Editorial: Women's Shelter's Need Reform

       Shelters are places to heal. They can be places to solve problems. Shelters are a safe haven from the world, and they are supposed to protect people from abusers. The staff who work at shelters are among the best people our society has to offer. But shelter staff are underpaid, overworked, and are largely good people put in a very difficult position. With that said, many women are terrified of what is going on within the shelters where they live. There is an unspoken fear by those who stay at the shelter. Women, especially women with families, are terrified to speak up about problems within the shelter system. Those who fund the shelters need to start enforcing rigorous protections for women, which are already on the books, but are largely ignored.

       The problem has grown worse since Mental Health Services took over the Community Women’s Shelter. NEOCH has had a number of meetings with women at the Bishop Cosgrove Center who are extremely upset over their treatment. They are willing to speak about these problems only in a whisper. The shelter has kicked out many of the women who complain when they return to the shelter. Spending a night on the street is not an option for most women. Men who become homeless have a better chance of surviving if they are kicked out of shelter. Women cannot as “easily” sleep outside or in abandoned buildings because there is a high probability of exploitation, violence, or becoming a victim of a sexual predator.

        Mothers especially have a concern that a report will be filed with 696-KIDS (Cuyahoga Children and Family Services) if they complain. They are afraid their kids will be taken into custody as retribution for their complaints. Families who fall on hard times have a great amount of anxiety about even asking for help, and when they get to the shelter they find the conditions almost intolerable. If the mother complains will the staff person call 696-KIDS in retaliation? Can the moms in the shelters trust other women or will one of them rat on them in order to receive better treatment from the staff? The fear of being kicked out taints everything that goes on within the family shelters.

        The County already has a decent policy that is not being enforced. The Grapevine is calling for stronger enforcement of the County Discharge plan and an amnesty on women forced out of any emergency shelter in Cleveland. The Grapevine is asking that women be allowed to access the shelter’s grievance procedure before being kicked out onto the streets.

       The current County Discharge policy was passed in 2003 by the Office of Homeless Services Advisory Board, but is now largely ignored by County staff and most of the shelters. After much debate and input from social service providers, the County passed the following policy: “No clients should be discharged involuntarily unless criminal activity is taking place which includes physical harm or threat of harm to staff or other residents, illegal drug use on the premises, or carrying a concealed weapon. In any of these cases, the appropriate law enforcement agency should be called.”

      The policy is very explicit on discharges for reasons other than criminal activity: “If there are other circumstances, short of criminal activity, when staff recommend client discharge the following protocols should be followed: Written notification of reason be given to client and placed in client file. Clients [must be] given a copy of Grievance Procedure. Grievance Procedure should include a process for a hearing within 24 hours. If the discharge includes a ban, the length of the ban, telephone number of an advocate, process to relocate clients to another shelter.” Finally, the policy states “staff should be trained on the protocols, as well as trained in conflict de-escalation/resolution and alternative behavior interventions.”

     From what we have seen at the Grapevine, these policies are not enforced at all. We have rarely seen any such training offered. In a time of budget constraints, training is one of the first budget line items lost. The major flaw of this policy is that it does not address who will pay for the training. However, the policy is otherwise relatively sound and should be more vigorously enforced. Based on the complaints and we hear from women at the shelters weekly, it seems that only the men’s shelters are following these rules. It causes some hardship, but certainly provides some degree of balance for this inherently unfair relationship between homeless people and their “landlords.”

    Taxpayers of Cuyahoga County should demand the staff start enforcing its actual, stated policies and take the fear out of the shelters. Call Ruth Gillett at the Office of Homeless Services and demand the family shelters stop kicking women, and women with children out onto the streets. Gillett should loudly and publicly call the family shelters together to demand an amnesty for women. Call Ruth Gillett at 216/420-6762 and tell her, “Take the fear out of the family shelters.”

 Copyright NEOCH, The Homeless Grapevine #70, May 2005. All Rights Reserved