Commentary by Brian Davis
Every year during the Thanksgiving weekend, NEOCH staff and volunteers walk downtown to count the number of people who choose to sleep outside. This has two purposes: the first is to make sure that there is no harassment of homeless people in keeping with the Key vs. City of Cleveland legal agreement. In 2000, NEOCH signed an agreement with the City to stop police officers, under the direction of the Mayor, from confronting homeless people and telling them that they could not sleep on the public spaces. NEOCH and a group of homeless people signed a court-supervised settlement after filing a lawsuit, which prevented police from arresting or threatening arrest of homeless people for purely innocent behavior of sitting, sleeping, standing or eating on the sidewalk. Every year NEOCH staff survey the downtown to make sure that the agreement is in place and there are no reported violations.
Cleveland is one of the only cities in the United States with such an agreement, and so NEOCH staff go out to test this settlement every year. The other purpose is to count the number of people who reject the shelters during the year and get a snapshot of the extent of the problem. The holiday weekend is a good baseline, because it is typically the smallest number that will be out for the entire year. Many family members take their relatives in for Thanksgiving, while others stay in the shelters to participate in the large number of meals served during the holidays.
This year, NEOCH staff reported a few things on this unseasonably warm holiday weekend. As reported by the local outreach workers, the weather has very little impact on the number of people sleeping outside anymore. The people who reject the shelters have an extensive plan for survival with blankets, plastic and even tents. This year NEOCH staff saw 40 people sleeping downtown — up from 27 last year — more than a 60% increase! There were not as many people seen on Public Square, but certainly just as many were seen around the Square in various places. The boundaries for the NEOCH walk include every street from East 20th to West 3rd from Lake Erie back to Carnegie Ave. to Jacobs Field.
Unlike last year, there did not seem to be anyone who was not prepared for the cold. There was no one sleeping near the Convention Center this year. Last year all the homeless people who slept around the facility on Lakeside Ave were removed following a fire that was started in one of the encampments. One disturbing trend is that the number of people sleeping outside has steadily increased over the last few years to nearly the level that faced Cleveland before the men’s shelter opened at 2100 Lakeside.
In talking to some of the people who sleep outside, they report a variety of reasons why they do not move into the shelters. Some do not like the rules in shelter or find it too demeaning to ask for help. Others report a negative stigma associated with most shelters. Some have gotten fed up with the wait or the lack of progress in the shelters and give up. Some do not like to be near people, others do not like the problems with theft and some just don’t like the smell of being around a hundred other people.
The Downtown businesses that have now taxed themselves to keep the sidewalks clean are not going to tolerate people sleeping on those clean sidewalks. There are grants pending and a strategy to educate both pedestrians in re-directing their charity away from panhandlers and to “educate” homeless people to sleep in more appropriate locations. They are all paying $3 million a year for those clean up crews, and the security and outreach staff. There is also an ongoing debate about opening a 24-hour drop in center just outside of the downtown area to redirect feeding programs as well as homeless people into a “warming center” instead of the streets.
Copyright Homeless Grapevine Issue 79 December 2006-January 2007, Cleveland Ohio.