Will A New Mayor Bring A New Response To Homelessness?

Commentary by Brian Davis

Akron is far behind other cities in public services to those who lose their housing.  They do not have a publicly funded men’s shelter and have almost no outreach assistance. They do not provide guaranteed access to shelter, and those who do not fit into the religiously based men’s shelter are forced to stay outside.  Their drop in centers do not offer food and they have one of the toughest laws in the United States on panhandling.   Now the City stands accused of stealing the valuables of homeless people and throwing them in the garbage with a lawsuit filed by a number of men who sleep outside. With 78,000 people living in poverty in 2013 according to the US Census in Summit County, we estimate that 6,600 people find themselves homeless in the County and many find their way to Akron looking for help.  With so few resources for homeless people and the limited infrastructure of shelter and services within the city, there are many people who sleep outside in the City.  Most will stay in basements or stay with families but others will spend time outside.

Homelessness is typically a short term proposition, but without a shelter network and a diversity of options to assist with housing, the length of time a person spends without housing only increases.  Time spent outside is expensive with greater involvement with the criminal justice system and hospital emergency room stays.  For years under the previous administration, Akron has responded with law enforcement instead of social services.  Akron does not seem to be attempting to decrease the number of people who have been homeless for long periods of time as part of the federal strategic plan to reduce homelessness.  They also are years behind in attempting to eliminate homelessness among veterans.  In looking on the Infoline website of available shelter resources which is regularly updated, there are very few shelter beds available for single men. It is not surprising that that there are a large number of men sleeping outside in Akron.

The policies of arresting people for purely innocent behavior were found to be expensive and ineffective, but Akron seems to be stuck in the 1990s over their homeless policies.  In visiting Akron, they have a bad problem with people begging for money at almost every freeway off ramp.  They have many people sleeping outside and very few outreach workers.  It is no wonder that community leaders are frustrated with the large number of homeless people.  But handling the problem with law enforcement instead of social services has the opposite impact on the community increasing the number of homeless people.

I testified in 2009 against the proposed panhandling legislation in Akron, which was approved and is the harshest panhandling legislation in the State of Ohio.  It is emblematic of the disregard for homeless people by elected officials in Akron.  All panhandlers are not homeless and all homeless are not panhandlers, but there is some overlap.  I have been working with people who are resistant to shelter for 22 years, and so have some better ideas for serving the population which would result in a decrease in people sleeping outside and would eliminate the need to send Public Safety or Sanitation workers to throw away items. 

I would suggest that the new Mayor:

  • Provide guaranteed access to shelter. If there is not a place to refer a person then there will be people sleeping outside.  It is also inhumane to push people around the downtown when there is not a bed inside available, and the Justice Department has made this point in recent court filings.
  • Coordinated outreach services is also needed to provide the best possible services to those living outside.  This can help connect a veteran to the Department of Veteran’s Affairs and those struggling with PTSD with mental health services.  It is important to build trusting relationships with those who resist going to shelter.  If there are not people on the streets interacting with people on the streets, they get forgotten. 
  • Construct alternatives to panhandling.  Akron has the most severe legislation in the State of Ohio and it has not eliminated panhandling.  In fact, there are now a class of low income people who have a license to panhandle.  They now have a City sanctioned "job" called begging for money.   Sweeps and dumping of a homeless person's stuff does not work.  It only exacerbates the problem because people get tickets and get arrested, which makes it less likely they will find a job.  Start a street newspaper and ask the social service providers to do more to assist with finding income for those struggling on the streets. 
  • Police are not social workers and don’t ask them to push homeless people around.  They should not be drafted into forcing people into shelter or arresting people for purely innocent behavior of being outside.  Social workers and outreach staff should be asked to engage people living outside and provide help before anyone threatens the individuals who are resistant to going into shelter.  Society allowed these individuals to establish a home outside and forgot about them for months if not years, it is unfair to then attack these campsites and destroy their homes.
  • You must build more affordable housing and preserve the existing housing or plan on more and more money going to emergency services.  We still have people who have behavioral health issues, and so there are these huge holes in the social safety net. 
  • Akron should move to a central point of access for all homeless services.  The system is so confusing, and we need one place to go to get help.  Cash assistance is almost non-existence in the community.  Why can’t these County workers take on solving the problems associated with homelessness?  They could help with providing rental assistance, identification and birth certificates, referrals to behavioral health beds, and assigning all the shelter beds in the community.  Akron needs better legal assistance including protections to avoid evictions.
  • Expand health care for the homeless in the community especially for those on the streets.  There should be a broader effort to sign lower income people up for Medicaid, and getting health screenings to everyone living on the edge of homelessness.

It is a new day in Akron.  We hope that the new Mayor will work to end homelessness in Akron and put an end to making it illegal to be homeless. 

Copyright Cleveland Street Chronicle December 2015. All rights reserved