Heading Home Headed for Dustbin

Commentary by Kevin E. Cleary

   The Heading Home report was finally released on December 1st, with nowhere near as much fanfare as preceded its drafting.  The report, which was supposed to be released on Labor Day of 2005, is, to paraphrase, many days and many dollars short of its promises.

   The Department of Housing & Urban Development mandated each city to produce a 10-year plan to “end homelessness,” and a number of cities tried to accommodate that ridiculous, unfunded demand.  HUD’s mandate focused on housing so-called “chronically homeless” people, who are typically the hardest clients to serve.  (Editor’s Note: The phrase “chronically homeless” is regarded as highly offensive by many Coalitions, and homeless people themselves.  According to HUD, it refers to “an unaccompanied homeless person with a disabling condition who has either been continuously homeless for a year or more or has had at least four episodes of homelessness in the previous three years.”) In the mean time, entire families have become homeless while programs and agencies nationwide have been forced to chase down often unwilling clients with increasingly scarce dollars.

   You will find none of this in the Heading Home report, which is one of its strengths and its drawbacks.  Thanks to suggestions from advocates and providers, Cleveland managed to avoid the quagmire of drafting an unworkable and largely unfunded “plan” that no one ever intended to follow anyway, as has been done in many other cities, like Indianapolis and Seattle.

   Unfortunately, the people of Cuyahoga County did invest $80,000 in what is basically a draft report that is long on facts and figures and offers only a few pragmatic solutions or suggestions.  I’m sure compiling these statistics was a chore, but I don’t know if it was worth spending $80,000; especially since many of these have been published in The Homeless Grapevine (which costs 1/80,000th of that), or are available online for free. 

   The report is overly vague where it needs to be specific.  It is also hamstrung by its failure to mention the federal government’s role in creating many of the problems the report is supposed to address.  There is no language in the report explaining the need for expanded federal help that is required to “solve” homelessness, and that only the feds have enough money to accomplish it if it’s to be anything more than empty talk.  But the report reads as if the increases in homeless families, lack of affordable housing, the endless bureaucracies that create multi-year long waiting lists, etc. all came out of nowhere. 

   The Heading Home report was supposed to propose specific remedies to address myriad needs.  Instead, we got vague and bureaucratic strategies, like forming an Interagency Council on Homelessness in Cuyahoga County to bring groups who serve homeless people together.  Couldn’t we have spent some of the $100,000 that was set aside for the report on actually doing that, instead of just recommending it?  Heck, they’ve got $20,000 left; I’m sure the catering will be excellent.

   As the federal government dumps responsibility for its homeless and impoverished citizens on states and cities, cities and counties are dumping their responsibilities on ill-funded non-profits.  In the words of comedian Steven Colbert, the federal government is asking cities to hurry up and “pull themselves up by their bootstraps after they’re done eating their own shoe leather.”  The report’s basic recommendations boil down to this: “those things that you’re already trying to do with no money, do them better.”

   The report is good at outlining some of the needs of the community, such as the need for better discharge planning for ex-offenders being released from prison.  But, short of making it illegal to dump ex-offenders off on homeless shelters, or keeping them in prison, there is no incentive for the prison system to spend resources on better discharge planning. At least 25 people per month go directly from prison to 2100 Lakeside, the area’s largest men’s shelter.  The report mentions that an 11-point Reentry Housing Plan has been developed by a subcommittee of The Cleveland Reentry Strategy group, but for some reason the plan is not included in the Heading Home report.

   The document is 34 pages long, including the title and a few unnumbered pages, so there should have been ample room for an 11-point plan, but at an apparent cost of $2,352.94 per page, I guess they wanted to save the taxpayers this burden.

   Though it’s my nature to be negative, I don’t want to give the impression that this report is entirely useless.  For instance, I think its suggestion for a “shallow rent” subsidy program of $100 to $200 a month to help impoverished families pay rent is a great idea.  The report claims that a fund of “only $12 million... could assist up to 10,000 extremely low-income households,” and make “the difference between decent, affordable housing and either an exorbitant rent burden or an overcrowded or uninhabitable dwelling.”  But that money for rent-assistance has to come from somewhere, and I fear it may also come attached to funding cuts in other essential areas and another byzantine bureaucracy.

   I have a suggestion that relates to this subsidy plan, and I wish I had seen it in the report. Heading Home cites a 2004 survey of County shelter residents conducted by the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless (see “Homeless Survey Yields Surprising Results,” Homeless Grapevine 67).  Nearly half of the respondents mentioned the inability to afford a security deposit as their main barrier to finding housing.  A program that paid security deposits would go a long way toward helping homeless individuals move beyond our overcrowded shelters.  This could be done via a non-profit credit union or employment agency where renters pay back the deposit at $20 a month; or this could be achieved through a subsidy similar to that mentioned above. 

   The report stresses increasing the availability of affordable housing as the main solution, which is a logical notion.  But, there are myriad problems associated with homelessness that need to be resolved on a case by case basis.  I would like to see more of a triage approach in our shelters and outreach to assess the needs of individuals and families, and a variety of housing options to accommodate those needs.  There is a need for pay-to-stay shelters, more domestic violence shelters (we would be a lot better off if all of the County’s shelters ran like the Domestic Violence Center), lower-cost mental health facilities, etc.  We need to expand our vision beyond the way we have “always done things,” especially in light of continued funding cuts.  For instance, transitional housing is a good and effective idea for moving people beyond the shelters and into housing, but it is primarily used only for those who struggle with addiction. 

   I like Robert Egger’s (see “DC Central Kitchen’s Robert Egger Shares His Philosophy,” Homeless Grapevine 78) idea for dumping the traditional shelter models.  He suggests purchasing of storefront buildings with revenue-generating businesses downstairs, and apartments upstairs.  I think this model could be used for non-profit “job-training” businesses downstairs that provide services to the community like dry cleaning, coffee shops, etc., or non-profits or government agencies could rent the storefronts to businesses in order to pay for the subsidized apartments upstairs.  There are so many good ideas out there, and we needed Heading Home to prioritize and organize them into a real plan.

   I think the report is a fair indicator of where we as a County are in regard to homelessness, but fails when it comes to delivering why we’re there and how to move forward.  Recommending more dialogue is always a safe bet, but Heading Home was supposed to be an actionable plan or at least a comprehensive strategy.  At this point, I’m ready to take a cue from Peter Pan and Cleveland.com’s commercials: I propose we all just close our eyes, clap our hands, and chant “I do believe in Cleveland, I do believe in Cleveland...” until it comes back to life like Tinkerbell... Now where is my $80,000?

Copyright Homeless Grapevine Issue 79 December 2006-January 2007, Cleveland Ohio.