What is so great about the heated sidewalks at Legacy Village in Beachwood? The City of Cleveland has had heated sidewalks on Superior Ave. that perform the life sustaining function of keeping hundreds of people alive for years. But I have never heard the Cleveland heated sidewalks championed like those that carry shoppers in Beachwood. Why? Because it is a part of the national embarrassment called homelessness. We have had nineteen straight years of increases in homelessness in Cleveland and in most urban cities.
The issue has long since left the front pages of our newspapers. In fact, the guys who sleep on Superior Ave on top of the hot water line that runs to Public Square have become fixtures in our community. Unfortunately, the nearly 4,000 long term homeless in our city who sleep in the cold freezing nights or the hot summer nights on our East 9th have become a part of the landscape blending into the downtown. We have raised a generation of young people that now accepts homeless people sleeping outside and actually expect to see fellow citizens sleeping in the parks or on stream grates as much as they expect to see bus shelters and telephone poles downtown.
Native son Drew Carey suggested that the motto for Cleveland should be “At least it’s not snowing.” This does not hold for tonight, but I think that Carey’s brand of optimism does run through those living in Greater Cleveland including homeless people. Drew Carey said that a guy can slam his hand in the car door, but in relating the story to co-workers will throw in the phrase “at least it wasn’t snowing.” In the spirit of “at least it’s not snowing,” I want you to walk away from this discussion with the thought that with the political will and the proper civic leadership homelessness is a solvable problem in our community.
A brief look at the state of homelessness in Cleveland shows that we are still addressing homelessness as an emergency with shelters and fighting over ever expanding shelter populations. We have a long way to go to begin to address real solutions to homelessness in housing, jobs, health care and civil rights. We saw a dramatic increase in homeless children in 2003. Requests for shelter for all populations increased by 21% in Cleveland. The cost of housing increased again last year, and the number of jobs continued to decline. We had an increase in public dollars going to address homelessness, but the number of families time-limited off welfare increased to 7,400 families since 2000. The waiting list for housing increased significantly in 2003 with Public Housing seeing 9,000 people waiting for units up from 7,000 in 2002. Then we had the attacks by young people on those who sleep on Public Square, demonstrating the hostility prevalent in some sectors of our society to homeless people.
This is common in our community that kids have their childhood stolen in the homeless shelters. We do our best, and the Cleveland Public Schools does an amazing job to help, but no matter what the shelters are not appropriate for kids, and no child should have to see their mom go through the panic of being forced back to a shelter.
But in our current context, why should Mr. and Ms. Ryan of Solon care about homelessness in Downtown Cleveland? Besides the social justice response to homelessness that no one in our society should have to go through what I see every day in the homeless community, why do the Ryan’s of Solon care what happens to the women who stay at the women’s shelter or the guys at 2100 Lakeside? It all comes down to money.
The cost of providing emergency services to our citizens is astronomical. We are all familiar with the desire on the part of our health insurance carriers to steer us away from the emergency room and to our primary care doctor. Well, the same principle applies to housing, jobs, legal assistance, and again health care.
The cost of shelter is about three times the cost of a housing voucher for people to live in our community, and the Ryan’s pay that to the Federal and County government with taxes. The cost of cash assistance because a family cannot find a decent job come out of the taxes the Ryan’s pay to the State and Federal government. The emergency rooms are clogged with people who do not have healthcare, which means when Mr. Ryan slips at the Browns game he will not get the care he deserves at the St. Vincent emergency room because severely mentally ill people flood into the emergency room out of medicine trying to get the attention of the doctors. The Ryan’s also pay huge sums to prosecute and provide legal assistance to a friend of mine who got caught shop lifting a set of replacement razor blades so that he could look presentable for a job interview.
It is only getting worse because we continue to stuff more and more of our problems into shelters that elected officials hope will not explode before they are out of office. We have AIDS patients, those paroled with no place to go, the mentally ill, those who cannot find an alcohol treatment bed, and the angry people who cannot find a job all occupying the shelter space. Without some leadership in solving these problems with strict rules against diverting or referring people to shelter this problem will only continue to grow. The Ryan’s of Solon certainly do not want a shelter in their community, but they should be investing the resources of Solon in the short term to solve these problems like housing, livable wage job creation, universal health care, and equal justice for low income individuals so that in the long term the problems will decrease and their taxes can go to scientific discovery, bringing sanity to the Metro Health curve, ending the common cold, and a world wide minimum wage.
So those of you in the choir and who read the Homeless Grapevine who have the desire to eliminate need to stay vigilant and speak up in support of programs that serve homeless people. Get your local landlords to begin to accept people with housing vouchers, and get the suburban communities to come up with a policy and resources to address homelessness in their community. We need a community wide discussion about poverty and to begin to put in practice solutions that are forwarded by the experts—homeless people.
Remember that on most days we say “At least its not snowing in Cleveland.” Maybe that should really be our motto because it so simply captures the spirit of optimism that exists in Westlake and West Side Catholic Shelter. There are solutions to these problems, and with the talent, intellect, and leadership that exists we can solve these problems but only on a regional level and only with all levels of government working together on solving the problems facing our community.
Copyright to the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless and the Homeless Grapevine Cleveland Ohio 2004 Issue 64