Local News Analysis: Concern Raised Over Poverty and Homelessness Increases

Commentary by Brian Davis

Men’s Overflow Shelter:

    There is still a big question about the future of the Salvation Army’s participation in the biggest shelter in the Midwest at 2100 Lakeside. The Salvation Army is asking for nearly three times their current budget, which is actually reasonable in government logic, considering the County gave the women’s shelter a huge budget in comparison—94% of the men’s shelter budget for 25% of the total number of residents.

    Unfortunately, neither the County or the City have this money, and are looking for other social service providers. Only two years ago, the County spent one year trying to find the best provider for the shelter and in the end reaffirmed the contract for the Salvation Army. Two other providers bid on the contract for substantially less than is currently being discussed. Providing such a large increase to the women must have spread through the service provider community, because the Salvation Army tripling of the budget has actually come in as a low bid so far.

     The County treated the other two applicants in 2002 very disrespectfully and now must crawl back to them asking for help. One City official when asked about asking for new ideas and a new provider in a year.” Right on schedule.

     The food situation is still very difficult for the men, who survive with very little food in a land of bounty. This is one of the largest meal programs in the state, serving over 500 meals every night with over 100 lunches and 400 breakfasts. The shelter must accomplish this with a budget of 19 cents per meal per client. This miracle of spreading the food to everyone is done with donations and plenty of prayer.

    Cuyahoga County officials have attended the last series of Resident Council meetings at the shelter to keep the men informed. The County has tried to keep the men from worrying about their futures at the shelter, and promised that no matter who is operating the shelter the County is committed to continuous improvement. To that end, the County is making plans to secure the facility long term, and has requested information from the men who sleep in the shelter of what is working and what needs improved.

Women’s Overflow Shelter

    The Mental Health Services facility is often characterized by the women as an Army base. The women have presented a very long list of problems at the shelter. They have received very little written feedback from shelter staff. They have seen a hardening of the rules from no television to now a complete prohibition even viewing movies on the weekend. From rules to expel those who fight to now expelling those who “aggressively swear,” the women are frustrated with the lack of communication between staff and residents. At the end of August, the shelter informed the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, who had organized the women, that they would no longer be welcomed at the shelter.

    The shelter staff, according to a letter from director Steve Friedman was upset by comments that appeared in the last issue of the Homeless Grapevine. Instead of writing to the paper, they are punishing the women by blacklisting the agency that was attempting to represent the interests of the residents. (NEOCH advocates for the women at the shelter and publishes the Homeless Grapevine newspaper.)

    Friedman writes, “We welcomed NEOCH to meet with residents of our shelter, (Isn’t the shelter a community asset, not theirs?) because we thought that NEOCH’S participation could bring an objective, independent perspective to efforts to provide shelter and supportive services that effectively meet the needs of homeless women in our community. Instead we believe that NEOCH has used access to the shelter for other purposes…Your presentation of the residents’ list of concerns to other constituents, accompanied by derogatory comments about our agency, is both improper and unhelpful. Our concerns are most vividly illustrated by the recent article about the Community Women’s Shelter appearing in Issue 65 of the Homeless Grapevine, a NEOCH publication. The article, on page 14, states that ‘All women are confined to a dining area for 10-11 hours of the day.’ This is a grave and irresponsible assertion that MHS subjects shelter residents to illegal restraint and coercion. The motivation for this assertion is incomprehensible to us, because it is inconceivable that an assertion of this kind could in any way foster an informed and productive discussion of the difficult issues confronted by homeless women in our community.”

     The Grapevine never used the word “illegal” or “restraint” or “coercion” in describing the shelter. The point of the article was the residents are prevented from using the rest of the shelter and must stay in only the dining area or they can choose to leave the facility. The men’s shelter gives those men who are working on a case plan complete access to the shelter during the day. Seems Friedman was too busy trying to crack the secret code of the Grapevine article instead of reading what it actually said. The article actually said, “the shelter moved into new larger facilities…There are many women who like the urgency that the new shelter staff places on getting women into more appropriate facilities, but a majority complain about the cramped conditions during the day.” Then there was the sentence about being confined to the dining room. Taken out of context it sounds like a jail, but in the article is very clear the meaning.

      Friedman continued, “Later, the article characterizes a ‘dangerous trend’ the ‘growing number of women who are giving up on the Community Women’s Shelter.’ This is a curious assertion that is offered without any evidence. Here are the facts. In the last month MHS assumed operation of the shelter, the average nightly count of women and children at the shelter was 89. Since MHS began operation of the shelter, that number has grown to 110. Most recently during August, the average was 136. No fewer than 115 women and children were at the shelter each night of August and the count reached 159 near the end of the month.”

     Thank you for the lesson in presenting inaccurate facts. This is like saying that Ohio City Pasta selling noodles at the West Side Market is the reason that the Market is so busy on Saturdays. It could be that or it could be tradition, prices, the economy or many other things. The shelter could be crowded because “if you build it they will come” similar to the doubling of the population at 2100 Lakeside in one year after they opened. It could be the bad economy that put Cleveland on the top of the list of poor cities. It could be the high cost of rent in Cleveland or it could be that the other shelters are making it difficult or it could be all of those factors together. Also, remember that the NEOCH Board of Trustees, in a letter in the January Grapevine, said that the facility was inadequate to meet demand and would soon be overcrowded.

      Anyway, the first women’s overflow shelter in Cleveland was deplorable and had steadily increasing populations. Two different outreach workers have said that they have seen an increase in women sleeping outside. Shelter referral sources report more and more women saying, “I do not want to go there.” The statement in the Grapevine was not intended to say that every woman is rejecting the shelter, only that there was a trend that is being mentioned in the community that is not healthy—women avoiding the Community Women’s Shelter.

  Poverty summit in Cleveland

     Speaking of poverty, Mayor Campbell held a poverty summit, but seemed to forget about the most extreme form of poverty—homelessness. Not one homeless provider was in attendance. Very few organizations that actually represent individuals who are poor were actually invited. The major institutions that have had a crack at addressing this problem for the last 50 years were at the table. They do not have a very good track record over the last half decade, so why keep going back to them?

     Grassroots organizations that actually talk to and meet with low income people would present radical ideas that would make a difference, but would make waves. What about a universal health care for everyone who lives in the City of Cleveland? What about guaranteed access to housing for all City of Cleveland residents, and an individual pays no more than 30% of their income with partial rent control? What about universal living wage so that people make enough income to afford fair market rents? What about free community college education for everyone who lives in the City of Cleveland? This would solve poverty, but increasing donations to non-profit social service organizations will not solve any problems.

 Copyright Homeless Grapevine Issue #66 September-October 2004 Cleveland, Ohio