Jackson Takes Unannounced Tour of Cleveland Shelters

Special Submission by the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless

      In the last fifteen years, no Mayor of Cleveland has taken three hours out of his or her schedule to visit the homeless shelters and certainly not without announcing it to the media in advance. As part of the State of the City Address Mayor Frank Jackson said that all the rhetoric that is part of the State of the City speeches is business as usual for politicians, but he wants to be measured on what he can accomplish. He went on to say that the measure of success is how the City treats those with the least. In a move to back his rhetoric with action, Mayor Jackson and a few staff members toured four shelters in the community and met with the residents' elected leadership at the shelters.

      The tour began at 10 a.m. on March 9 at 2100 Lakeside Shelter with a meeting of the men who are the elected leaders of the shelter. The Mayor talked about his vision and his agenda concerning housing and homelessness. He listened to the men and heard some of their concerns in a 45-minute meeting. The Mayor's staff included Jason Woods, Governmental Affairs, Martin Flask, Public Safety Director, and Michael House, Press Secretary, who came along to answer questions and listen to the concerns of shelter residents. The issues that the Mayor discussed at his meeting were:

· The men at the shelter can make a difference in their own lives and the life of the City.

· The Mayor of the City of Cleveland is not the enemy, and he will help whenever possible.              

· In response to a question about restoring abandoned properties in Cleveland, Mayor Jackson mentioned a lack of money for such programs, and a need to attack misconceptions of the general public about homelessness to ease the concerns of neighbors.

· He wanted to assure that the City does not re-concentrate poverty as had been done in the past with other gentrification programs.

· Jackson said that he would require that neighbors and neighborhood groups be involved in the development of any programs or any affordable housing in the community.

· Another recurring theme was the need to strengthen partnerships between the City and County.

· Jackson said that he is directing his staff to improve outcomes for the $23 or $24 million in federal dollars that comes to Cleveland every year for homelessness.

· Jackson stated that there must be a plan for how to serve the population, and that business leaders can be effective in assisting with implementation of a plan to help homeless people.

· Everyone needs to work to transform the shelter into a place that creates jobs. Jackson talked about making the shelters into “economic engines” that can help people find employment or can foster the development of micro-enterprise projects. A goal was stated to have the shelters pursue contracts for goods and services in the community in order provide more employment opportunities.

· He asked the shelter residents for input on how to transition out of homelessness. What steps need to be taken?

· Jackson discussed the Summer Clean up program and the process for awarding that contract. (196 of the men had signed a letter asking the City to award the contract to the Community Hiring Hall.)

· In response to a question about people with a prison background getting into housing, he said that many are unfortunately very judgmental in the community. The only way to change this negative stereotype is for the shelter residents to start doing high-profile volunteer tasks in the community. Jackson suggested working with various departments (Aging and Safety). Jackson said that the City will help in this effort, but the men will also have to work on this themselves.

· The Mayor stressed the need for the homeless population to define themselves and not let panhandlers or the people who do wrong within the community define them in the minds of the community.

·One man at the shelter asked about a negative incident with the police, and the Safety Director agreed to follow up on it.

·One person asked about government regulations and the policy of felons getting into housing. Jackson said that he would work with the Coalition on changing any policy that had any local flexibility. Mayor Jackson stressed that he will work on these and other problems.

(Editor's Note: Every year, 6000 people return to Cuyahoga County from prison. A recent interview with Lutheran Metro Ministries' Mike Serring in Issue # 74 revealed that approximately 25 returning ex-offenders are sent to 2100 Lakeside directly from prison every month. These individuals who have “paid their debt to society” are subsequently unable to obtain public housing, subsidized housing, and most privately-owned housing, to say nothing of employment.)

      Jackson has visited the facility before and mentioned that he is always impressed by the huge laundry facility of the shelter.

      After the meeting and tour of the men's shelter, which is the largest shelter in the state of Ohio he went over the Community Women's Shelter (100 women and a few children sleep there every night). It took a long time to get through the shelters, because the men and women all wanted to talk to the Mayor, and he delayed the tour to listen to their concerns. In addition, LMM and Mental Health Services had both recently assumed management the two shelters in the last year and half and wanted to talk to the Mayor about some issues.

      The Mental Health Services staff at the Women's Shelter did a good overview of the program and had a few of the residents lead the tour. Then it was lunch with the Catholic Charities staff at the Bishop Cosgrove Center and a few individuals who use the facility. The Cosgrove staff and volunteers served chicken, rice, and vegetables with grape juice and a dessert on the side. They did a presentation on the program, and Jackson learned about the funding constraints of the drop-in center, as well as the large number of people provided a meal and warm place every day. At this point, the group was running very late and so they did not get to see the Volunteers of America Shelter.

      The Mayor finished up over at West Side Catholic. He was able to see the renovated facility and the volunteering efforts of St. Ignatius high school students. The older Clevelanders who help to prepare the meal were in the kitchen and they also spoke with the Mayor. Jackson next visited the expanded clothing room in the back of West Side Catholic. The day was capped with a visit to the Cadillac of shelters, the West Side Catholic family shelter. West Side Catholic is by far the cleanest of the shelters and features a newly renovated facility that women claim feels like a real home, not an institution.

      Channel 3's Tom Beres had discovered the unannounced tour on the Mayor's schedule and surprised the participants by showing up to cover it. At the end of the tour, Mayor Jackson told him that this tour is not the end of the story, and that he intends to further develop some of the ideas that came up during the tour. He told the Coalition that his staff would follow up soon on some of the ideas. The men at 2100 Lakeside set aside the next week to de-brief and make plans for activities they could perform in the community.

Copyright Homeless Grapevine Issue 75 March-April 2006 Cleveland, Ohio.