Family Homelessness Crisis

by Vishal Reddy

“Mommy, where we at? The shelter again?”- Amaya, age 3.

Homelessness is not a solitary struggle. The reality is families comprise 41% of people experiencing homelessness.  A large majority of these families are headed by single mothers. Mothers and children are the fastest growing homeless demographic. In Cleveland, this crisis is growing, and it’s growing fast. NEOCH sought to explore the impact this crisis is having on Cleveland’s already precarious shelter system.

For a family, the path to access emergency housing in Cleveland is facilitated through Cuyahoga County’s Coordinated Intake office (run by Frontline). This one-stop-shop process is designed to direct families to need-appropriate resources within the community. Families are either placed into a shelter or “diverted.”  Diversion, a policy that NEOCH does not support, seeks to place families in non-shelter locations such as with friends or family. Only once they are in a shelter will a family be assigned a caseworker or be seen to determine whether they are eligible for the Rapid Re-housing program. Rapid Re-housing is the only county program available to move families out of the shelter system. Unfortunately, permanent supportive housing is not available to families because the federal funding for the Permanent Supportive Housing Project is reserved for single adults. This system of giving resources to families only once the family is placed in a shelter means their future is dependent on obtaining a spot in one of the city’s shelters. Families are thus beholden to the hope that these shelters aren’t at capacity.

 Hope doesn’t get them far though: family shelters in Cleveland have been at capacity for a while. When all the family shelters are full, families are sent to the overflow program at the City Mission, if they are not diverted. The City Mission family overflow program houses roughly 20 mothers and 30 children each night in their gym. The City Mission began the family overflow program last year in September 2016 because so many families were being turned away from the other family shelters. The overflow program was meant to be a temporary solution to the crisis afflicting families, giving the County time to come up with alternatives. But it, too, has quickly reached capacity, and there is still a lack of any concerted effort by the County to even acknowledge there is a family homelessness crisis.

What happens when the overflow shelter is at capacity? First, countless women and children must continue fending for themselves, having been told by both the shelters and the single overflow program that they are at capacity. Second, the lives of those in the shelter are even more strained than normal, since the shelters aren’t equipped to handle this many people. Those people in the overflow program can’t be connected to resources until they are officially in a shelter and they will wait for weeks in a gym before being placed in a shelter.

We talked to several families who are currently staying in the overflow shelter to learn more. Tierra, who became homeless after issues with her abusive boyfriend, told us her and her 3-year-old daughter's "daily routine." They leave City Mission gym before it closes at 7am, carrying all their belongings with them. Then, they get shuttled to Cosgrove Center where she must wait outside on the street with her 3-year-old child and belongings till it opens at 8 am. After eating breakfast and lunch there, they leave Cosgrove Center at its 2:30 closing time. Having nowhere to go at that point, she takes her child to the beach or the library till 7 pm when the City Mission opens again. Then, they lie down with countless other families on the gym floor of City Mission and attempts to sleep till the next morning.

In the absence of a stable shelter situation, families must expend a great deal of energy simply going from place to place. Any semblance of consistency or normalcy is gone. Under the strain, struggles compound and build on one another quickly. One mother, Simera, has been at the overflow in the City Mission for a month now. She has been struggling to obtain medicine for her months-old son who’s sick. Another mother, Joanna, laments the fact that her teenage son, Draymond, is unable to attend school. He's already missed the first few critical weeks of school who knows how many more he’ll miss this year?  The crisis and trauma of homelessness make it difficult for her to get her son back into the CMSD. What is a mom to do when she and her son are simply trying to survive?  

Also, the families who are in the overflow shelter have no assigned caseworker who monitors them and keeps them up to date on their status in regard to obtaining a permanent spot at a shelter. The lack of any transparent criteria or process for obtaining housing heightens this uncertainty. None of the families we spoke to knew what the criteria were/are to determine the order for families receiving shelter placements. Is it the number of children a mother has? Is it how long the family has been in the shelter? Is it the perceived likelihood the family will maintain housing? None of the families knew for certain.

In one year from September 2016 to August 2017, the family overflow program at the City Mission went from providing 71 nights of shelter for 23 women and 48 children to last month providing 1016 nights of shelter for 336 women and 680 children. That’s a 1400% increase in nights of shelter provided in one year. The county NEEDS to address this situation, and they NEED to address it FAST. There is a severe, growing crisis of family homelessness. Temporary bandaids like the City Mission’s emergency family overflow have quickly become permanent bandaids.

The county has proposed Rapid Re-Housing as THE solution to the crisis of family homelessness. However, this program is facing serious difficulties. Tenants are given only 30 days to find housing, rent is only guaranteed for 3 months, and some families are unable to pay rent after that period expires. Shelters are having difficulty finding landlords to take Rapid Re-housing tenants. As they’re in a difficult situation, risking possible eviction if there is no permanent income to pay the rent. We are now seeing cases where families are re-entering the shelter system after attempting Rapid Re-housing.

The options for homeless families have become extremely limited. Family homelessness is clearly increasing. Yet, the Office of Homeless Services claimed in a letter that “the number of families accessing emergency shelter through the Coordinated Entry System has been relatively the same over the past several years.”  NEOCH disagrees. We believe that we are in a crisis and other service providers agree. Something needs to be done.

The fact that a mother and her four-month old child need to sleep on a gym floor for a month before they have any access to shelter services is the heartbreaking reality.  Continued denial of this crisis is irresponsible and the lack of further solutions to address this community crisis will continue to hurt the women and children who need support in their time of crisis.