Salvation Army Shelter Nears Boiling Point

News Analysis by Brian Davis

History of the Shelter:

In 1999, County officials led an effort to replace the deplorable Project Heat shelters for men after a series of protests led by the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless. During this time the City of Cleveland began an overly broad interpretation of the quality of life laws, which led to the threatened arrest of hundreds of people who slept on the streets. This only accelerated the efforts to create a quality shelter to bring the many people in from the cold.

The Salvation Army was chosen as the provider of services and they set about to create a plan. The plan called for a slight increase in the number of people who would utilize the facility over the capacity under Project Heat. There were also plans to move the Salvation Army PASS transitional shelter into the building as soon as phase 2 renovations were complete. This would allow men to work a case plan and then move into a stable living arrangements and then to permanent housing. The facility was to be used 24 hours a day with the benefits of the many social workers from the nearly one-hundred social service agencies assisting the men.

The program was doomed from the beginning when over 100 people more than anticipated sought shelter. The Salvation Army was slow to complete renovations on the kitchen, which made it difficult to operate 24 hours a day. Very few social service providers came to the table to assist. Basically, the Salvation Army and the Veterans Administration were drowning in men in need of services. By the time phase 2 renovations were complete the other half of the facility was needed to accommodate the 400 men that showed up every night. Salvation Army officials were presented a list of questions to respond to for this article, but they declined to respond.

Other problems facing the Army was the renovations were more expensive than anticipated. They paid way more than expected for the lease on the building, and they had many staffing problems. The Salvation Army was running a facility that it had no idea how to administer. All decisions, from staffing to the expenditure of money, were being made out of the New York office. This made it nearly impossible to change in order to respond to the needs of the thousands who were in need. It was like having a skeptical mother in law running the household from another city of a newlywed couple with one dozen adopted children. Chaos reigned.

It all Comes Crashing Down

The Salvation Army traditionally operates shelters with rigorous codes of conduct with a significant screening process for entry. They also almost always have time limits on an individual’s stay at their shelters. The City and County and the Coalition for the Homeless all pressured the Army to accept anyone that walked in the door. The message from all outside sources was accept all and move them on as soon as possible. In fact, the County even held a meeting in October 2001 to explore making 2100 Lakeside the entry shelter for all other shelters. This would mean that a man would have to first do an intake at 2100 Lakeside and then would be placed in the appropriate other shelters in the system. Many shelters resisted this idea because the 2100 Lakeside residents were viewed as the hardest to serve.

 So the Salvation Army was absolutely unaware of how to run this shelter with its size and difficult population. The most glaring problem with the shelter was the resistance by the higher level administrators in partnering with the homeless residents to improve the shelter. Out of turf issues or a total lack of understanding, the Salvation Army never could understand the value of seeking open and honest input from the men who use the shelter. The men often said they were treated as either children or inmates by the staff.

Problems Slowly Creep into the Public Eye

In April 2001, the Coalition for the Homeless was commissioned to review the shelters and present that information to the City and County. There were serious problems at 2100 Lakeside from theft issues by the staff, unclear expectations, and serious problems with staff disrespect and demeaning behavior. NEOCH asked the Army for permission to organize the men into a Resident Advisory Committee to work on the problems with a representative body that could speak for the population. In the fall, NEOCH met with the men to outline the problems and then recommend solutions. The residents wanted more input on the rules and staffing decisions. They wanted to have a voice in the management of the facility and wanted clear rules and guidelines spelled out. The resident committee faced much opposition from Salvation Army management.

During this time the Army, feeling increasing pressure from all sides to manage a better facility, fired their director, Angelo Anderson. They brought in John Ansbro who has experience with the New York Salvation Army and locally with the City Mission and the Harbor Light Complex. Ansbro was supposed to fix the facility, but worked only part time at 2100 Lakeside shelter. He kept his job and reportedly his salary at Salvation Army’s Harbor Light complex while drawing a salary as Acting Director of Salvation Army 2100 Lakeside. City and County paid his salary at both facilities.

Conflicts Arise at Shelter:

The facility made significant strides in cleaning up the shelter so that it looked cleaner and they added a maintenance man to fix some of the crumbling interior. They could not correct the huge number of complaints and the growing resentment of the staff. Actually, with every sink that was restored two other problems were created from the withdraw of the availability of lockers to the discontinuation of the medical beds.

Then in January 2002, the Salvation Army arbitrarily began turning people away at night. After a week of no resolution of this problem, the Coalition for the Homeless took action and protested. This turning people away angered the City and County as well who were both caught off guard. The City officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Ruth Gillett, director of the County Office of Homeless Services, declined to comment. High level Army officials denied that they were ever turning people away publicly, while Coalition staff visited the shelter at night and watched people turned away.

After much media exposure and a negotiated compromise with the City and County the situation was resolved that the County would pay additional amount on the Army contract when more than 370 people presented themselves at the shelter. The County would pay an additional amount to house the overflow at Harbor Light. This provided some comfort to the Army that actually permanently assigned a group of men to Harbor Light thus receiving a per diem for a consistent group of men.

The Army blamed the City’s Building and Housing and Fire Department for turning people away at two public meetings. They claimed it was not safe and that the City was demanding strict adherence to the occupancy capacity. The City’s housing safety team actually had worked out a compromise to allow more into the shelter provided there were additional safety procedures put in place in a written correspondence obtained by the Grapevine.

Tensions between staff and residents continued to escalate. The resident committee had made recommendations in December 2001 that would improve the shelter. Those recommendations were either ignored or promises were made and never kept. The resident committee saw many changes take place that were actually contrary to their recommendations. The men were not allowed in until 6 p.m. and were told they could not come into use the bathroom. In the two hour wait outside many of the men with chronic health conditions were forced to use the alley as a bathroom. This disgusted the men and made them feel like dogs according to one angry letter sent to City Council about the situation.

Raymond Robinson (See Grapevine #54) actually began pestering City Council about the deplorable conditions at the shelter. He was told by Ward 7 Councilman Fannie Lewis to put a petition together. While gathering signatures, he was stopped by the shelter staff and actually punished by having his bed taken and forced to sleep on the floor. After a confrontation with the Coalition for the Homeless staff, Robinson was given a bed back, but faced all kinds of hardships within the shelter.

Problems Only Escalate

 In late April and early May, the residents met again to outline the problems for the Salvation Army. Very few changes were addressed, and so the resident committee asked for a meeting with the County to resolve this problem. The men were told that the Army was going to again restrict access to the 360 men per night, and they dismantled the remaining programs that existed at the shelter. Staff had developed an "us vs. them" mentality, and were routinely asserting their authority over the men.

The resident committee had received a copy of the Salvation Army budget for 2100 Lakeside and found many discrepancies. There was a line that said, "social service assessment (10% of revenue)," which was a fee the Army was charging the City and County for running the program. This money was reportedly going to the main office in New York City. There was a food allocation listed of $170,149 despite the fact that the Army never served food at 2100 Lakeside. The food was donated by church groups or the PASS program. The men wanted to know where this money was going. The 2100 Lakeside budget listed a food service coordinator’s salary again despite the fact that the renovated kitchen was not used and no food was prepared at the shelter.

Army officials kept assuring the County and City that the kitchen would soon open. They kept saying that they would allow the men to use the bathroom while they waited outside in meetings with the community. They kept telling the County and City that they were not going to turn people away despite the public admissions to the contrary. At a tour of the shelter, the staff assured Councilmen and City officials that they make accommodations for men that work late into the evening when this was actually not the case. The staff began setting their own rules every shift.

One day, the men would be allowed to watch television and the next night nothing. There were charges of extreme mental torture by the staff of the guests especially of the men with mental illnesses. Robinson reported seeing the food falling onto the floor as it was brought into the shelter and the staff just scooping it up and serving it.

Finally, a meeting was set with Cuyahoga County Commissioner Tim McCormack to discuss the problems at the shelter. After one year of trying to make changes, the residents and the Coalition were at a point that they needed an immediate change.

Coalition staff asked for a meeting with the men the night before the meeting with the County to get a sense of the thinking of the residents. I had previously been placed on the banned list and was denied entrance to the facility on a number of occasions. After a brief meeting on May 28 in which police were called to break up the discussion, the residents of 2100 Lakeside shelter voted no-confidence in the current administer of the shelter, and asked County and City officials to seek a new shelter operator. Staff at the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless met with the men using the 2100 Lakeside shelter, and were asked to leave the facility. I refused to leave while talking to the men, and Salvation Army staff called the police to remove me. The men voted to seek a new shelter operator and the meeting broke up without an arrest. The men began circulating a petition and nominated two people to act in their interest.

 On May 29, the Coalition along with the representatives from the resident committee met with Commissioner Tim McCormack and City Councilwoman Fannie Lewis to deliver the message that the men no longer have confidence in the Salvation Army and are asking for an immediate community meeting to develop a scope of services. There were nearly 40 people at the this meeting on May 29 including County staff, social service providers, resident committee members, and representatives of the Salvation Army when the men delivered the message that they no longer had confidence in the current shelter operators. The 2100 Lakeside Resident committee is a group of nine men who were voted as the spokespeople for the 400 men who sleep at this overcrowded shelter every night. Thomas Lewis, an eight-month member of the resident committee said, "We have tried over the last six months to work with the Salvation Army, but things have actually gone from bad to worse."

Raymond Robinson repeatedly went to Cleveland City Hall to get a resolution of the deteriorating shelter. He assisted in the circulation of a petition that asked the Salvation Army to transfer the program to another provider. The resident advisory committee was able to get 326 people to sign the petition before Robinson was banned from the shelter.

The main areas of concern for the men who stay at 2100 Lakeside include:

1. Disrespectful, under-trained, under-supervised, insensitive staff

2. A lack of services, knowledge of services, and qualified social workers at the shelter

3. Overcrowded conditions with an average of 50 to 75 people sleeping on mats on the floor every night.

4. Huge problems with the facility that have gone on for years including clients standing out front with no bathroom every day for two hours, a lack of a working kitchen, and constant problems with the mail.

5. The single biggest problem is the lack of accountability for the shelter and the inability for the Salvation Army to involve the residents as partners in solving these problems.

The men were at a point at which they believed that the Salvation Army had repeatedly broken their promises, misled the residents, and violated their trust. They had not acted in the best interest of the community or the men who use the 2100 Lakeside shelter. Facing possible retaliation, they asked for a new administer of the shelter with all speed before a tragedy occurred at the shelter.

Salvation Army staff Retaliates

The loudest critic was Raymond Robinson, who actually began complaining to the City of Cleveland and City Council in early April. He faced retaliation before by the Salvation Army staff, but persisted in raising the issues. In early June, he was evicted from the shelter and was forced to sleep on the rainy streets of Cleveland.

Robinson was assisting with a petition drive at the shelter, and had harshly criticized Salvation Army staff at the May 29th meeting with Commissioner McCormack. On June 5, 2002, he led a group of men who cleaned up the shelter in order to be able to watch the NBA Finals. The men were told at the May 29th meeting that if they cleaned up after dinner of the cafeteria, they could watch television, which was also in the cafeteria. The Salvation Army staff cut the television off at the start of the game because the cafeteria had allegedly not been cleaned the previous week. Robinson complained, telling the men that this was a violation of the agreement that the residents had struck with management the previous week. He complied with their orders and vacated the television room, but was upset that once again the rules were changed.

He and Leroy Rodgers were complaining about the injustice of the situation when staff had police escort the two out of the shelter. According to shelter documents, Rodgers was terminated for "arguing with another client, was asked not to argue but refused. Client was told if he said one more word he would be put out. Client insisted in being put out (sic). Client out until further notice."

This was signed by Brady Evans of the Salvation Army. In essence, Rodgers was put out for saying another word when he was told not to. Certainly not an offense that justifies many nights on the rainy cold streets of Cleveland according to Rodgers. Robinson was put out for allegedly "inciting a riot," but was not arrested by the police for such a serious infraction in a volatile facility.

The two men came back the next day and asked for a grievance hearing because they believed the facts of the case were in question. After finally receiving a copy of the grievance procedure on Friday June 7, they formally filed a request for a hearing. They both felt that until they had their grievance hearing they should not be punished. Staff of NEOCH helped them file the grievance and assisted in getting it in the hands of the supervisors of the shelter. The two wanted a hearing as it states in the Salvation Army grievance procedure. Instead they were forced to sleep on the streets until the grievance was heard. The two men kept asking for a grievance hearing to be heard before the banning from the shelter took place. They felt that if the ban was reversed how could the Army compensate them for sleeping on the streets while they waited for the appeal.

After the Salvation Army rejected the request for a grievance hearing or the suspension of the punishment until a hearing could take place, the men went to the County for help. It was thought that since the County and City give the shelter $1.2 million, they could exert some pressure on the Army to do the right thing. After a series of telephone calls, Ruth Gillett emerged from her office telling the men that she could not convince the Army to reverse their decision. She said that she was sorry, but would "remember the actions of the Army." This was hardly comfort for the two men who were facing sleeping on the streets for the weekend.

Gillett helped to secure shelter at another facility in the system, but could not assert any authority over the Salvation Army.

This demonstrated how justice was settled within the shelters. Men are punished and then must make an appeal to get back into the facility. There was no presumption of innocence. No attempt to accommodate them until a grievance hearing could be scheduled. There was no concern for their well being when a dispute arises. This was the prime example of the need for some entity in Cleveland to enforce standards on these programs that make life and death decisions every day.

City Council meets:

The next step for the men was a meeting with Cleveland City Council who had heard for months the complaints of some of the residents. Councilmen Frank Jackson convened the meeting on June 14 and members of the City Administration, fire, police other social service providers were invited. The Salvation Army was represented by Ansbro, Captain Ricardo Fernandez and members of the their local advisory including Pepper Pike Mayor Bruce Akers. The men who stayed at 2100 Lakeside went through the litany of problems with staff, a lack of leadership, and facility problems. Salvation Army officials listened as the shelter residents described being called "maggots," having donations stolen by staff, and the regular abuse. The Army said that they had opened the facility at 4 p.m. as their contract with the City of Cleveland stated. It turned out that they did not begin to open the shelter at 4 p.m. until June 17, 2002.

The men presented their petition asking the Salvation Army to be asked to leave the shelter operation. Jackson stated that the City and County were not at that point yet and asked the men to negotiate with the Army on some of the most egregious problems. Councilman Joe Cimperman agreed to convene this meeting between the Army and the residents to report back to Council. The resident committee members agreed to meet with the Army in an attempt to lower the tension level and avoid a tragedy. They still want to replace the Salvation Army and devise a new scope of service for a new provider. Realizing it would take months to transition, the men are willing to talk to the Army about the immediate problems to protect both clients and staff until other arrangements can be made.

The Office of Homeless Services advisory board met and are devising a statement to seek a quick resolution of this problem with the shelter. They are urging all parties to come to a quick resolution of the problem so that the safety concerns can be addressed before the winter months.

Published in the Homeless Grapevine, Cleveland Ohio July 2002 Issue 55