Editorial: Sleeping in Cleveland’s Public Space Dramatically Increasing

            With the attacks on Public Square, community attention has focused on those that sleep outside. Police, outreach workers, and homeless people report a sharp increase in the number of people that sleep outside Downtown. It is important to keep in mind that from 2000-2002, Cleveland saw a much smaller number of people sleeping outside downtown for more than two years. The strategies of providing spaces and services for people outside worked. The strategy of police arrests Mayor Michael White Administration from the 1990s had not worked, but after the dust settled from the many lawsuits, the community began to turn things around. Cleveland and Cuyahoga County officials had put in place the proper shelters, drop in services, showers, and meals to attract people indoors. What has changed over the last year??

            Businesses are concerned about the image of an unsafe environment with so many people sleeping outside. The police are worried about the inability to address the crime that takes places downtown some of it has to do with the fact that many do not have private space to do common bodily functions. There is also the problem of feeding addictions in public or self-medicating to cure a mental disorder. Finally, we cannot ignore the criminal element that hides within the homeless community. Convention boosters and hotels hate the number of visibly homeless people downtown. They do not care enough to open up their large number of vacant rooms to people in need so that they do not have to sleep outside, but that is beside the point.

            Politicians avoid the subject or feel overwhelmed by the scope of the problem, and homeless people hate having to be exposed to the elements and to predators outside. Most of the people who sleep outside hate the other option of shelter, which take away an individual’s self worth and dignity even worse than the prospect of sleeping outside. They cannot accept all the rules, the corrections environment and the overcrowded conditions of shelters, and would rather risk a stay on the streets.

            We at the Grapevine feel that it is a disgrace to have people sleeping outside in the richest country in the history of the world. We think that it is unbelievable that in most American cities that features towering skyscrapers symbolizing man’s ability to overcome nature and demonstrate our dominance over every other nation in the world, we have shivering addicts, refugees, and the unemployed waiting for a brighter day. We have put together our suggestions for how to turn this situation around. These are the steps necessary in order to significantly reduce the number of people sleeping outside in Cleveland.

            1. The limiting of the meal site/drop in center at the Bishop Cosgrove Center at East 18th and Superior has forced many men onto the streets during the day. This was a valuable service in the community that was forced to limit access by men when the women’s shelter moved into the facility. This displaced the men and they “hang out” until the shelter opens in the late afternoon.

            Solution: Return the Drop In Services to the Cosgrove: After the women move out of the Bishop Cosgrove, Center, the drop in services needs to be restored. This will only happen with support from the community. It costs just over $400,000 to operate a daytime facility that allow 200 people to stay inside and out of the elements. The community needs to come together and support the effort to re-create and sustain a daytime drop in center.

            2. We have a compassionate and broad range of groups that want to help homeless people downtown. Couple this with the fact that the trained outreach workers are very good at what they do, and it is very easy to survive on the streets. This is not to say that the existence is not tough, but getting food, clothing and a blanket is not that difficult. This makes it easier to choose to stay outside.

            Solution: There is nothing we can do about the distribution of food: Other cities have unsuccessfully tried to limit distribution of food with little success. They have also had to engage in high legal expenses when trying to ban feeding programs. Religious people will try to serve others down on their luck by providing food and other items on the street no matter what laws exist.

            3. The shelters in Cleveland are too strict. For many, the shelters have too many rules for an adult, and they choose to live with the relative freedom of the outdoors. No matter how unsafe it is or how bad the weather, they will choose to be outside. The reality is that in the shelters the individual has to fight for a bed, shower, clothing, and food, while sleeping outside the individual is sought out by church groups and people who want to give stuff to those who are outside. By creating a less restrictive environment, we could convince many to come inside.

            Solution: The City needs to reassert authority: We need to urge the City of Cleveland and Cuyahoga County to re-establish control over the shelters. They need to become very active in the management and oversight of the men’s shelters, especially the one at 2100 Lakeside. The shelters need to return to their roots of serving those in need out of mission and not just based on funding. Start utilizing volunteers, community teams of support, and work together on solutions. The shelters need to maximize the use of the resources and space that they have available. We need a massive infusion of volunteers to help the shelters.

            4. The changes in weather cause an increase in the number of people outside. There are always more people outside in nicer weather because the shelters have so many rules. Since 2000, we have not seen nearly this number of people outside and downtown as we see today. We will always see an increase in the summer, but nowhere near what we have seen this last year.

            Solution: We cannot do anything about the weather, but that will not stop some cities from trying.

            5. The main shelter has changed to limit the numbers that enter. We have lost the shelter that opens its door to whomever needs assistance for men. This was one of the unique features of Cleveland that you could always get shelter if you wanted it for the last twelve years. Now there are barriers that we have created because of budget issues, which mean that if a homeless person finds their way to the shelter they may or may not get a space. There were also other subtle changes made in an effort to manage the huge numbers. Many of the guys got the message that the shelter was beginning to have the atmosphere of a corrections facility and did not like this trend. Others found that they had to wait for a bed, and left. The result is that many chose to sleep outside instead of in the shelter.

            Solution: 2100 Lakeside should accept anyone coming to the door. The main shelter needs to go back to its roots and accept everyone who comes to the door. If the provider will not do this, then I suggest getting a new provider. There are at least two other providers that are willing to accept whomever comes to the door. With better coordination and a demand that the rest of the shelter fully utilize their space, 2100 Lakeside could serve a more manageable number of guests.

            6. The overflow shelters are closed or are closing. The three overflow shelters that were supposed to accommodate the more than 100 men above the capacity of 2100 Lakeside Shelter who had previously slept on mats on the floors are now closing. The County had opened temporary shelters for the approximately 100 extra men per night so that they did not turn anyone away. Two of the three overflow shelters have closed, and 2100 Lakeside Shelter will only allow 400 people inside at a time. This has forced people to wait on the loading dock of the shelter at night until a bed opens up. For many it is not worth waiting, and they leave. It is no wonder that we have seen a dramatic increase in the number of people sleeping on Public Square and downtown.

            Solution: Open an overnight drop in center: Reopen a nighttime drop in service in one of the many abandoned buildings in the industrial areas of town. This space could be a safe place for people to go or sleep or get coffee or just a place to sit. We believe that homeless people could be trusted to manage the facility themselves so that we would not need to pay an agency or church to manage it. After all, in the 10 plus years of homeless people sleeping on mats on the floors at Project Heat there were no serious injuries.

            There are plenty of organizations that would be willing to donate assistance in setting this up. We have to believe that downtown businesses would be willing to pay a security guard to be stationed at the facility in order to assure it would be a safe place. It seems that the local business community would be willing to pay for a security guard, if it meant that people did not sleep on Public Square.

            If the City convened a meeting of every church group that feeds outside, City officials could attempt to redirect those energies toward feeding the people at this nighttime drop in center.
We believe that this would result in 50 fewer people sleeping on Public Square on a daily basis. It will take the City of Cleveland to convene this community response.

            Solution: We need to build trust with the men who sleep outside. My suggestions is to approach the Growth Association or Downtown Partners, and ask them to pay for the fixing of the drinking fountain on Public Square and to provide a couple of Port-o-Johns (placed out of the way) available to homeless people. In exchange for these conveniences, ask that the guys refrain from publicly drinking alcohol and take on nightly clean-up duties to keep the space clean. This would be a first step to re-integrating them back into society, and this could happen immediately. I think that if you made this deal with the men and tested it after 3 months, we would all see a noticeable improvement downtown.

            Solution: Construct a Pay to Stay Facility: There are as many as 40% of the men’s shelter population that work or have some income. Unfortunately, in Cleveland we only have the Jay Hotel available to people who have problems signing a lease, but can afford to pay rent. We propose starting a not for profit Pay to Stay that could respond to the emergency housing needs of homeless people. While there would be costs associated with starting a Pay to stay, it would be much cheaper than a shelter and would be self-sustaining after the renovation and startup costs.

            Solution: Address the Alcohol and Drug Problems in Our Community: Sometime, we are going to have to address the alcohol problems that exist in our community. We can give out tickets for public intoxication or open container, but that will not solve the problem. I see only three options to address this problem:

            a. File a lawsuit against the makers and distributors of alcohol, and force them to pay for residential treatment. This would be similar to the tobacco lawsuit, in that they produce and market an addictive substance that, used as directed, causes some to over indulge. Take what we learned from the tobacco case, and use it to get public health dollars into the city for substance abuse. At this time, we are almost to the point that the only residential treatment that is available in the community is through the courts.

            b. Demand the state of Ohio funded Alcohol and Drug Board to provide residential treatment to all of the people in need. They have failed miserably to address the problems of homeless people with addiction problems.

            c. Turn over space in the community for alcoholics who are without housing to drink without being harassed. (Whiskey Island is the appropriately named space.) I am kidding about Whiskey Island, but alcoholism exists, and we will not stop addiction by giving out open container tickets. Let us find a safe space to address this problem.

            The Grapevine editors realize that these are sometimes counter intuitive suggestions, but we are sure that this would reduce the number of people downtown to nearly unnoticeable numbers. We feel that this will have a significant impact on panhandling and the image of the City. We all agree that something needs to be done, and we have seen what can be done successfully in Cleveland. We have also seen cities fail in their strategies to deal with homeless people including San Francisco and Cincinnati. The Grapevine proposals are not very expensive, and we believe would have a huge impact on the problems downtown. The strategies that most cities have taken are expensive and have failed; it is our hope that we can choose the better path.

Copyright to the Homeless Grapevine Cleveland Ohio in September 2003 in Issue 62.