The end of guaranteed access to shelter is on the horizon in Cleveland. This will be one of the saddest days in the history of our great City. We have held out longer then most of the other major cities in the United States by keeping our shelter doors open through hot summer days and the coldest January evenings. This policy, although humane, would have eventually bankrupted the County. It is ironic that turning people away from the shelter may also bankrupt the City. Our citizens will have to get used to the yearly loss of people dying from weather-related injuries of hypothermia or heat exhaustion every year. We must accept that many more people will be sleeping outside on Superior Avenue, as we saw in the late 1990s.
We are going to see tensions rise between homeless people and downtown businesses. Expect to see a Downtown that looks more like Detroit with more people fleeing and fewer jobs within the city limits. We will most likely see hundreds of people taking up residence in these abandoned buildings, which will dramatically expand in certain sections of town. It seems likely that we will see larger tent cities develop to fill the void left by a lack of overflow shelter space. There will be criticism of the how “dirty” the downtown is, and panhandling will increase. The single biggest complaint visitors have about Downtown Cleveland is confrontations with panhandlers. Without a place to sleep for the men, we will see panhandling skyrocket.
What County planners do not understand is shelter math. They are so focused on the 157 people who sleep at Aviation and replacing those beds for one night, they do not understand the actual number of people who move through the system. There are so many people who enter and leave the system every day that planners cannot simply look at the bed count for one night. To effectively plan for the replacement of a shelter, they need to look at the number of people using the shelter for one month. We have also learned over the last 15 years that any improvement in a shelter will attract more people to it.
The current proposal is to use North Point Inn motel as the replacement for Aviation. This would mean that those most likely to succeed from 2100 Lakeside would go over to North Point. All of those in Aviation would go to 2100 Lakeside. There is no other shelter that offers only two people to a room like North Point will offer. So why would anyone leave this new facility? It has privacy. It is free. It is safe. This improvement in the system will extend stays in the shelter. Without movement in the system, 2100 Lakeside shelter will back up with more people seeking help everyday. Eventually, people will sleep in the cafeteria, and the halls, and the conference room. In addition, more will seek shelter at the Lakeside facility if they realize they could move into North Point by going through 2100 Lakeside Shelter.
Within the next seven months (in the middle of another brutal Cleveland winter), the Lakeside shelter will have to start closing its doors when it gets full, thus ending a 20-year commitment to keeping the doors open to anyone in need of help. Why are the planners within the County making such horrible decisions? The simple answer is that homeless people are not at the table. Homeless people understand shelter math, but are not consulted about these decisions made behind closed doors.
The Grapevine is asking the County to make these decisions with the input of homeless people. We are asking that the County planners immediately sit down with homeless people and their advocates before any decisions are finalized. These are not just dire predictions, or prophecies of doom. Take a three-hour trip to the west and visit Detroit to see the future of Cleveland. Anyone who works or enjoys visiting Downtown Cleveland needs to get involved in the future of overflow shelters. The day Cleveland begins to close the shelter doors is the day we hammer the last nail in the coffin of a viable downtown.
Copyright Homeless Grapevine, Cleveland Ohio Issue 81 June-July 2007