By Dan McCarthy
How much can change in a year? Think back to what life was like in Sept. 2016. What were you doing?
While the federal government's deportation machine was already deporting and imprisoning millions, for millions more immigrants, the American political climate has accelerated down on its frightening descent. Since January 2017, a new president rose to power preaching a total ban on Muslims entering the United States. He vilified Latinos, promising to construct a new, enormous wall on the Mexican border to supplement the already existing, immense fortifications.
For the first time in decades, the United States resettled more than 100,000 refugees this past year. This, at a time when tens of millions of people languish in miserable camps outside of conflict zones across the globe. As of September 27, the number of people who can enter the United States through the refugee resettlement channel was cut by more than half for the upcoming year, capped at 45,000 by the Trump administration.
So, this is the story for one of those thousands of refugees who had fallen on hard times, as so many do: who had to work her way through the homeless shelter system here in Cleveland.
I accompanied Sara (not her real name) to Central Intake on September 2, 2016. It was a Friday morning. She had arrived in Cleveland that week and had slept outside her first two nights, toddler in tow. She came to Catholic Charities at St. Augustine (7800 Detroit Avenue) that Friday morning because it was somewhere she knew she could go in Cleveland.
Upon her arrival from Somalia one year previous, Migration Refugee Services (MRS) had resettled her to Cleveland. Before that she had lived in a refugee camp. After arriving, she moved away from Cleveland for some time before returning. Now, she was several months pregnant and speaking little English: she had miserable experiences with homeless shelters up in Green Bay, Wisconsin. She told me how a volunteer at one shelter forcefully ripped off Sara's hijab.
It's no coincidence that in tandem with this religious hatred expressed by this volunteer, with this hatred directed toward Muslims in this country, that today, according to the newest presidential executive order, Somalis are banned generally from entering the United States. So are Syrians. People from Yemen, Libya, Iran, and elsewhere all are told to stay out. All these nations are majority Muslim—these bans are an obvious attempt to make good on that campaign promise to ban Muslims from the U.S.
So, it was a year ago, before any travel ban took effect, that we met in the lobby at MRS. We talked through other Somali speakers and decided we needed to find her a spot to sleep for the weekend. I called Laura's Home, who in turn directed us to Central Intake. So, we got in the car and we went to Bishop Cosgrove Center (1700 Superior Avenue).
It was about 10:30 AM when we got buzzed into Cosgrove. When we arrived, there were two families—two mothers with their little boys and girls—another family with both parents and two little ones, three older gentlemen, a woman in her forties by herself, and a teenager waiting to go through intake with Frontline. Everybody needed somewhere to sleep that night.
All the seats were taken, so folks were sitting up and down the staircase. Ten chairs were the extent of the accommodations on the second-floor landing that doubled as the waiting area. Workers would often step over people who were desperate for sleep. We signed in with the worker at the desk in front of Frontline's door and waited. This worker was a young woman, an employee of Securitas, a for-hire security company. It was remarkable that she did the most to give a sense of respect and dignity for everybody waiting for placement. We sat for a few hours until lunch. Some people came and went, including families—people went to eat and came back
Returning from lunch, families began to get processed. It was around 3:00 PM when we saw a caseworker. She was able to do the intake through an interpreter she called on her desk phone. When the intake was finished, Sara got placed at Harbor Light. She and her son could stay there for three days before she would have to repeat the process.
Fast forward; Fatima found a house before her baby was delivered. He arrived healthy, and he arrived beautiful, as babies always do. But it would be naive to say their struggles would disappear.
While we waited, I wondered: what aspects of the process to secure shelter could be improved? Waiting all day for an intake is a major time-drain for folks who have—more often than not—plenty that needs attending to. Families sat for over six hours in some cases under the impression that if they left they would lose their place in line. I wonder if it is possible to give a family a place in line or a time to return that day for an intake. In doing so, perhaps people would have more time to attend to their other day-to-day necessities.
Furthermore, I wonder what could occupy the children while they waited. Inevitably, children got antsy sitting that long. However, there was nowhere for the kids to play. The children made the stair landing between the first and second floors a makeshift play area, but this activity was shut down by nearby workers.
Additionally, almost everybody waiting was carrying all their possessions as you are apt to do when you have nowhere to lay your head. Other cities will offer large, numbered, rubber trash-bins where folks can store their belongings during the day. Individuals can check a bin out to use, and the bins are kept in a secure room. Cleveland doesn't have anything like this. Posted signs in Cosgrove explicitly forbid people from leaving personal effects in the building.
How can Cleveland ensure a real preferential option for poor people? For homeless people? For refugees?
I pray that God will bless all people who work to meet the needs of their sisters and brothers. In particular, may God bless those who work to ensure emergency shelters for families and better access to safe, public, and affordable housing.