A Former Resident of Men’s Shelter Talks

Commentary by C. Gavlak Zawadzki

         It takes a lot of commitment for a middle-aged Harvard grad with a big home in Shaker Heights to spend an entire night away from his family in a cold cot at the overcrowded, urine stenched Lakeside Shelter. So why wouldn’t this man want to talk to the Grapevine about the adventure.

        The Lakeside Shelter is the city’s main men’s shelter and currently houses about 410 homeless men on a nightly bases, it only has 200 cots though. In 2001, The City of Cleveland received $12.5 million Continuum of Care Award for Homeless Assistance, the largest such grant in the state of Ohio. County Commissioner Peter Lawson-Jones is one of the people who decides the allocation of that money and before his reelection told the members of the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless that he would spend the night in the shelter to “learn first-hand how some of society’s less fortunate live.”

        The Grapevine wanted to get more information and insight from Commissioner Lawson-Jones, but could not set up a meeting with Jones. Instead we talked to a former resident of facility who we will call Kevin. Homeless people are more than willing to talk about the conditions at 2100 Lakeside Shelter. One of their chief concerns is the system’s lack of compassion. They believe Lakeside is a holding pen with its support services so difficult to use that they will never help anyone off of the streets.

        According to Kevin, staff counselors do not have any incentive to do the difficult work to support the residents in transition. They receive their paycheck whether they listen to the residents’ concerns or turn them away. One former resident complained that he went to visit a counselor when he was in transition out of the shelter and needed support; he claims the counselor harassed him out of the office and when he asked for his free bus ticket (a service provided by the city) she said, “no, pay for it yourself”. Kevin suggested that the Counselor was giving the bus tickets to her friends and family instead of the residents they were intended for. A bus ticket may seem small to someone who has never been homeless but to a shelter resident it may mean work or no work, money or no money, food or no food.

        Allegations of staff members stealing goods and services intended for the homeless residents run rampant. A favorite story among residents is of a downtown business office that annually donates party platters of fresh ham and sandwich meats. The residents watch the platters arrive only to have them devoured by the staff members and their friends before they ever make it to the homeless residents. Other stories include donated clothes being rummaged through and the best lots being taken by the employees of the shelter.

        According to Kevin, abuse in the form of neglect is another allegation laid down by many residents; the complaints of unsanitary conditions are frequent among the residents. The various levels of mental and physical health of the residents combined with overcrowding make the facility an unhealthy environment. It is a vicious circle. A healthy environment should be an easy to obtain goal, but again noone is watching the watchers and the neglect continues.

        The residents of Lakeside Shelter share the same concerns as the City of Cleveland, where is the money going? How can the employees be motivated to be more responsive and compassionate to the community the City pays them to serve? How can donations by concerned citizens and organizations be guaranteed to go to the residents who need them so greatly and not to parasitic employees? How can Cleveland more effectively operate the city’s largest shelter? These are difficult questions that the City and County need to answer.

        Currently, the County and City are looking for a new contract to govern the relationship with the social service provider that will run the shelter at 2100 Lakeside beginning early in 2003. Sources who work at the County report that the Salvation Army has sent a letter over to the Cuyahoga County officials demanding more than double the 2001 per month budget for the shelter to extend their contract while the county makes a decision about the shelter. They are also only willing to commit to extending their contract for one month of 2003. County officials expect to make a decision on which organization will manage the shelter by the end of the year.

 Copyright NEOCH Homeless Grapevine in December 2002 in Cleveland Ohio.