OHS Marks 11 Years of Raising Homeless Money

by Tammy Antonille

            The City and County funded Office of Homeless Services has passed the milestone of ten years in existence, and champions the funding generated by the office as its greatest accomplishment. Activists in the community claim that Office has significant challenges, but very few successes after 10 years in operation.

            It was difficult to get information from Cuyahoga County and specifically OHS staff about the tenth anniversary of this office. Cuyahoga County Commissioner Tim McCormack promised an interview, which never materialized, and director Ruth Anne Gillett only sent formal documents that did not directly answer the questions that were asked. But through other interviews and available statistics, from the information collected the Office has coordinated a large amount of public funding to address the problem of homelessness. In the last eight years over $81.1 million has been received because of the work of the staff of OHS. Of that total $77.4 million was received through competitive contracts, but according to Brian Davis of the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless a great deal of these federal funds are divided up among the urban communities and the states within the United States.

            Davis, executive director of NEOCH, said, “The reality is that the federal funds are there for Cleveland and Cuyahoga County to take. If we horribly mess up on the application then we would loose the money, but otherwise the $14 million per year is reserved for Greater Cleveland. There is a complicated formula which determines how much goes to each city if they complete the application to the satisfaction of officials at the Department of Housing and Urban Development.”

            Ruth Gillett, the current Director of the Office of Homeless Services, was contacted by phone several times. Eventually an e-mail was sent asking her to respond to a specific set of questions. In return we received a fact sheet on the office and the goals and mission of the Office of Homeless Services Advisory Board which is supposed to provide community input and oversight to OHS activities. This board meets only four times a year and is mandated to accomplish a list of seven goals (see insert). The goals, including facilitating interagency and intergovernmental cooperation to assure private sector collaboration and participation as well as clarifying and prioritizing the goals of the body that created the Office of Homeless Services.

            Any board that is mandated to meet a minimum of four times per year would have difficult time advising on these important issues according to Davis. Donna Hawk, the Chair of the OHS Advisory Board, stated that the OHS could improve and accomplish much more but are seriously understaffed. When she was asked about the goals and mission of the OHS she went immediately to describing how good the OHS office was at attaining funds. She stated that OHS was originally set up to be the central place for proposal development for federal funds to benefit the county and city in order to maximize the local funding received. She acknowledged that the goals have shifted and broadened, but was clear on the fact that OHS was good at attaining funding.

            Davis has presented a list of goals for the office that are important to homeless people, and feels that the OHS has become “captured” by social service providers to the exclusion of homeless people. “I think that the Office is too friendly toward the major service provider empires that has matured over the last 10 years. The staff and advisory board has no relationship with homeless people, which is a serious barrier to solving the problems of homeless people. They do not even have a legitimate mechanism to hear grievances from homeless people who stay in County or City funded shelters in our community,” said Davis.

            What was missing from the documents Ruth Gillett sent from her office was clear sense of the mission of the OHS. One bullet from the fact sheet states that the purpose of OHS is to develop a Continuum of Care for the Homeless Services, coordinate services, assist in planning and increase resources. Clearly the office acknowledges that they are responsible for making sure the funds are distributed to the organizations that are making progress towards the goal of ending homelessness, and to organizations that have the most impact on the problem. But, except for the fact that funds were attained by the office, there is no other positive news to share.

            In fact, the impact of some of the organizations that received funding is questionable at best. Homelessness has increased in Cleveland for the last 18 years according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors. This is certainly not caused by OHS especially in the current climate of unemployment and the state of the economy, but staff and advisory board has not forwarded any real solutions to address this rising affordable housing crisis, perpetual low wages, or lack of health care in the area. It could be that they are understaffed as Donna Hawk, current director of Transitional Housing Inc., suggests. However, there are no notes from the Advisory Board minutes, which indicate that any member has ever suggested that the Office is understaffed or suggested a remedy that would involve an increase in staff. OHS has four current staff and has one additional staff in development, which is expected to be filled in the next two months. NEOCH also has four full time staff, but relies on a large national service contingent and volunteers to complete the huge workload.

            Bill Resseger is the City’s liaison to the OHS. His role is to interact with the OHS on the issues, problems and ideas concerning homelessness. Resseger was also complementary of the ability of the office to raise funds, but he clearly stated what he felt the mission of the OHS should be. He suggested that they should address the needs of the homeless, including shelter and services but also have the goal to support a plan to move the homeless community back into permanent housing. He states that the biggest challenge of the office is understanding and changing the social and economic dynamics that create the problem. He also states that an array of powers and interests have to come together to address the problem.

            Resseger has a long history in working with homelessness and those with housing problems. Resseger, Davis and Hawk all agree that community leaders have got to make solving the problems associated with homelessness a high priority. Community leaders include owners of companies, media, City Council, religious leaders, and regional elected officials, and all those interviewed agreed that for the most part homelessness does not have the same energy directed at finding solutions as it did ten years ago.

            In order for the funds to be distributed properly, in order for shelters to be built, maintained and supported in the community, in order for the city of Cleveland to make progress towards ending homelessness, we need to come together as a community and understand our strengths and weaknesses according to Sr. Donna Hawk who was part of the body that recommended the creation of the Office.

            Recently, the Board voted to look at the goals of the Office of Homeless Services in order to re-evaluate its operation and set priorities. There are many concerns over planning, funding, viability of the existing programs, and effectiveness of the OHS to coordinate this diverse group of programs that should be addressed over the next six months. There are some broader community concerns like why is the business community not involved, has Cleveland fallen behind other cities in addressing homelessness, and are we getting the outcomes from the huge expense spent by the community that need to be answered by elected officials.

            Securing federal and state funds in order to support programs for the homeless is undeniably important. Coordinating this funding and completing the application is critically important in the community. But according to NEOCH and other leaders in the community that may be all the OHS has successfully accomplished over the last 10 years.

            It certainly raises a red flag for a journalist when there is such hesitancy, secrecy, and unwillingness to communicate to the media on all that was done over the last 10 years. Normally, agencies are overwhelmed to talk about the great work that they do, and shine a light on their accomplishments. “OHS staff and County officials are understandably hesitant to talk about the role of OHS in addressing this homeless crisis, because there are so many shortfalls in the grand plans of the early 1990s,” said Davis.

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