New Home, Fresh Start for Women’s Shelter

by Pamela Vincent

   Since its doors opened in February of this year the new women’s shelter in Cleveland has had approximately 1000 individuals pass through it. Of those 1,000 people 30% were under the age of 17. Mental Health Services, the new manager of the shelter, had not expected the large number of families utilizing their services, but nevertheless, they are given top priority for permanent housing and the average length of stay for families is between 4-8 days maximum. Not bad, considering that homeless families previously spent months waiting for housing only two or three years ago.

   Dr. Steve Friedman is the new director of the women’s shelter and he is assisted by Cindy Chaytor, Angel Jacob, and full time nurse Rosemary Ethert. They all work for Mental Health Services out of the Bishop Cosgrove Center. They take their jobs very seriously and are making a real difference with their healthful and helpful approach to the shelter. They have brought many necessary protocols and services with them. The fact that there’s now a nurse on staff 24 hours a day is a huge step for the women.

   Every new client is entered into a database and has a health history and service report. The staff has seen many health issues among clients, from hypertension and diabetes to asthma and addiction. In fact about 70% of the shelter residents have some kind of illness or addiction. The staff has helped clients straighten out pharmacy medication errors and taught many how to monitor their medicines and prevent overdoses. They’ve helped place some of the clients into treatment for severe mental illness (with the PATH and SAFE Haven programs) and once in regular treatment those same clients can begin functioning and caring for themselves. Other clients have been referred to the Free Clinic, Care Alliance Health facility or even Metro Hospital with successful treatment.

   The staff is also trying to make the shelter a safe haven for all the women and children. One of the ways they’re doing this is by having a “round the clock” security guard in place. They’ve had to confiscate many knifes and street weapons but, because there are almost always children in the shelter they have a zero tolerance policy for weapons. The security guard has also made it difficult for organizers who are men to meet with the women without an appointment.

   The clients may complain about being frisked or having their belongings checked, but according to staff this is for their own safety and no one is exempt from the policy. MHS staff claim that the guards help keep the peace between the vast number of clients and prevent an escalation of tension when women are put in the same room for an extended portion of the day.

   The new shelter has space for 135 beds and the number of filled beds has remained above 100 since day one with the August headcount at 131. The new management has big plans for the shelter. Their goals are to tie in with other resources for their homeless clients and create new services to assist them while strengthening current relationship with other services for housing.

Future goals include developing a women’s health campus between the two buildings, with an outdoor recreation area and a community center in the lower level of building 2 (after Care Alliance moves out of the building). Right now the main entrance serves as a combination day room and new client entry area, which can make for a noisy and hectic area for everyone using the space. After Care Alliance moves and the community room opens up away from the offices, it will free up the congestion and give the clients room to spread out, read, watch TV or spend time with their children.

   At least in the first year, the one thing the staff doesn’t need to worry about is funding for the shelter with a combination of County, City, Federal and private dollars. One of their major achievements this year is that they are now an agency of the United Way of Cleveland. This alone will help provide many new areas of support for the homeless women and children clients. They are signed on for one year with United Way and each year will be reviewed and hopefully renewed.

   One of the other accomplishments under Mental Health Services direction is the forming of a Residents Committee supervised by staff. The meetings are open to all residents and staff try to work with the residents to improve the shelter and have an open door policy for all clients. Mental Health Services realizes it’s impossible to make all the residents happy. Understandably, it’s often a trying situation due to the vast mix of people at the facility, but according to every staff person they have been putting resident committee recommendations in place. They know there are always a few residents that will complain no matter what, but they remain positive in their efforts for continuous improvement at the shelter.

   The agency has come under fire from the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, because of repeated complaints by residents over the “Army-base” management style. According to residents who had stayed at the shelter during the transition, this was a huge shock to the system for many women who were upset over the huge numbers, the lack of privacy, and the inability to find a quiet space.

   NEOCH staff do not believe that it is appropriate for the landlord to convene tenant council meetings because of the inherent unequal relationship between landlord and resident. A separate resident committee met off site after NEOCH was asked to leave the facility. They presented a five page list of concerns that were largely unanswered by the agency.

   The top concerns of the women were that they had no choice but to spend the entire day in one room with all of the women no matter their mental illness, health problem or addiction all together. The staff did not respect the women’s right to organize independent of staff involvement. The staff never responded to the pages of concerns. Finally, there was a concern that the staff acted as if they knew better that the women and were extended no trust.

   Dr. Friedman had this to say about the shelter: “We feel it’s especially valuable that an agency that has the expertise in managing the psychiatric problems of homelessness are running the shelter because of the large percentage of the residents utilizing the shelter that have mental health issues. Usually staff running the shelters do not have the expertise to address these issues. We also have mental health staff coming in all the time that can address these issues and teach the rest of the staff what to do.”

   In reality 30% of the residents are children; that had not been anticipated. Dr. Friedman states that “the management of this issue is very serious, very difficult, very demanding on everyone. And we think that as a public health issue, no child should be in a general emergency shelter for a minute because of all the other things that go on…we talked about the mentally ill…we haven’t talked about the drug abusing women or the alcohol abusing women, or just the day-to-day life of living in a shelter where you have shared showers and shared bedrooms.”

   “Homelessness is horrible enough and then if you compound it with being homeless at an emergency shelter is to make a miserable situation potentially traumatic and of all the things that we have to learn how to manage as a community… around homelessness, we think that the management of the homeless families and children needs to go to the top of the list.” “The resident committee has also placed that as their number one priority.” Ms. Jacob says, “when families come in we try to link them right away with other providers that can better serve their family needs and provide housing for them.”

   There have been many challenges since the shelter opened its doors in February. Ms. Chaytor, who has several decades of nursing experience behind her, spoke of one day in particular when they had a woman show up with 11 children and at the same time one of the area hospitals dropped off an elderly paraplegic woman that had a colostomy and incontinence. They found space for the mother and children but did not have the necessary equipment to adequately care for the severely ill woman. They called another hospital the next day and she was re-admitted to receive the proper care. Another time a man walked into the shelter and created a disturbance by yelling and knocking things off the tables and the security guard was able to quickly seize him and get him out of the building. These are just a few of the daily and weekly challenges the staff faces.

   However, it hasn’t been all bad…there have been many success stories too. Take the woman from another state who, when arriving at the shelter was withdrawn, unapproachable and carrying knives for protection. She was evaluated by the health care staff, who placed her on medication, counseled her, and soon located the rest of her family. They discovered the entire family had been living in shelters for 11 years, since the death of the father. They were able to reunite the family and find permanent housing for them. They also helped a mentally challenged runaway teen from another state find her parents and reunite her with her family. There have also been a few clients who, after having found permanent housing, came back to say “thank you” and cheerlead for the other women to not give up.

   NEOCH director, Brian Davis, expressed concern that the rules, layout, and staffing pattern were never discussed with the women. “Most of the individuals staying at the shelter are adults, but the management of the shelter treat them like children and not equals. Just because a women is poor does not mean that she should be punished daily with an attitude of ‘if you don’t like it go find your own place,’” said Davis.

   Staff members, Cindy and Angel both voiced satisfaction at seeing clients make it out of the homeless shelter and back on their feet. They believe they’re making a difference. The staff from Mental Health Services hope to form a positive alliance with NEOCH. Dr. Friedman stated, “we’re both on the same side…we all care about what happens to these homeless women.” The staff members are organized, they regularly talk about their commitment, and that they want to make a difference.

Copyright Homeless Grapevine Issue #67 Cleveland, Ohio December 2004