Editorial: Poppe Poofs Homeless People Away

     “About the only homeless people in Columbus right now are those who choose to be.” Barb Poppe Executive Director of the Columbus Community Shelter Board as reported in the June 2005 Esquire Magazine.

      This sentence has created quite a buzz in Columbus. Columnist Mike Harden of the Columbus Dispatch devoted an entire column to this startling “fact.” Harden visited an elderly center teeming with seniors who were making blankets and sleeping bags for homeless people. He broke the bad news to these sewing warriors that they were making essentials for those who want to be homeless. Harden interviewed Kent Beitel, one of the only providers willing to speak his mind (mostly because he was long taken off the public funding gravy train), about the devastating impact this statement could have on public support for social service providers.

      It is hard to comment on Poppe’s assertion about Columbus. It could be a throw-away line. It could be an answer to a leading question by an Esquire reporter, or it could be just wrong. We did notice that there is not a statement on the Columbus Shelter Board website retracting the statement. We also noticed that there were a large number of awards listed on the website about the national recognition for the Shelter Board in reducing homelessness. Harden seems to have made his judgment about the situation in Columbus by closing with a slam of Ms. Poppe: “A cynic might deduce that her work, and the $105,000 a year salary attached to it, is thus no longer necessary.”

      The real issue here is that many cities have put in place a planning process to theoretically “end” homelessness. Most cities only “end” homelessness for a small number of the population, but that is the nature of spin. The people of Columbus are five years into a plan called “Rebuilding Lives” to relocate the Downtown shelters in order to “better serve” homeless people. A lot is riding on the philosophy that dispersing homeless people is the best strategy to reduce the numbers entering the shelters. This is one of the shortfalls of allowing the private sector to lead a planning process. In the end if government fails, the citizens have a right to kick the politicians responsible out of office. If Barb Poppe’s plan fails in Columbus, homeless people, taxpayers, and funders have no one to vote out of office. While the funding decisions for local shelters and services go through Ms. Poppe’s group, the organization is a private non-profit organization and the Director is responsive to just a small Board of Directors.

      The other issue in Columbus is that the plan was developed, enforced and implemented by one organization and so there is no public official to blame if the gamble does not pay off. There is no person to take some of the responsibility if the state, local or federal government put up additional barriers. There is no legitimate watchdog in the process. There was no empowerment of homeless people to take the lead within the plan. Empowerment fosters independence, which fosters sustainable communities.

      There are a lot of great things in Columbus, especially the high standards for shelters and demands for rigorous outcomes. But, there are also serious issues that very few have the guts to speak about publicly for fear of retaliation. This is understandable in that all power is concentrated in one entity, the Emperor of Homelessness, Barb Poppe, and she has demonstrated what happens to people who do not play ball by cutting Kent Bietal’s Open Shelter from public funding and then having the City take their facility by eminent domain.

      Ms. Poppe is a great activist and has an impeccable career in serving homeless people with an unquestioned commitment to helping homeless people. The issue is that the privatization of traditional government services closes democracy from the process. Democracy allows for criticism of the “emperor” and his or her lack of clothing. Democracy allows for course correction if things are not working, and democracy allows for accountability at the highest levels. Unfortunately, democracy was lost in Columbus and the result is that Ms. Poppe is marching down Broad Street without any clothing proclaiming the homeless problem is nearing an end.

      Cleveland needs to take a lesson in their current planning process to assure that government is accountable for solving this problem locally. We complain all the time about the County and City’s feeble efforts to address homelessness, but at least they do not shy away from the responsibility. We have the opportunity to complain and homeless people have a microphone for lodging complaints. The Cleveland Heading Home planners would do well to look at Columbus and adopt some of Columbus’s positive aspects, but reject its concentration of authority in one private entity. Construct a bold plan in which government is expected to step forward to lead the effort to end homelessness with specific time limits and expectations. The planners must assure that there are the proper watchdogs built into the process to assure that we don’t get to the point of just proclaiming an “end to homelessness,” while thousands still do not have a place to call home, and many are still isolated from the current service system.

     Or in the alternative, we do have those buses that transfer the 200 people to Aviation High School every single night. If Columbus has basically solved the problem, we should just have the bus slide onto 71 South and deliver a group of homeless people to the Emperor of Homelessness at the Community Shelter Board so that the infrastructure in Columbus does not run out of homeless people to serve

. Copyright NEOCH, The Homeless Grapevine #71, July 2005. All Rights Reserved.