Glass Half Full in Struggle to End Homelessness

Commentary by Brian Davis

 One recurring complaint about Cleveland is the anger and hostility toward the agencies that serve homeless people. While there are many problems with many different organizations including access, eligibility requirements, paperwork, sensitivity, and establishing an empowering environment, it is probably not the best strategy to focus on the negatives while distributing items on the streets of Cleveland. There are actually many positives within the current system.

 The Homeless Grapevine and the Coalition for the Homeless are certainly loud critics of the social services and government responses to homelessness. While we understand that it is criminal that anyone is homeless in the richest country in the world, we thought that it was necessary to describe some local successes. We hope that this will show that Bill Hahn, Care Alliance, Salvation Army, Catholic Charities, Mental Health Services, and all the providers and government agencies have tried to make life better for those struggling with housing.

 Universal Shelter Access: We certainly could improve the conditions of the shelters, but Cleveland is one of the only cities in the United States that offers shelter to whoever comes to the door in the winter and summer. Many choose not to go into shelter for a variety of reasons, but shelters are available at great cost to the local community. All city of Cleveland and county residents contribute money to assure that we have an open door policy for those asking for help with a bed every night. This shelter philosophy is enlightening, we just need to make our shelters better.

 Hunger is Not an Issue for Homeless People: The hunger programs under the direction of the Salvation Army, Catholic Charities, and the Hunger Network have done an amazing job in distributing food to those in need. There is hot food as well as pantry food available to every homeless person in Cleveland. We certainly need to work on educating those with a lower income on the importance of nutrition and assure that healthy food is broadly available, but the basic system is in place. From the formal network and the informal network of churches and ministries that come downtown, food is bountiful in Cleveland.

 A Strong Coalition for the Homeless: Cleveland is one of the few cities with a strong Coalition for the Homeless that offers programming and a place for homeless people to organize themselves and raise their collective voices. There are many cities with homeless coalitions, but few have an organization that is dedicated strictly to raising the voices of homeless people. It is a small effort with only five staff, and only one dedicated to advocacy. The Coalition has some strong obstacles to representing families who become homeless within the system.

 Compassionate Leadership: At this time, we have elected leaders who are genuinely concerned about improving the conditions for homeless people. Some leaders in the past resorted to attempts to make it illegal to be poor or homeless. Most local elected officials care about homeless people, even though some are not willing to go very far out of their way to help. We need more leaders who will fight against the dominant position that anything related to homelessness needs to be isolated and far away. Most politicians have a desire to help, but few spend any political capital solving problems.

 Rich and Diverse Community Development: We have a solid group of non-profit developers and community development organizations that believes in creating opportunities for affordable housing. We have a long way to go, but this is certainly not unusual. Many CDCs reject affordable housing and put up barriers to their development or hide behind the excuse that their neighborhoods already have too many poor people—like poverty is a disease that needs to be quarantined. The models do exist to develop quality affordable housing even with the obstacles constructed by the suburban communities and some of the neighborhoods.

 An Improved Public Housing Authority: Though the Housing Authority was widely criticized in the 1990s, it has now made strides in filling up all of their units and has made sure that every housing voucher is utilized in the community. There are ominous signs that in this tight budget year the commitment to the lowest income residents of Cuyahoga County will be reduced or eliminated. The next four years are expected to be painful for the Housing Authority, and there will be a fight for the survival and soul of the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority.

 The Community Hiring Hall: Cleveland just witnessed the opening of the Community Hiring Hall, which is a collaboration between non-profit, religious, and labor organizations. This unique program will put homeless people and those struggling to find work into quality jobs with no barriers to permanent employment. This project is an attempt to reduce the exploitation in the temporary labor industry and provide quality jobs to the thousands downtown who need solid income. This project could turn into a national model for employing low-income people in downtown cities.

 Health Care for Homeless People: After a period of five years in the late 1990s of trouble and wandering to find a mission, Cleveland’s program to serve the healthcare needs of homeless people, Care Alliance, is back on track. They provide clinics, a focal point for health care volunteers, and have taken the lead on advocacy around health care issues. The program could be five or six times as large and still not meet the need, but that is more of an indication of the need for universal free health care in the United States than anything else.

 Free Voice Mail for Homeless People: Cleveland is one of only 30 cities in the United States with free community voice mail available to homeless people so that those experiencing homelessness can connect with landlords and employers. It is a shame that the phone company and other technology companies do not support this project, but 4,500 people were linked with the rest of the world through such efforts.

 Outreach Efforts: People like Jim Schlecht, Mike Tribble, and Keith Moody have dedicated their lives to serving homeless people. There is an impressive schedule of outreach available in Cleveland (see page 4). There are outreach teams on the streets from early morning until the evening. They are dedicated individuals who try to win the confidence and trust of those who do not go into shelters or are alienated from society. Cleveland boasts an impressive outreach collaborative that assures that people do not die on the streets and that food, clothing, and a hand up is always available.

 Private Housing Vouchers: While there are still problems with access and long waits, we do have an impressive number of Shelter Plus Care vouchers available to disabled and homeless people. Greater Cleveland has done a good job going after federal funds to pay for housing vouchers for those with AIDS, a mental illness or a drug addiction. We do need to strengthen the follow up services once the person is placed in housing by some of these systems, but we’re off to a good start.

 Civil Rights Protections: Cleveland has one of the few Civil Rights for homeless people projects in the United States. The Coalition oversees a program to educate homeless people on their rights and provides assistance for those who have had their rights violated. The Coalition can assist with litigation or provide individual advocacy. A strong focus on civil rights has led to one of the only agreements in the United States between homeless people and the police and city officials. The City of Cleveland signed an agreement with homeless people in the late 1990s and signed a court-supervised document that prevents police from harassing homeless people on the sidewalk for purely innocent behavior.

 Eviction Prevention: The Cleveland Tenants Organization operates a program to assist people with preventing evictions, and we have a strong local and state landlord-tenant law. The local and state landlord tenant law attempts to balance the relationship between renters and property owners, and certainly reduces the number of evictions.

 Strong Grassroots Advocacy: Cleveland has a long tradition of strong advocacy organizations that represents the interests of poor people. Cleveland started one of the first welfare rights organizations, which is still in existence, and we have a number of neighborhood centers with a mission of social justice, and we have a new mental health advocacy organization. Over the years many of these advocacy organizations have figured out ways to collaborate under larger umbrellas like Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry, Cuyahoga Affordable Housing Alliance, NEOCH, and the Center for Community Solutions.

 Legal Assistance: Without money it is often hard to find competent legal help in most of the United States. Cleveland has a 100 year old Legal Aid Society and a blossoming partnership between the Cleveland Bar Association and Cleveland Homeless Legal Assistance Program. Each of these programs that provide assistance to the poorest in our community are working on ways to collaborate to better serve the large numbers of people in need. We certainly need to improve the public defender’s office, which is overwhelmed to point of nearly collapsing.

 Affordable Housing Website: First Call for Help and Bridging the Gap are currently creating a website of all the subsidized housing available in Cuyahoga County. It is hoped that this website will be available in the summer of 2005.

Referral Call Line: Speaking of First Call for Help, Cleveland is fortunate to have a 24 hour hotline available by telephone call to anyone in need. This telephone line is answered by actual humans with a simple call of 2-1-1. Callers can receive answers to questions about services and assistance available. The same service is also available on the World Wide Web.

 Homeless Veterans: In most of the United States, we do a good job of serving veterans who become homeless. We provide comprehensive care for all the contributing factors that lead to homelessness including mental health, drug counseling, job training, and housing assistance. In Cleveland, we have a beautiful campus for homeless veterans in Brecksville. We have outreach, comprehensive services, shelter beds, and health care available to those who served their country, all in a spacious, green and quiet environment. All services for homeless people should model themselves after the comprehensive services available at Brecksville Veterans Administration facility. There is some danger of losing that spirit with Brecksville closing the VA facility, but advocates will have to remain vigilant.

 Subsidized Housing Renovations: Cleveland has two beautiful and newly renovated properties in Arbor Park and Rainbow Terrace Apartments that are models for the rest of the country. These properties were slated for destruction through HUD foreclosure, but were saved after community leaders, residents, and City Council President Frank Jackson rallied to preserve affordable housing for Clevelanders.

 Funding Social Justice: Greater Cleveland does place some value on advocacy and social justice. An expression of that commitment is the federated giving program Community Shares, which provides funding to 30 social justice organizations and is one of the largest such programs in the country. It is regrettable that the local philanthropic community does not fund advocacy and lobbying in the same way they value funds for social services.

Healthy Foundations: Speaking of the philanthropic community, Cleveland is blessed with a large and engaged group of foundations that support human services and a few are even willing to support public policy and advocacy. Certainly, the philanthropic community is anchored by the Cleveland, Gund, and Jewish Community Foundations, but Cuyahoga County features a diverse and generous community of giving. We certainly would like to see more support for pure advocacy, actually solving problems, and sustaining worthy projects over funding more and more “new” projects, but beggars cannot be choosers.

 Street Newspaper: The very paper that you are reading is unique in the United States with only 30 papers in the North America. There are a growing number of papers in Europe, South America, and Africa similar to the Homeless Grapevine. Cleveland’s paper is the fifth oldest in the United States, and is one of the only papers that fills its pages with news of poverty and homelessness. No happy stories, no sports section, but 15 pages in our community in which homeless people can communicate with the world.

 Warming Centers: Cleveland has a place on the East and West Sides of town for homeless people to go inside to get out of the cold or the heat. Most of these drop-in centers have meals and other services associated with them, and are staffed by some of the kindest and best that Cleveland has to offer. In addition, most libraries also are accommodating and receptive to homeless people during the day. The Superior West Branch off Bridge and Lorain Aves should be commended for being genuinely concerned about those without housing. We certainly need a 24 hour place for people to go inside without having to go to a shelter, but what we have now is better than most cities.

Developing Identification Collaborative: The final area of success in addressing homelessness has to be the growing cooperation on getting state identification and birth certificates for homeless people. St. Coleman’s Catholic Church and the Community Women’s Shelter are leading an effort to provide funding and resources to speed up the time it takes for an individual to get a birth certificate. There were small efforts conducted by agencies and specifically energetic staff at agencies, and there is a growing collaboration among the homeless service providers to improve the distribution and better utilize manpower in order to streamline the process.

There are most likely areas that were missed including the collaborations between arts organizations and the transitional housing providers or the Face to Face exhibit of the Coalition, but the nearly two dozen highlights listed are unique to Cleveland. The projects listed above are model programs or programs that are excelling in the areas in which they have some expertise. We certainly will get mail saying that we missed this project or did not capture the success of this project, but the programs listed have shown results for homeless people and have broader impact on the community. We certainly will print your submissions for additions to this list, but will reserve the right to have homeless people or advocates comment on those submissions.

     We have a lot to be proud of in Cleveland, and we have a long way to go. There are huge gaps in the system, and federal and state policy are poking more and more holes in the system every day. There is a need for some local leadership to stop other elected officials from shredding the social safety net. For every gap that we fill in Cleveland, some other governmental agency seems to add two or three holes.

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