Conflicts Over Crowded Shelter

by Pamela Vincent

     When the shelter at 2100 Lakeside was being planned it was supposed to be the solution for the overflow of men utilizing project "HEAT". Now 2100 Lakeside, the over flow shelter solution, needs a solution of its’ own to ease the consistently "over capacity" number of men seeking shelter and a meal at the facility.

     The original plan for 2100 Lakeside, according to Phil Mason, Social Service Administrator at the Salvation Army headquarters, called for shelter "for approximately 120-150 beds, and that number was upped at the opening to 200 beds."

     However, Bette Meyer, Deputy County Administrator, said that they had a contract with The Salvation Army that specified a 350-person capacity plus 25 personnel. "From early on though, Mason stated, the shelter was operating at over capacity numbers and because of their compassion for the homeless. The Salvation Army allowed the over crowdedness to endure."

      On an average night the number of men using the facility was at 424, but on some nights up to 510 men would utilize the shelter. Early this January however, they made some changes and imposed a strict 410-person limit to the number of men seeking shelter there. Once the beds were taken the rest of the men would lie on mats on the hard floor or sit in chairs all night. Most were happy to be out of the cold weather.

    A staff person who wished not to be identified at the Lakeside shelter told us they were given a couple weeks notice prior to the implementation of the 410 imposed limit. The staff tried to verbally inform as many clients as possible before hand that they might need to find other arrangements, yet written notice was not posted. All of a sudden long lines formed in early January outside the shelter hours before their doors opened and people were being turned away. This had never happened before and many of the clients were at a loss given either little or no notice to find other sleeping or meal arrangements.

     This also made it difficult for some of the regular clients who worked second shift and were usually guaranteed a bed. In January things changed and by the time they got off work, later in the evening, the shelter was already at the 410-person limit. Some of the men who were turned away complained that they had to sleep in hospital waiting rooms or the lobbies of apartment buildings to keep warm and dry. Others said that they used RTA shelters or took up residence in dangerous abandoned buildings. Some of the men who use the facility less frequently did not know about the new policy and were left out in the cold.

     Mason explained that the decision was not meant to hurt the homeless men or put them at risk but said, "the Salvation Army is being made to comply with legal counsel and risk management that forbids us from operating at over capacity levels from now on." He said they were worried about fire and safety risks for the men. One of the men responded by saying that if given the choice of their safety inside the shelter or outside in freezing temperatures, they’d take their chances inside the shelter.

     In response to the Salvation Army’s new policy some of the men, Brian Davis of the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless staged a sit-in on January 17th at the Salvation Army headquarters. The sit-in resulted in all the city and county agencies taking notice of the seriousness of the situation. During this time, Davis and the resident committee at 2100 Lakeside also tried to have other issues addressed that they had put into a 4-page document. This early December document detailed the complaints by residents and recommended solutions for the shelter. One of the issues dealt with the over crowdedness. As of January 9th though, the committee had yet to see any corrective changes put into practice.

     Davis also met with Larry Goodman and John Ansbro from the Salvation Army. Goodman is the new director for 2100 Lakeside. In the meeting they discussed a temporary reprieve or short-term solution to the over crowdedness so that men wouldn’t be turned away during the cold weather and face possible death due to exposure on the streets at night. It was thought the problem was solved with this meeting, but men continued to be turned away the following week.

     As a result of the sit in demonstration, NEOCH, the resident committee, the County and the Salvation Army struck a deal to prevent the men from being turned away.

     As it stands at least until April, when 2100 Lakeside reaches its’ legal limit instead of turning people away they will be transported to other facilities. The Salvation Army shelter took most of the overflow from 2100 Lakeside shelter in a deal in which the County would pay a set amount for each person over the legal capacity. A staff person at Lakeside said that approximately 50 men were being moved into other programs.

     A meeting with many agencies was held at 2100 Lakeside on January 24th that involved Commissioner Tim McCormack, approximately 20 City and County agencies, social service providers, NEOCH and the Resident Committee at Lakeside. The meeting, which was organized by County Administrator David Reines, addressed the following:

· Rapid assessment of current client needs

· Reduction of the population at 2100 Lakeside

· Placement of current residents into more appropriate housing or shelter

· Engaging long term homeless into services and permanent housing in the community

     The critical question that the group attempted to answer was: "How can your system/agency help?"

     For the time being the Salvation Army was permitted, in a letter by the City of Cleveland’s Board of Building Standards, to lift the limit at Lakeside during inclement weather conditions until other solutions could be put into place. On January 30th, representatives of The Salvation Army appeared before the Board of Building Standards seeking clarification of the letter. The Board passed a resolution indicating that during the next six months, The Salvation Army could exceed the legal occupancy limit when conditions required it to do so, subject to approval of a safety plan by the Fire Department. The reference to inclement weather was deleted. A new letter will be sent after The Salvation Army and the Fire Department have discussed the additional steps to implement a safety plan.

     The City of Cleveland believes that the best way to reduce the current overcrowded conditions at 2100 Lakeside is to reduce the number of persons living there on a long-term basis. Bill Resseger of the City of Cleveland Department of Community Development stated that "the shelters were never intended as permanent housing for the chronically homeless. The optimal use of limited public resources is to assist the community-based partners in developing additional supportive housing resources rather than creating an ever expanding shelter system that warehouses people on a permanent basis." "To that end, the City of Cleveland is proposing to allocate $1 million from the 2002-2003 Consolidated Plan budget to use specifically for the development of supportive housing.

     They do believe also that the inadequate physical condition of the Downtown Women’s shelter requires immediate attention and are proposing an additional $500,000 allocation toward an improved facility."

     In addition, the City is strongly in support of efforts to involve the full spectrum of housing and service providers in both the following goals:

1)Helping those currently residing at 2100 Lakeside to find suitable permanent housing along with the services they need and

2) Assuring that agencies with responsibilities for the housing needs of their clients do not view 2100 Lakeside as an acceptable permanent housing alternative.

     The City recognizes the working group convened by Reines on January 24th and hopes that all of the relevant parties will together achieve the two goals as soon as possible.

     At the County level Deputy Administrator Bette Meyer had even more positive changes in store for 2100 Lakeside. Steps are going to be put into place to contract with Mental Health services Inc. and the Alcohol and Drug Services board to put services on site. They are also looking into benefits such as food stamps and other assistance that can be put on site.

   A follow up committee was formed to handle the necessary action items, which were:

1) Profile of current population to better understand their needs

2) Provisions for alcohol and drug assistance at the shelter

3) Intake or assessment of all incoming clients

     Meyers also said, "We hope that the shelter is a first step for the men to get them to wherever they need to be. There needs to be resources plugged in for the men to do whatever they need to do to get them into permanent housing." Her observation is, "that in the last year not as much attention was being paid to that as closely as it should have been and that’s probably why there’s so many men there. The way they see in controlling the numbers is to help the men to move on to permanent options and we think that that’s a good outcome."

     The Salvation Army hopes to operate the shelter at not more than 250 men on any given night by April 1st. This is a fast approaching deadline. It is hoped that once they get the numbers down the facility will most likely be more manageable. They’ll be able to open the kitchen and perhaps keep the shelter in better operating condition and cleaner than in the past. It’s apparent that the services and agencies responsible for making the necessary changes have their work cut out for them and county officials want everyone to contribute to meeting the deadline of April 1st.

     If the numbers haven’t been reduced by then, the City of Cleveland and Cuyahoga County will need to develop an emergency plan to head off the potential emergency.

Copyright NEOCH published 2002 Issue 53