Housing Summit by City Council Sets Goal to End Homelessness

by Lisa Etling

Editor’s Note: On pages 6-7 are two different perspectives on the City Council Hearings on Housing and Homelessness in January.

     On January 9th, City Council called together homeless individuals, service providers, and housing advocates to begin formulating a plan to eradicate homelessness and increase affordable housing in the Cleveland community. Council members Merle Gordon, Joe Cimperman, Frank Jackson and Kevin Conwell convened the forum at 9AM during which nearly 30 speakers gave testimonials over a 3-hr. period answering the three questions posed by City Council: What does your agency do to address the issue of homelessness? What do you see as the flaws in the system to provide necessary services to end homelessness? What do you believe are the solutions to ending homelessness?

     The forum brought an audience of about 150, with a surprising lack of media present- only one photographer and one cameraperson from the city access station but a number of print reporters.

     Points repeatedly addressed include the need for affordable housing, supportive services, homeless prevention/intervention programs, rental assistance, and more funding from state and federal governments. Suggested reasons for the continued 18-year increase in homelessness included welfare reform, the current recession, and loss of affordable housing with a decrease in “real” income.

   Ron Reinhart of Founder’s Path, formerly homeless himself, stressed the need for more direct input from the homeless community, support for the Housing First Initiative, and the need for diverse solutions for a diverse homeless population. And those diverse voices were heard.

     Willis Thomas of 2100 Lakeside quietly asked that officials listen to homeless people an provide more than just a roof over their heads; “the public thinks sitting off the curb and inside is good enough.”

     As Charles A. Williams Jr. of 2100 Lakeside later stated, “I am a working man and I am homeless…I have no problem with working hard.” He lamented over the public view that all homeless people are alcoholics or drug addicts. He reiterated the need for housing for the working poor, as was also mentioned by Pete Domanovic, who posited the idea of a working man’s shelter, subsidized by government funds, but mostly self-sufficient.

     In fact, the long-term homeless only make up about 25% of the entire homeless population. However, they use 60%-70% of the resources set aside for homeless services according to national studies. The solution many advocates and providers forward for this part of the population is permanent supportive housing. This arrangement allows a stable apartment for individuals with the services they need in-house, while also freeing up that money for the other 25,000 people in Cleveland every year who find themselves homeless for a shorter period of time. As of 2002, agencies in Cuyahoga County provided permanent supportive housing for about 900 people. However, only 50 of those units are “contractually restricted” to homeless people.

    Some speakers mentioned the individual barriers to housing, namely that of a criminal record or past eviction, especially when it comes to a private landlord reviewing a tenant. Not only that, but discharges from prison account for a high number of homeless in Cleveland, significantly more so than in other U.S. cities. Mike Foley of the Cleveland Tenants Organization also pointed to the record number of evictions in 2001, commenting that our society is creating “a population of urban nomads.”

     Many speakers, especially providers, pointed to a need for more funding in particular areas or a redirecting of those funds. For example, Gail Long of Merrick House stressed the need for more Section 8 vouchers, noting that when the program was last opened in 2000, 35,000 people applied for the 6,000 available vouchers. She also called for a moratorium on the destruction of any rental units without an equal number of replacement units developed. Gail asked for a moratorium on all homeownership programs, which generally result in the loss of funds directed at affordable housing.

    With all the finger pointing toward state and national cuts in housing and social services, Mike Foley of CTO also kept local officials in check, stating that promoting a state and national Housing Trust Fund “shouldn’t be an excuse” for not raising resources at the local level.

    Furthermore, Meg Slifcak of West Side Collaborative pointed out that not all the flaws in this system are financial, stating the need (especially with impending cuts to housing and social services) for efficient use of current funds and taking care not to duplicate services of other providers while other areas lack. Hers was an especially good point, given that there is no oversight committee or audit of providers and programs that receive the majority of their funding from the county and city.

     This lack of oversight is a point mentioned repeatedly by homeless individuals and later noted by Brian Davis of NEOCH. He also pointed out, in regards to outpatient drug and mental health programs, “It is a waste of time to work on other problems if the person does not have stable housing.” Success rates plummet when an individual must return to the previous harmful environment, whether an emergency shelter or the streets.

     At the end, Dan Kerr had a variety of points for the remainder of the audience, drawn from countless interviews with homeless individuals. He began his testimonial with a quote from one of these interviews: “We go on marches and we go to rallies, but no one listens. You know why they don’t listen? Because there is too much money to be made on homelessness as it exists today.” He went on to describe the exploitation of homeless workers by the day labor agencies.

    The sum of the forum appeared to be that there is not one simple solution; we will have to work at this issue from many different angles to serve the varying populations within the homeless community, but still in a well-orchestrated effort. Nevertheless, the overwhelming opinion from a majority of the speakers was that Housing First was a necessary starting point on the road to ending homelessness in our county.

Copyright The Homeless Grapevine Issue 59, February-March 2003, Cleveland, Ohio