Analysis by Sarah Valek
At the May 3rd meeting of the Homeless Congress, the representatives proposed a set of shelter standards and presented them to executive directors and staff from 2100 Lakeside, Community Women’s Shelter, Mental Health Services, Joseph’s Home and other agencies, along with City and County officials.
Unlike the current Ohio Shelter Standards, which exist as unenforceable guidelines, or “best practices,” these standards were written by the homeless clients the shelters serve. Shelter directors have until June 21st to suggest changes, after which the proposed standards will be submitted to Cleveland City Council.
The representatives began addressing the lack of enforceable standards by asking, “What would a perfect shelter look like?” This simple question spurred many ideas.
Sample regulations stipulate that shelters cannot require identification as a condition for entry, that all clients will have use of a locker to secure their belongings, and that every client must have a housing plan written for them within the second week of their stay. Additionally, every shelter with more than 50 clients must have at least one client advocate on site whose job is to advocate for the interests of residents and to handle resident concerns.
During every Congress meeting, participants vocalize any problems they experience in the homeless community. Meetings take the shape of an open-forum, allowing them to talk about issues in the community and discuss possible solutions.
The Homeless Congress officially started in July 2006 and allows homeless people to have input in decisions directly impacting their lives. Congress members represent different social service providers and homeless shelters throughout the city. Representatives are clients or residents of these facilities—not staff—and represent area shelter’s such as 2100 Lakeside, Salvation Army, Community Women’s Shelter, MHS— The Spot, Care Alliance and more.
All representatives are currently or recently were homeless, and all are determined to make positive changes in their community. The Congress was devised as a way for people steeped in the system to work together to change it for the better.
For example, many reps complained that the food at shelters lacked variety. At 2100 Lakeside, men were only served pasta and hotdogs. Other representatives spoke of similar problems at other shelters. In an effort to rectify these complaints, the representatives invited someone to speak from the Cleveland Foodbank. Reps learned that fresh vegetables and bread were readily available—shelters just weren’t taking advantage of it. Soon enough, the reps were bringing this issue to the directors.
Another problem identified by the Congress was the lack of affordable housing in the county. State Representative Mike Foley showed up to take on this discussion. He listened to their priorities, which included transforming abandoned buildings into affordable housing and the creation of a housing trust fund. Foley has pledged to follow up with their requests.
In terms of other projects, the Congress has also voted to support the creation of a 24-hour drop-in center, which will provide safety for people sleeping on the street. The Congress also discussed the recent slew of hate crimes committed in Cleveland and helped draft a safety flyer to hand out in the community.
All projects of the Homeless Congress operate under the mantra that we’re not trying to solve homelessness—we’re trying to deal with it.
“I come to these meetings because I want to know, as well as understand, some issues people out here are having,” said Annette Toney, a representative of United Clevelanders Against Poverty. “I used to be [homeless] and I haven’t forgotten where I come from… This is a way for me to be in it, not just of it.”
Phillip Anderson, a rep from 2100 Lakeside Men’s Shelter, said, “My goal is to see homeless people develop pride to change their situation from homeless to non-homeless. When you can show people you care enough to make a change in something, then they themselves will try to make a change in something.”
Why does he come to the Congress?
“To try and bring the best out of people and myself,” replied Anderson.
Copyright Homeless Grapevine, Cleveland Ohio Issue 81 June-July 2007