Cleveland City Councilmen Meet With Homeless Congress

By Rosie Palfy

Two Cleveland City Councilmen recently met with the Homeless Congress to discuss problems with local homeless shelters.

Ward 13 Councilman Joe Cimperman and Ward 17 Councilman Matt Zone attended the March 12 meeting held at the Bishop Cosgrove Center in Cleveland. The city of Cleveland was represented by Bill Resseger, executive assistant to the director of community development.

The Homeless Congress is a representative group of homeless people who meet to discuss issues regarding homelessness. The monthly meetings are organized by the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless.

As the meeting began, the City Councilmen and Resseger told the group that Ohio has basic standards for homeless shelters and asked what issues were not covered by the standards.

The city officials were informed that the state guidelines are only verified once a year, and there is no system in place for regular daily monitoring. There are no existing city or state laws governing the guidelines, so there are no penalties for shelters not complying with the basic standards. There is also no government agency to receive grievances from shelter residents.

All three men listened attentively as representatives from 10 different shelters spoke about critical issues involving many of the city’s shelters.

“We’re here because we care and I don’t want that to get lost in the conversation. Our job is to be your advocate and advocate on your behalf,” said Zone. “This is not going to be changed overnight. The three of us don’t have all the answers.”

The majority of complaints were made by current and former residents of the Community Women’s Shelter. Several women from the shelter complained about being served expired food. To illustrate this point, a woman brought several unopened bags of potato chips which expired in 2007 and 2008.

One woman reported that she was arrested and sent to jail because she raised her voice when a staff person put her hands on the resident. There were also allegations of sexual harassment, theft by staff members as well as staff coming to work drunk.

During the meeting, NEOCH executive director Brian Davis, told the group that the women’s shelter had recently received a new executive director, Cathleen Alexander, who is committed to making positive reforms in the shelter. At the time of the meeting, Alexander had only been in her new position for two weeks.

Many men and women complained about an overall lack of respect among some of the staff at the various shelters. Some residents said they did not receive hygiene kits upon arriving at a shelter. A former resident of North Point complained about the shelter’s lack of follow-up services.

Shelter representatives called for better staff training in areas such as CPR, first aid and other basic health issues. They also suggested that staff should receive mediation training for conflict management.

Not all of the comments were negative, however. A former West Side Catholic Shelter resident said she had a positive experience there and reported that the shelter already follows many of the shelter representatives’ recommendations.

Cimperman noted that many of the area homeless shelters are in his ward, telling Homeless Congress representatives that he “fights for the little guy.” He said he looks forward to working with them to resolve the problems. Cimperman suggested convening a meeting with shelter executive directors, adding that he will take a “Fix it or we’ll fix it for you approach.”

“We heard very clearly from the Congress. There’s a lot of work to do,” said Cimperman. “We have a responsibility to the city to make sure this money is being used to keep people from dying on the streets.”

Some shelter representatives said their complaints illustrate the need to pass a law, which sets a minimum standard of care for shelters receiving public funding. Between 2006 and 2007, the Homeless Congress drafted a Shelter Standards Bill. Cleveland City Council has failed to act on the proposal, despite repeated efforts from the Homeless Congress to get the bill passed into law.

“Every single year in the city of Cleveland, we give out grants. Our job is to be your advocate and advocate on your behalf,” said Zone.

Resseger told the residents from the Community Women’s Shelter that he would work with NEOCH to address the problems. Less than two weeks after the Homeless Congress meeting, more than a dozen women from the Community Women’s Shelter met with several shelter staff members as well as City of Cleveland and Cuyahoga County officials.

Two women who spoke at the March meeting returned to the April Homeless Congress meeting and said that positive changes were underway at the shelter. The residents said they were pleased with the progress being made thus far, while adding there have already been some staff changes and policy reforms at the shelter.

Alexander attended the May Homeless Congress meeting and said she was working to improve the shelter, however, it would take time to make changes. During a recent interview, Alexander reiterated that she is deeply committed to rectifying the shelter’s problems.

“My role is to turn it around. My goal is to make the women’s shelter into a place that empowers its residents and not a place that oppressing them,” said Alexander.

Copyright Homeless Grapevine Issue #87 in July 2009 in Cleveland Ohio.