Commentary by Brian Davis
Clevelanders have a lot to be proud of with regard to the struggle to reduce homelessness, and a great deal to champion in the fight to reduce poverty. In February 2005 (see summary on page 7), the Cleveland Plain Dealer did an in-depth series of interviews with community leaders in an unflattering portrayal of Bill Hahn. Hahn traveled the city at night distributing food and clothing to those on the outside of modern society looking for a path back. Hahn is not the only person to bring supplies to those living in unstable housing or outside. In fact, the city has a long tradition of humanitarian assistance pulsing through the streets. In 2004, Cleveland lost Daniel Thompson, the bread poet, who first used his small green Chevy pickup to haul bread, water and pastries late at night to those lonely souls who wander the streets. Ralph Delaney, a housing activist, was killed in the line of duty, and Fr. Abbott John Henry of St. Herman’s Ministry all have provided nourishment on Public Square.
Cleveland has featured a bountiful outpouring of help toward those struggling to find stability for years. Maybe it is a metaphor for the state of Greater Cleveland played out on the streets. All of us struggle with the weather, governance, our national image, the jokes, our role in the state of Ohio, and we turn that rejection and fight against adversity into a humanitarian response toward homelessness. We want to succeed and we want our fellow Clevelanders to succeed. As The Plain Dealer reported, Hahn’s efforts were compromised by his legal and financial mismanagement. In this issue of The Homeless Grapevine, we are going to examine the impact of the Plain Dealer article, the current efforts to alleviate homelessness, a look at outreach efforts in the City, the holes in the system, and the successes. We will talk to a few people who were mentioned in the article about their impression of the article and its repercussions, and we will talk about possible solutions.
The bottom line is that there are many well-meaning and concerned individuals in this city who were taken in by this talented salesperson. They wanted to believe that they could change a few lives and were comforted that Bill Hahn was reinforcing what they had always believed: that anyone who sleeps outside is insane. This dangerous philosophy has led some cities to jail or confine any homeless person who chooses not to seek shelter into a mental institution against their will. Hahn used his sales background to get financial and other support from the most influential members of the Cleveland community. When Bill Hahn took corporate, government, social service, and media around in the Catholic Charities truck, he had a sale. They were on the team from that point on and were going to give money, influence, or resources to his effort.
While some will walk away from helping homeless people and may lick their wounds feeling burnt, we have to remember that Bill Hahn’s effort along with the hundreds of other churches that come downtown have made a difference. Cleveland has not seen a death from hypothermia on the streets for four winters, which is a victory. There is no one, including homeless or low-income people, who is starving, and we are one of the few cities in the United States that offers a bed to anyone who requests one every single night of the year. We still have a long way to go, and one messianic salesman is not going to solve the problem, but if we all work together this is a solvable problem.
Copyright NEOCH, The Homeless Grapevine #69, March 2005. All rights reserved.