by Pete Domanovic
When I was sleeping on the sidewalk near Broadway and Harvard in the middle of winter, at the ripe old age of thirteen, I wasn’t expecting to be writing anything at all thirty-five years later. During that time there were only a few shelters in Cleveland. I couldn’t get into any of them at that age, so I slept wherever I could. I was pretty much treated like a criminal during the rest of my teenage years for not having anywhere to go. After turning eighteen, there was nothing to do but go look for work. Cleveland was one hard place to be for those who are poor with no where to go.
The Salvation Army was the first place I looked for help. I could not get in because I didn’t claim to be an alcoholic. The Rescue Mission at that time was the same way. There was nothing else to do but to go somewhere else. Everywhere I went it was the same thing. From Ohio, to Florida, to California, a homeless person needed to be an alcoholic to stay. When I realized I needed to be an alcoholic to stay alive, I trusted the Salvation Army in Santa Barbara, California. The Salvation Army Rehabilitation Center there was a pretty good place to be now that I acted as an alcoholic. Their program for alcoholics was work therapy. We each went to their church meetings, alcohol meetings, and worked 40 hrs. per week. For this we received a couple of dollars a week, enough to buy some tobacco for the week.
The work we did was all related to the Salvation Army Store part of the operation. In reality, we worked for the American Salvage Company. My pay was, and I believe still is room and board plus a few dollars per week. During the time Reagan was president, the American Salvage Company was competing financially with the Dow Chemical Company. That didn’t look good, so they took it off the open market, and now the only ones who could buy stock were the Salvation Army officers. After ninety days, or whenever the client felt rehabilitated, the Army said goodbye. Some people chose to stay there for as long as they could, but those who were unable to work had to leave. It seemed as though very few people leave on good terms. They always treat homeless people as if we were leaving them in a bind. I guess that discourages people from asking for bus fare or anything like that.
Another choice available was the Rescue Missions. The City Mission in Cleveland is one of the network of missions throughout the United States. Claiming to rehabilitate the alcoholic, it’s a strong religious based program. My job there would most likely be anything concerning the daily operations of the Mission—from cleaning to kitchen work. Though a rescue mission may have as many as thirty people on their staff, there are only a small handful that will speak to the clients. The rest are fundraising staff. When clients were not actually doing work, they required us to sit out in the open somewhere, and read our Bibles, and do our Bible studies. This was for the benefit of the potential donors on tour through the facility.
The missions also give each client a small gratuity in an attempt to meet basic needs. I received as much as ten dollars every two weeks from the last Omaha, Nebraska mission I was in. Pastor Bob was the top preacher at that facility. Everyone guessed the mission took in about five million dollars a year. Homeless people are really looked down upon when they ask where the money goes, but the answer is always, out of the country. When we think about all the organized rescue missions (about two hundred in one organization) in the United States, they could have bought a small nation by now and filled it with the poor.
After being all over the country, and being in quite a few of the places mentioned, Judas is still in charge of the poor. Not necessarily the directors, but after a short time we can always tell who is actually running the show. We realize really fast that homeless people are only there to make the place function, and any needs we have are placed on the back burner.
The real heroes in my opinion are the people that pull to the side of the road when they know a homeless person is in trouble and ask what they can do. The school girls at St. Patrick’s who volunteer their own time to feed homeless people are the people who I admire. The donors who are giving from the heart, and not because of taxes. For whatever reason these people have for utilizing these centers, unwillingness to work is not one of them. These places are thriving due to the worker who keeps them alive. The person talking behind the door asking for donations would not lift a mop, or broom to help, and would if they became homeless would not be able to handle it and would probably add to the suicide rate in Cleveland.
Best Shelter in the United States:
The best shelter in the country would be in Atlanta, Georgia. If you go there looking for hundreds of counselors or everyone there telling you that you need this and that. Forget it. It’s strictly for the working man. They actually charge you $6.00 per night. That might sound a little strange coming from a homeless shelter, but that is how they support the shelter.
This place does not have all the overhead associated with the shelters here in Cleveland. Social workers, alcohol counselors and the such. They just have their rules and what it takes to make the place functional. You don’t need to do chores, because they hire people to do that.
This shelter accepts no money except the rent that you pay. They have a T.V. room that you can watch what the majority votes to watch, or rent movies for the V.C.R. If you’re hungry, they have a canteen that doubles as a work hall. You can come down in the morning and have a coffee and breakfast if you like and wait for a job, if you don’t already have one.
Well, since there are no counselors and social workers there making up an agenda for you, you have to make up your own. That of course would mean that you need to have your rent paid in advance and take care of all your other needs. If you have issues like alcoholism or drug addiction, they will be happy to refer you to the appropriate resources, and work with you in whatever you think you need.
The thing that makes this the best shelter would be that they treat you like a full grown man. There is no one there telling you this and that, and you can be yourself. About the only thing that would get you put out would be a violent act or a threat of violence.
The real thing a home-less person needs is opportunity. You already know how to work and save money. With your own agenda, you can begin to do the things you need to do from day one. You also know that if you stray from what you need to be doing, you can no longer pay your rent.
The Worst Shelter in the United States:
One of the worst shelters in the country is 2100 Lakeside Shelter here in Cleveland. The main reason is that it is so large with such a diverse population that it is impossible to feel safe. One of the most important features of a shelter is to at least provide a secure environment for the people that stay there.
The Salvation Army is claiming that their new goal at the 2100 Lakeside shelter is 20 people per month shall be eliminated from their roster. What we need to know is, will they be placed somewhere, or will they just be eliminated? Eliminating people is relatively easy, when you consider how it’s being done. If staying true to their past, they will just tell the shelter staff that 20 people per month can not come back, and that will be it.
It’s really easy to show numbers that claim success. This is usually done when seeking funds. First thing is the Salvation Army Professional panhandling staff put in their request for money? Then they need to show on paper their goals and accomplishments. If 20 people per month don’t come back, that is an accomplishment. Of course you don’t mention they are not allowed to come back. Of course these are professional people wearing bright crisp uniforms, and mostly have never come in contact with any poor people. Contact with the poor is delegated to other poor people, and usually winds up just doing things for their homey. Anyone else looking for help just needs to find there own homey.
Editor’s Note: Pete Domanovic has traveled around the United States and stayed at well over 100 shelters. He currently is staying at a shelter in Cleveland. These are his opinions based on his tremendous experience with shelters. He is a member of the Day Labor Organizing Committee.
Copyright NEOCH published 2002 Issue 52