Correcting Misguided Notion of Purpose of the Grapevine

Commentary

by Brian Davis

 The Role of the Homeless Grapevine

        The Grapevine has nine years of publishing history and I have edited the paper for eight years. My opinion concerning editorial content has not changed. I still believe that it is important to allow homeless people to say what is on their mind. The opinions of homeless people are as varied as the population. I know a conservative Republican homeless street newspaper editor in Arizona, and in the past the street newspaper in Toronto was bordering on fascism.

        We have featured very critical reviews of shelters, in depth discussions of trends in the homeless community and ideas for useful programs that should be created. My opinion of social service providers is shaped by the hundreds of homeless people who I talk to every couple of weeks. The Homeless Grapevine is a newspaper first and foremost that covers issues ignored by other media in the community.

        It is not the mission of the homeless street newspaper in Cleveland (or for that matter any other city in North America that I know of) to bring homeless service providers together. We have a certain bias in favor of homeless people, but we are still a member of the fourth estate. Similar to the pro-business bias of Crain’s publication in Cleveland or the Call and Post or Cleveland Life attempting to keep the issues of African American Clevelanders in the news. The Homeless Grapevine acts as a watchdog for the public against the potential tyranny of government and publicly supported social services.

 The Role of the Homeless Coalition:

        The Homeless Grapevine is published by the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, but there is a clear separation in the operation of the two entities. The vendors and volunteers of the paper have oversight of the Grapevine, but since there are so many different voices there is no clear agenda forwarded by the Grapevine. The articles that appear with the word “editorial” are the opinions of the three editors, usually written by one but supported by the other two. Commentaries are the opinions of the writer and no one else.

        NEOCH does have a specific agenda, and speaks as one voice. We have an advocacy agenda developed by our constituency—homeless people. We focus our attention on four areas of concern—housing, economic justice, health care, and civil rights. Under civil rights we include the rights homeless people have upon entering a social service provider. We hear a great deal of anger from our constituents and we have to reflect that in our advocacy to accurately represent homeless people. After all, in a country of such opulence, no one should be homeless, and those who become homeless are angry and puzzled how this could happen in the richest county on the face of the earth.

 Homeless Coalitions as Facilitators

        It is true that in some cities the homeless coalition acts as a coordinator or at least a collaborator of homeless service providers. Columbus and Jacksonville Florida are good examples of the coalitions as facilitators. The problem is that the voices of homeless people usually get drowned out and are eventually lost in these types of Coalitions. It is so difficult to amplify the voices of a population that is hard to get in touch with, and migrates frequently. It is easy to stay in touch with the shelters or meal sites that rarely move. Also, shelters don’t always like to sit down at the same table with homeless people who only yesterday publicly complained about the shelter operation or staff. Even though both shelters and homeless people have the same end goal—universal housing—they take much different paths.

        Shelters have to be concerned about funding and keeping their doors open so are in competition with other facilities for scarce dollars. Negative publicity of a shelter can be an assault on the social service provider’s ability to fund raise. The bottom line is that juggling the desires of a diverse homeless population with the needs of social service providers is nearly impossible. In the end shelter driven homeless coalitions usually mute the voices of homeless people and confine the discussion to services instead of solutions.

        This is not to say that there is not a need in Cleveland for shelter directors and staff to meet on a regular basis and collaborate.         This is a vital function that is not currently being met. This also does not rule out some collaboration between NEOCH and homeless social service providers. In my opinion, the Homeless Service Network started by Care Alliance and City Mission does not serve this mission because it is an exclusive club with its primary purpose to undermine both NEOCH and the Office of Homeless Services. It is a divisive organization, and is not an open organization that attempts to figure out ways to better collaborate or move people faster into stability.

 Homeless People Distrust

        The Coalition for the Homeless made a decision six years ago to allow the editorial content of the paper to be uncensored and free of outside oversight thanks to free speech attorneys who were on the board at the time. NEOCH also made the decision to focus our attention on amplifying the voice of homeless people. Social service providers in Cleveland and around the country have not done a good job building trust among homeless people. With the strict rules and the lack of an empowering atmosphere at the shelters and services, NEOCH has struggled to involve homeless service providers in their advocacy campaigns.

        Shelters and services have often taken a more paternalistic approach as opposed to an attitude of “homeless people know what they need how do we best serve them?” An example is when cities take a criminalization approach to homelessness with sweeps and arrests, homeless service providers should be outraged and should take swift action. When cities like New York arrested 200 homeless people in a two-week period, the shelters should demand a more humane policy for those they serve with direct action. It is time to “storm the gates” when the police classify the homeless individual as a criminal because they sleep on the sidewalk. Unfortunately, around the United States this rarely happens. In fact, often the shelters assist with the sweeping policy. They sell out the people that provide them employment in order to keep the money flowing from the municipality.

        Homeless people want power over their lives, but homeless social service providers are not usually willing to give up their power they currently maintain. An example is the importance homeless people place on transportation and ending the exploitation at the temporary labor companies. These and many other problems are not even on the radar of most homeless service providers because they have no impact on the shelter directors with cars and a guaranteed job as long as we keep increasing the number of homeless people.

        There is an implicit contract between “client” and service provider that is too often broken. This is alluded to in the licensing of social workers who have an obligation to not harm their “client.” Homelessness is harmful to a person, and every social service provider has an obligation to move that individual into stability as soon as possible. A shelter is not stability either. It would be like if a doctor swept through the emergency room gave everyone something to remove the pain for the night and then sent them on their way. Wait a minute, that is what happens in our HMO driven health care system. Strike that example. It would be like if a lawyer filed the civil case for the victim of a drunk driver, and then said, “Okay you are on your own from here,” and the victim had to argue the case in court. The lawyer would be prosecuted for malpractice.

 Separate Paths Taken

        Gone are the days when this homeless crisis started and social service providers were the best partners in the fight. We have institutionalized homelessness to the point that we are merely managing a triage center never having an impact on the solution. Many of the strongest allies at the beginning of this fight are now the targets of complicity. When homelessness exploded in the 1980s, the Salvation Army, Catholic Charities, and mental health community in many cities provided the transportation, supplies and bodies for demonstrations and direct actions. I have noticed that most of the time social service providers only show up to demonstrations to protest funding cuts. There are rare exceptions, but I have seen the only thing that angers most providers is cuts to their budgets.

        Money was expended to solve the problem of homelessness, but it only got worse. The task of ending a person’s poverty became too daunting, too expensive, and too complicated and so the provider community began concentrating on keeping people alive instead of ending poverty. There was no time for advocacy because there was one emergency after another or they spent their time finding the money to keep the doors open. We lost that fire and urgency and saw 10 years of men and women sleeping on floors like dogs.

        Many accepted our fate that homelessness would always be with us, and so very few spoke up when homeless people were attacked in the media as the source of all the problems in America. Then providers including religious officials started blaming homeless people for their fate, and the homeless population grew. Now we are facing this vicious cycle of more services needed and more homeless people, and service providers wonder why they are not trusted and sometimes even viewed as the enemy. Homeless people still have their eyes on the prize even though most of the rest of us are lost in some political, fundraising, outcome measurement fog.

        We will pass along your comments to the NEOCH board about your recommendations for NEOCH learning mediation skills. I would pass it back to you and other social service providers to learn how to repair the bridges with the homeless community. Give up some of your grip on the power and money by allowing homeless people to drive the agenda and set the rules for participation. The homeless social service providers would have a better relationship with the homeless community if they did not have evictions without notice from transitional housing, discharge from the shelters to the streets, and if they stopped blaming the poor for the problems associated with poverty.

        Note: This is what I will hear after this is published, “Brian is only critical of the social services and never compliments the tough job that we do.” I have to say that reading all the newsletters that I get from all the social service providers and those stories in the December Plain Dealer, I could only conclude that we have the best safety net in the history of man. I never hear any self-criticism or public comment about the shameful job we have all done. The Grapevine is one of the few places to counter all the good thoughts being sent to donors and government funders. The bottom line is that the year that Cleveland sees a decrease in the number of people seeking shelter is the day we make a step forward. To date, all of us, including NEOCH, have nothing to celebrate and must resolve to work harder on solutions and not just managing an emergency.

Published in the Homeless Grapevine, Cleveland Ohio August 2002 Issue 56