The Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless acts as a watchdog in the community and we take grievances from homeless people about the publicly funded service very seriously. When the staff get a complaint, they do all they can to follow up with the agency privately. If that does not work, they have more public means of pressuring the organization. All of the letters received regarding Laura’s Home present an especially difficult problem for the Coalition the Homeless and for the Grapevine.
Just to step back, we must clarify the role of the Grapevine here in relation to NEOCH. The Homeless Grapevine is a program of the Coalition, but has an independent editorial function. NEOCH Board members do not influence content and have no oversight of the editorial position of the newspaper. The Board of Trustees do not influence content and have no oversight of the editorial position of the newspaper. Brain Davis is the director of the Coalition and the editor of the Grapevine, but makes up only one-fourth of the editorial board. If any one of the members of the editorial board does not agree with the position then the piece does not become the editorial for the paper. If the vote is not unanimous among the four editors (which includes the vendor representative) then the piece gets printed as a commentary representing the views of the author. Some pieces may have three votes and one hold-out, but would not be listed as an editorial. The reason that the editorials are not signed is because they represent the opinion of the four editors.
So the Coalition responds to complaints and the Grapevine has a separate structure for responding to issues. Today, we face the issue of Laura’s Home, a structure run by the City Mission of Cleveland. The City Mission is an evangelical, privately run, and privately funded shelter. While the public donated to City Mission, no government entity gives money. The name leads many to believe that this shelter is run by a “city”, but the city just refers to its geographic location and not its administrative function. So the question for everyone is how does the community address problems at a shelter that does not receive government money?
The Coalition has no leverage and no government to complain to about problems at the City Mission or a St. Herman’s House of Hospitality. Staff of the Coalition have never had a very good relationship with staff at the City Mission. In 2002, Laura’s Home opened as a transitional facility for families. It is a beautiful facility on Puritas Road, but was never fully occupied. Women claimed it was difficult to meet the criteria for entry and it was very hard to live by the strict rules and religious requirements. In 2005, the City Mission closed their family emergency shelter, Angeline Christian Home, and moved staff and residents into Laura’s Home.
Obviously, by the tone of the enclosed letters this was a rough transition.
The Grapevine would like to see a reform of Laura’s Home and some oversight of this facility. Shelter space is so critical in this community with only half those in need actually being able to find shelter bed every night. If the letter writers are correct, it seems that City Mission officials need to address the problems associated with nepotism at the shelter, and individual donors should demand some reform of Laura’s Home. We offer the City Mission this space in the next issue in order to respond without censorship to the letter and to our recommendations. We believe that every shelter bed in the community is a valuable asset similar to power lines or water treatment facilities. We believe that it a government responsibility to feed and shelter its citizens. Therefore, when a private facility offers a shelter bed, the government still has an obligation to provide oversight and set standards for those beds.
We recommend that all shelter workers in the city, including those from City Mission, either become government employees or all shelter worker join a union with the guarantee of no reduction in staff until the need for shelter is met. We believe that every shelter should pay into a pool to hire at least two (one woman and one man) client rights officers that would have office hours at every shelter, including the City Mission facilities to address grievances. Finally, we recommend passage of a shelter standards law under the direction of the City of Cleveland Department of Community Relations as was done in the District of Columbia.
We hear almost every day from homeless people who have nowhere to turn and nowhere to go to complain about their treatment within the shelters. There is no one within the system who is not paid by the shelter who can wade through some of these tough life and death decisions and find common ground between the shelter staff and the residents. There is no government entity with any purse strings power that is willing to regulate the shelters at this time. While it is not the role is the Coalition or the Grapevine, we do hear form shelter staff that they are overworked and underpaid and also do not have any way to communicate problems or issues that they with regard to that care and treatment of residents.
Laura’s Home certainly has some big issues to address, but the other shelters in Cleveland also need better oversight. The shelter are caught between ever tighter budgets, moving from one crisis to the next with their clients, and hiring, training and retaining qualified staff. They have hug issues to overcome and operate in a near impossible environment. While government provides very little oversight, all levels of government are demanding better “outcomes” and reductions in the time spent in the shelter by homeless people, but they are not offering any additional money. It is time for a summit with every shelter including the City Mission to get all these issues on the table and take some of the pressure off these critical services in our community.