Accessing Shelter Remains a Struggle for Many

By Don Strasser

Street Speech Columbus, Ohio

It’s Friday morning at 6 am when a few Outreach workers have assembled in the Faith Mission parking lot. They are about to begin their day counting homeless persons sleeping outside. Sunlight has just begun to seep trough the spaces between the downtown buildings and the air is filled with sticky moisture forecasting a very hot day in Columbus, Ohio. It is still quiet outside. Businesses have yet to open and the cars from suburbia have not yet started flooding onto the city streets.

We begin our travels on 6th street. Dotted along a chain link fence are rounded humps of piled blankets. “Hello”, we say. “We are from Outreach”. There is no movement and there is no response. We move on and try again, “Hello, we are from Outreach. Can we talk to you?” A body moves and a young face emerges from a sleeping bag. “We would like to talk to you so we can understand why you are sleeping outside and not in the shelter.” With an accent, which is unfamiliar I meet Oscar. I learn that he is 24 years old and originally from Nigeria, but he has been here since the age of 7. He is on the street because he missed a curfew and cannot apply to return to the shelter until he has been out of it for 30 days. Oscar told me he and his friend missed the “last bus”, causing them to be “kicked-out”. Oscar has no money and does not know how he will find a job. His family members are all deceased except an uncle, who has 4 children and thus has no resources to help Oscar.

Further onward, we find Dee, a 52-year-old African American woman. She is on the street tonight and for another 27 nights because she got into a fistfight with another resident at the shelter. Dee reports that sometimes “I cannot keep my mouth shut”, and her inciting words started the altercation. No one was hurt, but the rule is firm that if someone at the shelter becomes involved in a fight, expulsion is the immediate consequence. Dee tells us that she has been homeless on and off for 10 years. She has children and she has a sister, but they are not in any position to help her. She even has an income from Social Security, but someone else manages her money because “I have bi-polar”. Dee goes Southeast and has a Case Manager there, whom she plans to visit today to see if she can get any help with housing.

Our last stop is with Kate and Howard. Kate is a fragile-looking young woman with glasses and a whispering voice that can hardly be heard. Howard is also young, but much more confident and self-assured than his partner. It seems that both of them continue to attend high school in an effort to finish their senior year. Neither of them can go home because Howard is black and Kate is white and neither family approve of their relationship. They are both 17 and are hoping to get into a shelter. However, they have been on the waiting list and are ambivalent about leaving one another, when a bed does become available. One of the Outreach workers tells them that Howard should wait until Kate gets a bed, as there are many more spaces available for men than women. The idea is that once Kate has a safe place, Howard should not have too much trouble being accepted for admission.

During our search we encountered several other people who refused to talk to us. Some were clearly psychotic and simply made no sense when they spoke. Others were fearful that we might somehow harm them, and then others probably preferred sleeping than talking to us.

When the general public thinks about homelessness, they typically conjure up the image of a man who stays in a shelter. And in this community our shelters are certainly filled with hundreds of men as well as women and families.

But there is also another group of homeless persons who can be found in almost any large metropolitan area. These are the people like Oscar, Dee, Howard and Kate. They are often vilified and viewed as troublemakers, drug addicts, welfare dependents and other unsavory names. This group also includes those designated as sex offenders, arsonists and other criminals. The truth is that some of these people should not be roaming the streets, but held in a secure environment. However, most of the folks whom we met on the streets today are pretty ordinary; they are individuals who had encountered bad breaks and family dysfunction and their judgment was frequently unsound.

There had been a time when these people were welcomed into Columbus’ shelters. Mel Schottenstein founded the Community Shelter Board in 1986 with a vision for homeless persons, which was inclusive and generous. As CSB writes in its promotional material about Schottenstein “his bottom line inability to accept any situation that left a man, woman or child without food or shelter motivated Columbus to provide for all citizens in need of assistance”. Today that vision has been significantly eroded and resources for all homeless persons are becoming increasingly scarce.

As resources shrink, rules grow, and more are pushed out or turned away. One of the rules with which many people find difficult to live is the imposed curfew. In most shelters residents must return by 8 PM to retain their bed. Accommodations are made for that work schedule prevents them from arriving back at this time. If however someone misses the curfew time, they must vacate the shelter immediately and may not return for 30 days, though an individual can appeal the decision and occasionally be reinstated if the shelter agrees that the curfew violation was for legitimate reasons. Persons who are evicted from shelter may also seek a bed at another community shelter, however at current capacity levels, simply getting in has become more and difficult.

A more challenging rule for some people who use shelter is the time limitations, which have been imposed. Shelter residents are expected to stay no more than 30 days. While there is some flexibility in this number most shelters will be requiring people to leave after one month. Exceptions to this might be for people who have a job starting soon or an apartment, which will be ready within a reasonably brief time period. The intent is to keep people out of shelters and get them into housing as quickly as possible, and to deal with increasing homelessness and demands on shelters. This is an appropriate goal for those individuals who have resources to rent an apartment. However there are many who do not have money available for housing or a job to sustain the cost of an apartment. And there are those who face additional barriers such as criminal record or sex offense, which keep them from accessing many programs and government subsidized housing.

We believe that rules and regulations governing shelter admission and length of stay will continue to become more and more restrictive. This trend is only the beginning of a period when resources for all those in poverty will continue to shrink. Cutbacks have only just begun and funding predictions for the future spell doom and gloom.

Copyright, Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless and the Cleveland Street Chronicle in December 2011.