give them no chance to get their stuff together and move on, but will kick the individual to the street that very night.  This is certainly a violation of the landlord tenant law and violation of the homeless individual’s human rights.  We have experience with transitional housing providers that they have terminated an individual or a family for non-alcoholic or drug related problems and given the household no notice.

In Cleveland, we converted public housing units into transitional housing.  Those vary same apartments only a few years ago offered the individuals the protection of the law against immediate eviction and with a different name on the front door now do not extend any protection to the tenants.  At this time, a smart landlord that wanted to save money on complying with the law could just call his building transitional housing and get out of the hard fought landlord tenant laws in Ohio.

            We hear the argument that if you allow one person to contaminate the transitional shelter all the tenants will be at risk.  At the same time, we hear that relapse in part of the disease.  We hear from alcohol and drug addicts will slip on their path to recovery.  So if we are to believe the science, why do we punish this behavior with complete separation from the program?  There are no other medical conditions that if the individual relapses we cut them off the treatment.  When a mentally ill individual goes off their treatment plan they are not evicted for non-compliance.  These social service agencies have to come up with a better way to deal with homeless people that relapse then immediate eviction.  The number of people that cycle through the transitional shelters without succeeding is staggering.  A look at the transitional shelters last year that were submitting applications for renewal funding found that on average only 31% of those entering the facility found stable housing.

              These social service providers need to come together to develop a better system to move people into stability.  They need to treat their clients with more respect, and provide them the same tights that other citizens are provided.  There are far more effective ways to deal with relapse then jeopardizing a person’s life by placing them on the streets.  The Grapevine is asking for a homeless death penalty moratorium for the winter while these issues are debated and addressed.

 Copyright NEOCH published December 2001Cleveland Ohio for Issue 51