County Policy Breaking Up Families

Commentary by Brian Davis 

   Columnists decry the break up of the family in the daily newspaper on a regular basis.  Journalists cite studies that show that single-parent households are a big contributor to making Cleveland the poorest city in the United States.  Radio hate peddlers condemn single headed households as the cause of all our problems in America, including the high cost of Medicare, escalating federal and state budgets, and the poor state of the public education system.  But in Cuyahoga County is the homeless and public assistance program leading to a break-up of the family? 

   Of all the emergency shelters in Cuyahoga County only two accept families with both Moms and Dads or households with a Dad and a few kids.  The Interfaith Hospitality Network, which is privately funded, and the publicly funded Zelma George Shelter that is operated by the Salvation Army are the only two shelters that will accept an “intact” family (Mom and Dad and children) or a family with a single man and his children.  The entry shelter absolutely refuses any man entry. 

   County statistics released this month show that in the first six months of 2006 there were only three men who entered the family shelters in Cuyahoga County.  Of the hundreds of families that became homeless only three had a man.  All three of those men used the Interfaith Hospitality Network, which can only serve 6 to 8 families at a time depending on the size of the families.  The much larger family shelter, Zelma George, which can serve 72 families did not serve any men in the first six months. 

   The main reason that Zelma George does not serve men is that they require proof of a marriage or they will not admit.  I can say that the last thing in the world that a family remembers before they become homeless is to put their hand on their marriage license.  The real Zelma George was an east side activist, and she would be very upset if the shelter named in her honor was forcing families to break up.  There are many other policies of this 100 year old church/social service organization (Salvation Army) that would anger the real Ms. George if she was still around.

   A family facing homelessness must make a decision to split up in order to get a shelter bed or stay together and risk the wrath of Children and Family Services.  The County does not look kindly on children living on the street or living in cars, which is understandable.  County workers will not accept the excuse, “But only one of the shelters will accept my husband without proof that he is in fact my husband.”  The County is very quick to take children who are homeless with their family into custody and then they place the kids of homeless families into foster care.

   The shelters are in a difficult position since most deal with large numbers of victims of domestic violence.  As we have talked about in these pages in the past few issues, there are not enough beds for those fleeing an abuser in Cuyahoga County.  It would be traumatic for a woman who was recently beaten by a man and had to flee her house to show up seeking help and end up sleeping next door to a man with his children.

   It is very difficult to rebuild the family after a period of independence and separation.  Before 2003, the family shelters were regularly preventing boys over 12 years old from entering, so the family would have to further divide.  The Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless pushed the State of Ohio to stop shelters from denying entrance based on a child’s sex.  The State began demanding that the shelters accept boys of all ages, and we only hear of sporadic violations by new or misguided staff in the last year.  This is not to say that family shelters should be forced to accept men, but that the County and City leaders need to figure out a way to serve families without forcing a breakup. 

   It should never be the case that government policy or government-funded policy encourages or expedites the dissolving of families. It is amazing that a “church” has actually created policy that prevents families from living as husband and wife.  It is also difficult to understand how churches, especially fundamentalist churches do not rise up and object to these policies.  We need some alternative policies to keep families together. 

   I would recommend a policy of hotel vouchers to keep families together or a place that families can pay in order to live a small fee that offers some privacy.  All those people who voted to “protect” marriage in Ohio with that offensive Issue 1 in 2004 should be standing up to defend marriage against Cuyahoga County shelter policy.  We need to make every effort to make sure that families stay together when they face homelessness.  At a time when a family is removed from their housing and their entire life is up in the air is not the time to force a separation of the family.  Add this to the long list of problems that come up because we allow people to become homeless in Cleveland.

Copyright Homeless Grapevine, Cleveland Ohio Issue 78 October 2006