Editorial - 2004: One Step Forward, Two Steps Backward

            When reviewing the past year in homelessness there are only shades of black. Figuring out from the litany of bad things that happened which is the best of the worst is much like judging a beauty contest among dung beetles in their natural habitat. In 2004, we are back to the one step forward with two steps back routine. There were a few victories, but in the larger picture we lost ground in Cleveland. We lost more affordable housing to landlords opting out or buying out their subsidized contracts and marketing their property at higher rents. We did not bleed jobs as we have in the last few years, but we certainly did not see many gains. There were small steps on the health care front but in fact we saw more people without healthcare in Cleveland. Civil Rights protections for homeless people did not advance and more people tried to fit into the shelters than the previous year.

            Of course the big news was that Cleveland was the poorest city in the United States. For the guy sleeping in bunk 348 at 2100 Lakeside this was not a big revelation; and those who stand in line at Minute Man hoping to be sent out at 4:30 a.m. do not have time to complain about the ranking. We saw many meetings about poverty last year, but none involved homeless people or talked about the problem of homelessness except incidentally.

            While the big news in Cleveland was the poverty numbers, in the homeless community the big news was the changes in the entry shelters. Salvation Army could not agree on a contract for the shelter, which brought a new provider forward. Because of the Salvation Army’s inability to understand the nature of the problem with homelessness, the change was welcomed by activists and many homeless people who had requested a new provider two years ago. The women’s shelter also changed hands in 2004 with a mental health agency taking over despite the objections of the Coalition for the Homeless (see articles in this issue.)

            The Grapevine nearly went out of business in 2004 because of financial constraints. With the help of poet, Daniel Thompson, and the religious community who both stepped forward to help save the paper. By the end of 2004, the Grapevine had hired an individual who is assigned to build the paper and stabilize its operations. Kevin Cleary was added in December 2004 to build an advertising program, increase readership, increase the number of vendors and expand the paper.

            Some of the best stories covered in the 2004 Homeless Grapevine included the review of the family shelters in Cuyahoga County and the problems faced by homeless women with children, an analysis of the temporary labor advocacy movement and the staff hired by the Day Labors Organizing Committee, as well as a feature on the 14 hours of radio on homelessness that was broadcast nationally on college and community stations and took place in Cleveland. The Grapevine featured an expose on the federal funding of the shelters that revealed that nearly every program received high marks and there was little if any input from homeless people into how to spend the $12 million. We consistently featured commentaries by homeless and low-income people who wrote about life in the shelters, the presidential election, the high cost of housing, and the need for better health care to elderly homeless. A popular feature was our short highlights of what is going on in Cleveland, Ohio, and around the country with regard to homelessness.

            Other stories covered in the Homeless Grapevine include an overview of the federal budget proposals throughout the year, and then a compilation of the devastating implications on housing and human services that the budget and the election portends for our community. The Grapevine published an entire issue prepared by and featuring the work of Daniel Thompson. Then, sadly, in the next issue we published a memorial to our good friend, tireless advocate, humanitarian, and artist—Daniel.

             In a story that Daniel would have enjoyed, we did a review of the housing needs of homeless people, which revealed that 40% of the population living in shelters were willing to relocate to Mars or the Moon if housing were to open up there before housing here on Earth.

Cleveland saw a rise in the number of people showing up at the shelter doors, but this is not news since this is a 20 year unbroken streak. We do not see the open hostility between providers, homeless people, advocates and the municipal government that we saw in the 1990s. In nearly every other U.S. and Ohio city they struggle with fights over pan-handling, shelter locations, feeding on the streets, and those who choose not to use the shelters but instead opt for public spaces.

            We do not have time to list all the battles going on around the country concerning homelessness. The Grapevine archives at www.neoch.org/homelessgrapevine have a good overview of the problems. We will recognize the most absurd city in Ohio: Dayton.             City leaders have closed the cold weather shelter in the beginning of the coldest part of the season and have adopted a policy of humiliating pan handlers in their city. Dayton passed a law that pan handlers have to register, become licensed, and wear a huge sign indicating that they are panhandlers around their neck.

            This scarlet letter humiliation tactic has not solved the housing crisis, the lack of jobs, the health care crisis, and in fact the legislation is largely ignored. The effort made politicians happy that they could say they are doing something, businesses were happy and in the end the law has very little impact on the problem.

Copyright NEOCH, The Homeless Grapevine #68, February 2005. All rights reserved.