Housing Rally Draws Diverse Groups

by Lisa Etling

        In case residents don’t think Cleveland has its own housing crisis, consider the following information. According to the last census, 50% of the 101,000 rental households pay more than 30% of their monthly income on rent, and 25% pay more than half of their monthly income on rent. The City of Cleveland Housing Court processed 11,500 evictions so far in 2002, the majority of which are for non-payment of rent. The men’s shelters that accept overflow have had as much as 144% of capacity; the women’s overflow has operated on some nights at 172% of capacity. CMHA reports that the last time the voucher program was opened in 2000, 35,000 people applied for the 6,000 available vouchers.

        To draw attention to the issue of affordable housing, the Alliance of Cleveland HUD Tenants (ACHT), CMHA Progressive Action Council (PAC), Cleveland Tenants Organization (CTO), and Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless (NEOCH) joined forces to organize a march, rally, and audience at the City Council meeting on November 18. Approximately 100 people gathered at 6PM at 2100 Lakeside Men’s Shelter to march ½ mile past the looming FBI headquarters carrying signs with quips such as “Housing Now,” “Homes Not Jails,” and “The Browns Have a Home, Why Not Us?” The march brought media from Channel 3 and the Plain Dealer, with Sun Press, and Channels 19 and 43 showing up to cover the rally and city council meeting.

        Marchers gathered at the Free Stamp outside of City Hall, where three residents of 2100 Lakeside spoke, along with Cleo Busby of the ACHT, Lillian Davis of PAC, Brian Davis of NEOCH, Mike Foley of CTO, and Commissioner Tim McCormick. Billy Caldwell, a Christian drug/alcohol outreach worker traveling here from the South, said an introduction and prayer, stressing the irony of knowledgeable tradesmen who find themselves homeless. “There are craftsmen all over the U.S. who have built up this country and are living in cardboard boxes today.” While many speakers stated the need for state and national dollars, McCormick went as far as to claim that Cleveland should have its own Housing Trust Fund, like the other major cities in Ohio.

        Most overwhelming were the individual stories from men who found themselves homeless for various reasons: Don works but doesn’t make enough per hour to afford housing; Greg, a U.S. veteran, is disgusted that 6800 veterans in Cleveland find themselves homeless every year; “It’s a national embarrassment that people who served our country don’t have a home.” Willis has four debilitating diseases and noted the absurdity and danger (because of the risk of fire) of having 13 out of the14 designated public housing projects for seniors and disabled, in high rises. Curtis has been on the CHMA list for three years now and stressed the need for housing for single people under 50. John is a veteran of the foster care system, was released from prison, dropped off at the greyhound station, and has been at 2100 Lakeside ever since.

        After the rally, the marchers were joined by members of CTO and ACHT and they milled up the steps to council chambers, filling the lower level, standing along the walls and even entering the balcony, reaching almost 400 in number. Council members from the 21 wards could look out at a sea of constituents wearing red ACHT hats stating “United We Stand, Divided We’re Homeless.” Almost 25 residents of the endangered subsidized housing structure Park Lane Villa showed from Councilwoman Pat Britt’s ward to express concern for the possible loss of their building. The energy of the gathering waned while Council Clerk read the agenda- a long list of ordinances and tax abatements.

        Thirty minutes, many yawns, and some shuteye later, council got to the two housing resolutions that had been authored and shepherded through by Councilwoman Merle Gordon: Resolution 2261 and Resolution 2272. Resolution 2261 recommends that CDBG and HOME Funds should be increased, or at least not cut, in the next federal budget. These funds provide housing and services for Cleveland neighborhoods.

        Resolution 2272 endorses the National Trust Fund Act of 2001, the Preservation Matching Grant Program, and the establishment of a secure and permanent source of revenue for the Ohio Housing Trust Fund. The matching program would “provide a federal match for dollars spent in Ohio on preserving federally subsidized housing projects.” The Ohio Housing Trust Fund was established in 1991 in response to Issue 1, which stated housing was a public purpose. The plan was to set aside 50 million dollars a year from the state budget of 35 billion dollars for providing housing and related services to low-income households. Over ten years later, the state has provided 160 million dollars, instead of the planned 500 billion dollars; currently the Trust Fund receives 23 million dollars, but faces constant threats due to budget cuts.

        Councilman Joe Cimperman gave a rousing speech to the crowd, commiserating over the lack of affordable housing and how long people have been waiting for housing to be a priority, stating “we have a greater need for affordable housing in this city today than ever in the history of Cleveland.” He also stressed the need for local businesses to join the already existing coalitions to find solutions to housing. He urged the audience to come back on January 9th, 2003 for a joint committee working on a ten year plan to provide affordable housing and eliminate homelessness.

        Councilman Joe Jones also worked the crowd, stressing the need for people to utilize “creative protesting” and “get out here on a level like no other before and organize politically on a grassroots level.” He reiterated the link between “politics and money,” a phrase that stuck with and was repeated by audience members long after his speech. He admitted that the resolutions will “probably sit on someone’s desk” and it was therefore, even more imperative for people to remain vigilant.

        Mayor Campbell spoke last, declaring that this was an unprecedented act, to debate and sign on a resolution in the same meeting. She also pointed out the need for more money at the federal level and more disbursement for housing at the state level. She lamented the sad fact that housing has never been a priority for government, commenting that “Affordable housing is what gets added when there is extra money. And if you’ve been paying attention, there is never extra money.”

        While city council finished up their meeting, audience members returned to their homes and shelters, discussing the events of the evening. Everyone was riled up by the power of people organizing in mass numbers to support such a pressing issue. However, many questioned what exactly had been accomplished. So the City Council agreed that housing was a major issue and would put pressure on politicians at the state and national level. But what then? What if people think that things are taken care of if no one shows up to protest or write letters to their representatives? What if these small housing coalitions of force dispersed throughout the country, can never make noise at the national level? What then? Walking down the steps from the council chambers watching the crowd mill about, the man next to me saw my camera, smiled, and said “the reporters left early- this is where the real news begins.”

Copyright NEOCH Homeless Grapevine in December 2002 in Cleveland, Ohio.