Neighborhood Opposition to Services for Homeless People Runs Rampant

       by Brian Davis

  Three facilities benefiting populations in extreme need of housing are facing neighborhood opposition in Ohio City, Tremont, and the Detroit Shoreway neighborhoods. Each community has held public meetings to gather feedback about three programs being developed to serve homeless people including women coming out of a corrections situation.

        Neighbors in Tremont formed a small but vocal opposition to moving the women’s shelter currently operated by Catholic Charities into St. Augustine’s half empty school building. Representatives from the shelter, St. Augustine, and Ward 13 Councilman Joe Cimperman were on hand to hear from residents about their concerns about the shelter on November 19, 2002 at OLA/St. Joseph Center.

        There were over 100 angry constituents of the Ward 13 who hurled vicious attacks at Councilman Cimperman, questioning even his residency in the Ward. Tension was high for the three hour meeting. Questions were raised about the freedom of the shelter residents to move throughout Tremont. Concern was raised about the safety of Lincoln Park and the ability for children to play with a shelter in such close proximity. Some claimed that the shelter would attract prostitutes soliciting money to buy drugs while they stay at the shelter.

        Representatives from the current operator of the women’s shelter spoke of the bad conditions at the current shelter and the need for a new facility. They spoke of the mold from the leaking roof. They spoke of the overcrowded conditions and the fact that this was the 12th building being investigated. They talked about the renovation that was necessary, and the staffing and support that would be available at the shelter.

        Sister Corita Ambro and Father Joe McNulty of St. Augustine both asked for trust in their years of service to the community, and their ability to run a quality program. Sister Corita invited the participant to the St. Augustine to dispel some of the misconceptions about homelessness and homeless people. The representatives of Catholic Charities were peppered with questions about the demographics of the population, the security measures, and the size of the facility.

        There were a number of residents who spoke in favor of the shelter arguing that it transform the currently dark corner of Tremont into a bright and well maintained facility operating 24 hours a day. A resident of Tremont who became homeless due to a medical condition and slept in her car welcomed the program, and said that it was needed. Ron Reinhart, former director of 2100 Lakeside, said that he used to be a homeless drug dealer that many of the residents had talked about, and he wanted to assure them that he rarely dealt drugs to homeless people. He said homeless people do not have money and so it is a waste of time to target them. Many spoke of the well dressed bar patrons who cause trouble in the Tremont neighborhood.

        Sister Corita said that she often sees men in business suits exiting at the bus stop and relieving themselves in public. Religion and society’s moral commitment to serving the poor came up a great deal during the evening. Some stated their religious commitment, but felt that their own personal safety was more important. Others cited their moral duty to serve low income people and felt enriched by the experience so were pleased the shelter was coming to Tremont. Mary Ann Toth asked if Tremont residents who became homeless could get preference to use the facility since it was located in Tremont, and Catholic Charities agreed to pay special attention to serving Tremont residents in need.

        A staff person of Mental Health Services for Homeless People said that he was conflicted, because he works everyday with homeless people. He said in the end he opposed the shelter because he sees everyday at his offices people defecating outside and causing trouble near the Cosgrove Center, and he did not want the same experiences while walking his dog in Tremont if the shelter were located at St. Augustine.

        The evening ended with Cimperman saying that this would be the first in a series of discussions before approval was sought. Many spoke of the fact that Tremont was overtaxed in social services and should not have to accept a new shelter. They vowed to fight the proposal with a petition drive. Besides the St. Augustine Hunger Center there are no other daily services for homeless people in Tremont.

        Councilman Cimperman sent a letter to Catholic Charities expressing his concern that they had already applied for approval through the Board of Zoning before the community meeting process had ended. He gave Catholic Charities director Tom Mullen a series of questions to answer and a deadline. Cimperman then sent a letter out to the Tremont community saying that in a conversation with Mullen, he had indicated that Catholic Charities was not going to go forward with the proposal to move to St. Augustine.

        Cuyahoga County officials immediately switched to a plan to move the facility to the Metzenbaum Center at E. 34th and Community College Blvd., which touched off another fight in the Central neighborhood. Council President Frank Jackson of Ward 5 was angered that his impoverished neighborhood would be selected by the County without his and his constituent’s input. This battle was escalating as the Grapevine went to press.

Ohio City NIMBY

        A group of homeless social service providers from the large men’s shelter, the County Office of Homeless Services, and Near West Side neighborhood activists developed a plan to utilize the vacant apartments at Riverview Apartments for homeless people. The plan was that 80 of the 200 vacant units of the Riverview Public Housing project would be provided to transitional housing programs in the community. Every opening at the transitional housing program would allow men and women at the two entry point shelters to move into more stable housing.

        The plan involved attaching a rider to each individual’s lease that would require them to participate in social services as part of their residency at Riverview. The plan was forwarded to the CMHA board who gave approval to pursue the pilot project. A community meeting was held at Franklin Circle Church on a snowy evening before Thanksgiving 2002.

        Again, the same safety concerns were raised by a small group of vocal opponents to the project. Some from the Tremont meeting the previous week traveled to Ohio City to voice their opposition to the Riverview plan. Helen Smith, former Ward 14 Councilperson, spoke in opposition to the plan saying that the neighborhood was saturated with social services and does not need any more. She also said that she worried about homeless people coming into the neighborhood for their own safety. She said crime was on the rise, and she was uncomfortable inviting homeless people into the neighborhood. Smith has long opposed homeless programs in Ohio City. She spoke against Transitional Housing Inc. and any shelter locating in her ward when she was a Council person.

        Mary Rose Oaker, former Congressional and State legislator, asked for a sub committee be formed of those in support and those opposed to the project to work this out. She suggested that the local development corporation which had convened the meeting form a committee to ease the concerns of those opposed.

        Councilman Cimperman who in the last census inherited Ohio City was again criticized for even entertaining the idea of bringing more homeless people to the neighborhood. Property owners and local developers spoke in opposition to the project claiming that it would increase panhandling and thus decrease their business. In a bizarre exchange, staff at the Jay Hotel, a low income motel which has faced huge neighborhood opposition, blamed the public housing authority tenants for all the problems of crime and drugs in the neighborhood.

        There were four or five men from 2100 Lakeside shelter who would benefit from the additional housing units available to homeless people spoke in support of the project. A few spoke eloquently about their background and their long attempts to get back on their feet. Duane Drotar, executive director of 2100 Lakeside, also spoke in support of the project saying that he has seen so much affordable housing disappear in Ohio City that any opportunity to expand that supply was critical.

        Tony Vento, a resident of Ohio City, said that there was a great deal of fear expressed, but that the fear was misguided. He said that people needed to become familiar with the concept of supportive housing and they might embrace the project.

        Robert Townsend, the President of the CMHA Board, spoke and confused the issue by saying that this was a project in its infancy. He claimed that CMHA had not agreed to anything to date, and they would not do anything to harm the neighborhood. This put the opposition at ease, but confused the homeless social service providers who had a board resolution in support of going forward with the concept.

 Detroit Shoreway

        The Women’s Re-Entry program has funding to place six women coming out of prison into housing, and are facing opposition in the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood. The Re-entry program would provide support services to the women, but neighbors object to the project in a residential area.

 Copyright NEOCH Homeless Grapevine in December 2002 in Cleveland Ohio.