First Homeless Congress Meets at Cosgrove

by Michelle Lasky

    On a hot summer day in July, the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless attempted a new form of advocacy meeting — representative democracy.  Every shelter in the county, along with the drop-in centers and the outreach teams were invited to send two members to a meeting at the Bishop Cosgrove Center to recommend an agenda for the Coalition to follow. There were 10 facilities present, each represented by two members, including two people who call the streets of Cleveland their home.  Seven additional providers attended, but were not able to bring homeless clients.

   The men and women met in the Cosgrove Center gymnasium around large dining room tables.  The providers and other observers sat around the walls of the gym watching homeless people deliberate.  Brian Davis, executive director of NEOCH, explained the function and role of the Coalition and discussed the critical areas of the organization. Davis described how the men at 2100 Lakeside had requested this meeting, and the purpose for meeting.  There was some concern that many of those present did not have a very good knowledge of the Coalition.  There was some discussion about how this Congress should be structured and the agenda was approved. 

   Most of the meeting was spent discussing NEOCH’s strategic plan and the areas of advocacy on which the Coalition decided to focus its energy from 2005-2010.  A few additional items were added over the past year and at this meeting.  Almost all have developed as a result of local and national events.  For example, the Coalition added the need for a disaster plan to relocate homeless people during an evacuation of downtown in response to the Katrina disaster.  The threat of closing shelters due to budget cuts or local development needs has prompted the Coalition to add the issue of overcrowding in shelters to its strategic plan. 

   Some of the discussion at the meeting revolved around a standard grievance procedure in the shelters and the need for a place outside the shelters to air grievances.  There was also concern that there was not enough information available in the community about available services, and especially about housing options.  Additionally, a few women were worried about the environment at the Women’s Shelter.  A few of the individuals who sleep on the street wanted to talk about conducting police training for interaction with homeless people and reiterate the agreement NEOCH has with the City for police to not harass those who live on the streets.

   There was a concern expressed by a few representatives about the number of people denied for Medicare or Medicaid.  Davis explained that since there were three or four organizations working on this issue in the community it probably would not be the Coalition’s role to step into their territory; but to train those agencies to better serve homeless people. 

   Another topic was that most facilities do not focus on helping those individuals with very specific problems like mental illness or those with a physical disability.  One issue that rarely is raised within the shelters is coordination of services by churches on the streets to provide food or clothing. The members who live on the street were concerned about getting the churches to collaborate to reduce duplication and the nights when no church comes downtown.  There also was interest in helping Bill Hahn maintain his service of using Catholic Charity’s truck to deliver supplies and food to those who stay outside.  With all the controversy last year over this program, Davis said that this would be difficult.

   Transportation was an issue that Homeless Congress representatives agreed was often overlooked. It is very difficult for homeless people to find a way to get to a job or to look at housing.  This inability to find transportation makes it very difficult for homeless people to keep appointments in order move out of the shelters.

The final draft agenda that was approved by the Congress:

General Principles:

1. NEOCH should confine its advocacy efforts to local positions

2. NEOCH should not get involved in advocacy around reductions in funding. 

3. NEOCH will concentrate on four areas and will attempt to maintain and where possible improve local services in the area of housing, health care, economic justice and civil rights.

Housing:

4. NEOCH will assist with monthly housing preservation of affordable housing meetings.

5. NEOCH will work on a local strategy for those leaving the corrections system and enter shelter and especially those with sexually based offence.

6. NEOCH will continue to monitor the three large subsidized housing programs.

7. NEOCH will work with other groups in the community to develop alternatives to shelter in the community with housing emergencies.

Civil Rights:

8. NEOCH will continue to monitor and document civil rights violations or violence against homeless people.

9. NEOCH will develop a set of standards for local shelters.

10.NEOCH will work to protect the privacy rights of homeless people.

11.NEOCH will pass legislation that would make attacks on homeless people a hate crime.

12.NEOCH will work to assure that all homeless people are registered to vote, and reduce barriers to registering and homeless people actually voting.

Health Care:

13.NEOCH will work with all local public entities to assure access by homeless people to alcohol/drug services, mental health and emergency medical care. 

14.NEOCH will work to develop a better approach to homeless people with a substance abuse problem.

15.NEOCH will work with the Center for Community Solutions to apply for a comprehensive health care grant.

16.NEOCH will work with other local advocates to develop a better strategy for assistance to homeless people with a mental illness including the expansion of the disabled drop in center.

Economic Justice Issues:

17.NEOCH will work with other local advocates to pass legislation to protect the rights of those who work at temporary labor companies.

18.NEOCH will work toward reform of Social Security Disability hearing procedure so that those with a physical and mental illness do not have to wait years for a hearing on their cases.

Other issues added over this year and at this meeting:

1. Cuyahoga County needs a plan for evacuating homeless people in the event of a natural or man made disaster within the downtown area of Cleveland.

2. NEOCH needs to develop a representative body of homeless people to divide up local resources and set policy for the social services. 

3. NEOCH should work to assure that the overflow shelters are not closed without a suitable replacement.

4. NEOCH should work to expand the marketing of the website www.housingcleveland.org to assure that all subsidized landlords are participating, and that the homeless community is aware of the website.

5. Cuyahoga County needs better coordination of outreach efforts including the churches that distribute food downtown.

6. The Coalition should investigate ways to make transportation of homeless people a higher priority within the community.

Copyright Homeless Grapevine Cleveland Ohio Issue 77 August 2006