Editorial: Homeless Service Providers Need Report Cards

The Grapevine is often accused of being the most depressing publication in Cleveland, and we have certainly earned that title and wear it as a badge of honor. We caution people not read the Grapevine all in one sitting or in tall buildings with open windows. With this issue, we are trying something new—the glass is half full. We are focusing much of this issue on the positive aspects of the struggle to house everyone residing in Greater Cleveland.

   We came upon this issue after the Cleveland Plain Dealer Sunday Magazine hammered the outreach crusader, Bill Hahn and his one-man show called “For Thy Bounty.” The story was accurate and well-reported with an in-depth look at Hahn’s work featuring comments from a broad cross-section of supporters and detractors. The Grapevine wanted to look at efforts in Cleveland and highlight some of the successes over the last 15 years, especially in light of the critical piece in the Plain Dealer. This does not portend a shift in our role as a watchdog, and we certainly will continue to feature the critical words of homeless people. It is depressing to be homeless and to live in a city that allows anyone to be without a home. We take our mission very seriously and would not feel it appropriate to water down constructive criticism.

   With that said, the editors of the paper and also the Board of the Coalition for the Homeless are concerned about the impression left by the Hahn article. Casual readers could come away feeling that homeless programs are not transparent, revolve around one individual, or mismanage the precious resources available to serve homeless people. Certainly, a few organizations hide behind their alleged church status so as to not release their financial information, but for the most part the shelters and services are quality organizations that are good stewards of public money.

   There are hundreds of amazing people who serve homeless people in Cleveland. Even Bill Hahn has his heart in the right place, but has other issues that were painfully and excruciatingly picked apart in the Plain Dealer. Organizations that receive public money are usually open to community input and oversight.

   One piece that we would recommend for the local community is a report card issued by a local advocacy or some impartial organization to rate each shelter and service for homeless people. This would allow donors and homeless people to check an annual or quarterly score card to see about an agency’s finances, staff training, empowerment opportunities, and additional services. This would allow volunteers, concerned citizens, government, and foundations to take a quick glance at the Report Card to obtain a snapshot of the state of each shelter or service.

   In 2004, Tenecia Stokes, a VISTA at the Coalition for the Homeless, met with homeless people and devised some good objective criteria to construct a rating system. It would cost approximately $15,000 to implement the project or $20,000 to have a system that ranks the shelters on a quarterly or more frequent basis. This may seem like a lot for such an endeavor, but the system is badly needed. There is no real rating system that compares outcomes, quality of offered services, and the quality of oversight for homeless people or possible financial backers to turn to for help.

   A rating card would also have provided a warning to donors that there was a problem with For Thy Bounty prior to a Plain Dealer investigation, but still would not have solved the issue of lone advocates disparaging other programs on the streets and those unwilling to collaborate. This is a major problem in Cleveland that needs to be addressed. There is very little incentive for collaboration, and a great deal of incentive for competition. Cleveland has only a limited amount of dollars, and each program struggles to keep their doors open in relative isolation. They struggle to make payroll, pay health care, remain competitive, provide training, and worry about the huge problems facing their clients.

   All of these issues need to be taken up by the new planning body that was recently formed. Cuyahoga County, the City of Cleveland, businesses, foundations, advocates, social services and homeless people are all sitting at the same table in an effort to come up with a plan to address the affordable housing crisis. These issues and the growing gaps in services are a priority for this planning group. We need to figure out a way to get those economically poor with no disabilities into housing that is affordable. Most importantly, we need to start working together collaboratively instead of this competition that keeps all the groups separate.

Copyright NEOCH, The Homeless Grapevine #69, March 2005. All rights reserved.