Family Shelters Fall to Worst Conditions in a Decade

Commentary

By Brian Davis

      “This is as bad as I have seen it in the last 20 years for homeless people. What are you doing to get the word out?” said one social service provider. “Things are just getting worse, and more and more people are suffering,” said another 20-year veteran in the struggle to end homelessness. I have to say that in my eleven years with the Homeless Grapevine, I have never seen conditions so bad for homeless families in Cleveland. One statewide advocate pulled me aside to ask how everything went so wrong up in Cleveland for homeless families.

     It is always horror stories from advocates, and there is a misery fatigue that sets in from the public. They can only hear so many bad stories before they just tune them out. So, I want to frame this editorial with the good news that homeless men have it better than they have at any time. Cleveland is one of the few cities in the United States that has a shelter system that is constructed to accommodate any man that requests shelter. The staff and client war that had broken out in early 2002 was settled, and the residents are at peace. No one is lost or shoved away into a corner, and those who are so angry with the world have a quiet place to re-build trust in the system at Aviation High School.

     There is transportation to the overflow at Aviation at night and in the morning. There is a warm environment that allows the guys to grow. The environment is one of respect and growth and not punishment and paternalism. There are threats to this peace, but everything is not perfect. There is an upcoming budget process for the Salvation Army shelter. The Y-Haven west program is in danger with the sale of the building, and the Salvation Army PASS program is chaotic and prison-like. Overall, things are a lot better than 10 years ago when the main shelters were deplorable warehouses with poorly trained staff.

     While family homelessness is on the rise in Cleveland and in the United States, we have seen a collapse of the system locally. Except the Interfaith Hospitality Network, local churches are largely not involved in the lives of homeless women with children and instead religious organizations are operating shelters that receive public money. That is a dramatic change, because churches bring resources, volunteers and connections. We now have large non-profits that depend entirely on public money for operations. All levels of family shelters are facing huge obstacles including high turnover among staff, unstable funding, inability to follow state and local policies, a paternalistic or prison-like environment. The most serious issues are with the entry shelter that is struggling with philosophy and misguided policy problems.

Community Women’s Shelter:

     The shelter had serious shortfalls while it operated in the Bishop Cosgrove Center and at the mold infested site on East 18th, but the women feel that they have fallen from the frying pan to the fire with the move to the Payne Avenue shelter. The shelter’s resident council has provided the shelter 4 pages of concerns and recommendations in early July with no written response by the end of August. The shelter regularly ignores the County’s discharge policy and has even adopted a policy that “swearing in an aggressive fashion” results in a suspension from the entry shelter (otherwise known as sleeping on the street) for three days.

     This facility is totally inappropriate for families. They have every woman sit in an overcrowded main floor from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day. The mentally ill, the alcohol and drug addicted, children, unemployed and those just released from prison all sit in the same space with one armed off duty Cleveland police officer. Instead of fixing this problem, the staff has actually recommended that the mother temporarily give up custody of the children until they are stable. It is bad enough being homeless for a family but to have to endure a professional social worker pressuring the mother to give up the only stable thing left is too much. The County and the other shelters make every effort to get families out of the Community Women’s Shelter at all, but this is getting increasingly difficult with the current state of the shelters and growing demand.

     There is definitely a problem when women long for the days of mold or an overcrowded gymnasium. Many women have said they would like to go back to the Cosgrove because of the harsh conditions of the current shelter. This facility has to be a uninviting prospect for women who have lost everything and have nowhere else to turn.

Zelma George/Salvation Army Women’s Shelter

     Five years ago, the Harbor Light Shelter had 5 units for families. It was not the best conditions but it was the only shelter that accepted married couples with children so the community tolerated the fact that the family shelter was in a pre-release/mental health facility/detox center/and men’s shelter. Now, the Salvation Army has stuffed over one hundred women with children into the Harbor Light Complex. Granted, the Zelma George Shelter was falling down and the old shelter on Carnegie was a dump, but sending the women to a prison compound is certainly not the answer. Those other shelters were smaller and had a more family atmosphere. Now the women are searched upon entering and exiting from the only door to the shelter. There is no separate entrance for the men in the pre-release section of the shelter and no separate elevator. The back stairs are accessible to all, and the recreation and kitchen facilities are restricted to very limited usage. Despite complaints by homeless women, the Coalition for the Homeless and others no governing body is willing to take on the Salvation Army.

East Side Catholic Shelter:

     By most respects the shelter gets good reviews, but has paranoia about outside involvement. ESCS also refused to abide by state law and has discriminated against some children. They have refused to sign a document that said that they would allow boys over the age of 13 into the shelter. This conflict lasted over eight month before they finally relented. This policy means a mom with a teenage boy would have to make the decision to split up the family or stay in an unstable or unsafe housing situation. And we cannot test their compliance with the state law since they refuse to allow staff from the Coalition for the Homeless to visit the shelter and talk to residents.

West Side Catholic

     Always the model shelter in our city, West Side Catholic was always clean, modern and usually caring has struggled over the last year with leadership problems. They just recently saw their director leave after only one year amid disputes with the board. This is something to watch because problems develop when there is a leadership vacuum.

Domestic Violence Shelter

     All the shelters have had to struggle with funding. We have this split in the country of how to divide up the precious resources between housing, services and shelter. No provider has suffered more over the last few years then the Domestic Violence Shelter. They merged operations in an ill-fated marriage of Templum and the Center for Prevention of Domestic Violence. This cut the funds from the Victims of Crime in half. The state then decided to start enforcing a prohibition on the DV shelters receiving emergency shelter grants. The result was a closing of one of the domestic violence shelters in Cleveland and thus reducing the number of beds with specialized care. Since a majority of families in shelter have some recent experience with abuse, this makes every shelter over-taxed. The DV shelters also received many negative comments in the Continuum of Care review. All of these are troublesome and areas to watch.

Other facilities

     This is basically the universe for emergency shelters reserved for homeless families in our community. There are a few private shelters that have limited impact on the community, but are never going to lead the effort to solve this problem. The small but empowering and compassionate Interfaith Hospitality Network thankfully doubled their capacity, but by its very nature can only serve the cream of the homeless population. Laura’s Home and Angeline Christian Home are both City Mission organized shelters and are great disappointments in the struggle to end family homelessness. They have strict rules, making it difficult if not impossible to enter and maintain residency. The result is that Laura’s Home is nearly empty in a time of huge demands. They demand adherence to someone else’s rules and to a fundamentalists’ God. They could do so much, but have put religious tolerance above compassion, the main principle of Christianity.

Other factors

     All the shelters have great pressures in the community that make their jobs nearly insurmountable. From the fact that nearly half of Cleveland’s children live below poverty, and Cuyahoga County lost a huge number of jobs that the shelter worker is overwhelmed with misery every night. We have shredded the safety net with the loss of welfare and the complicated system that replaced cash assistance. We have dramatically underpaid and under trained the staff at our shelters who have little ability to address poverty. In fact, many shelter workers are closer to homelessness than we like to talk about.

     The women who enter the shelters have a great deal more problems than they ever had in the past. From chronic health conditions, an inability to find help with getting untangled from the slavery of a marriage based on violence to unchecked drug and alcohol addictions make the life of the shelter worker a depressing and difficult occupation. The inability for many to find mental health assistance and the criminally low stipends offered to disabled Americans receiving Social Security Disability Assistance. Minimum wage jobs offered by huge corporations so that families can spend their minimum secure lives in a minimum supportive environment that only keep people minimally alive. The crisis in the emergency rooms of our major cities, and the inability for many to afford the market rent makes shelter stays months instead of days.

     It used to be in our country that homeless children were our community’s highest priority. We started this crisis by buying hotel vouchers for families while they briefly lived without a house. Now, the families have a hard time getting a hygiene kit, and have to fight to remain together as a family. While West Side Catholic has a beautiful facility, it is a symbol that we have accepted that we will always have homeless families in our community. We started out so focused on moving families into homes, and now we are spending millions on a computer system to count the number of homeless families. We have thousands of families waiting for housing, and thousands of children taken by our county away from their parents. We are sinking further and further into a permanent underclass, and our shelters are sliding into a prison system.

     If someone in a position of authority does not step forward to reign in this situation, we will continue to slip further behind. This is a call to arms. There is a growing crisis. The women who enter these failing shelters will remember this treatment. They will remember that in their time of need their city gave them rotting vegetables. They will not forget the mistreatment, the splitting of their families, and they will remember inability to find real help. Worst of all the children will remember.

Copyright Homeless Grapevine Issue 66 September 2004 Cleveland, Ohio