NEOCH Teach In Broadens Perspectives

Commentary by Courtney Smith and Alea Danzy

     Homelessness is a social problem that affects everyone. Approximately 26,000 homeless people live in Cleveland. In addition, 3,800 people become homeless each night. Many people who have never been homeless think homeless people are dirty, uneducated, lazy and on drugs.

     “No one says [I want to be homeless,]” according to Michelle Wilkerson-Guerry, a formerly homeless individual.

      Oftentimes, outsiders believe homeless people have no goals in life. Wilkerson-Guerry has two degrees, speaks four languages and had a good job, but ended up becoming homeless as a result of her company moving away. The truth is homeless people have experienced life-changing circumstances and misfortune that can occur in anyone’s life. “You are a paycheck away,” said Wilkerson-Guerry.

      Even some healthcare professionals do not know how to react to homeless people when administering care. Subsequently, homeless people suffer from being given the wrong prescriptions. They are sometimes treated poorly and do not want to come back. In addition, medical costs are frequently unaffordable for them.

    “Basically, the homeless in Cleveland are a diverse group representing every problem that exists in society,” explained Brian Davis, the Executive Director of NEOCH.

      According to Davis, those under the age of 17 make up the fastest growing group of homeless people in Cleveland and various towns. 41% of homeless people are single men, 14% are single women, 40% are families with children and unaccompanied youth comprise 5%. Whites represent 41% of the racial composition of homeless people, African- Americans 40%, Hispanics comprise 11%, and Native Americans represent 8%. Many are mentally ill, substance abusers, or veterans, but by no means are the causes of homelessness limited to these. A large percentage of homeless people have also been physically or sexually abused, in foster care as children, homeless as children, or incarcerated.

      The Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless facilitates a program called a Homeless Teach In. On March 22, the Teach In addressed the issue of healthcare for homeless people. Michelle Wilkerson-Guerry and Thomas Parker, formerly homeless individuals, spoke of their experiences with the healthcare system while being homeless. After hearing their stories, many would agree with Brian Davis’s sentiments:

     “I am in awe of the struggles that many have to overcome, and have the deepest respect for the people that find stability despite the obstacles put in place by shelters, government, and society.”

     Wilkerson-Guerry candidly discussed the problem of unsanitary shelter life. She suggested a possible   underlying rationale for many city officials by stating, “Homelessness is embarrassing.” The problem of homelessness is covered up because America does not want to face the truth. “What affects the homeless will eventually affect the non-homeless,” declared Michelle Wilkerson-Guerry.

     Both Wilkerson-Guerry and Parker referred to the Care Alliance Health Centers who provide homeless people with medical care. Care Alliance Health Centers provide excellent volunteer healthcare for everyone.

     There are several ways to help NEOCH meet its goal of reaching out to homeless people. Volunteer Opportunities include: writing for The Homeless Grapevine, fundraising, helping at special events, updating and distributing the Street Card, coordinating NEOCH homeless forums, organizational leadership, becoming a committee member, public speaking, office work, database entry, assisting in voter registration, Bridging the Gap mentors, volunteering attorneys and law student interns, Direct Service volunteers and more. Contact Brian or Teri at (216) 432-0540 for more information about volunteer opportunities at NEOCH.

     Homelessness may continue to be a problem well into the future. To say that we can eliminate homelessness may be unrealistic, but if our community takes Davis’s advice - “Empower a homeless person with responsibility, trust, and authority and they prosper. Treat them like a child, as often happens in the shelters, and they become dependent and disenfranchised,” the issue of homelessness does not have to be as enormous as it is today.

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