Why We Need Shelter Standards...

There is an awful story in the Huffington Post regarding the shelters in Tallahassee.  Another shelter director in the city went undercover and discovered abuse by the staff of women staying at the facility called The Shelter in Tallahassee.  Since there is very little oversight of the shelters, this could happen in any city in America.   These experiences could happen in Cleveland because the shelters govern themselves.   There are health inspections, but otherwise government takes a hands off approach to the monitoring of shelters. 

The director of the City Urban Walk Mission, Renee Miller, went undercover at the shelter and wrote an explosive blog post. She detailed how she was propositioned and had to call the police in order to safely leave the facility.  It was interesting that the police showed up and said that no crime had occurred.  She had not updated the blog about the publicity since the story made national news, but it should be interesting to see the follow up stories.  Here is a permanent link to the Huffington Post story:


This is the reason that many families and children decide to spend time outside, in cars or in basements.  They don't always feel safe in the shelters or they hear things about the facilities and don't even request help.  NEOCH had our board president go under cover in 2005 and found some horrible conditions in the shelters, but we did not get this positive publicity or investigation.  We received condemnation from the City and County and many local foundations for even raising the issue publicly.  We received an angry response from the administration at the shelter and the NEOCH staff received more pain because of the conditions at the shelter then did the staff working at the shelter.  The messenger in Cleveland became the target, and there was no wider reform of the shelters as a result of our board member going undercover. 

We have seen some rough conditions over the last five years in Cleveland, and do not have any way to report abuse to an impartial third party.  In addition, there is no way that government can receive complaints since the Ombudsman went out of business.

  • We have received complaints that shelter staff become violent against homeless people and keep their job.
  • We have received complaints that security staff proposition and offer to take home shelter residents and still maintain their job. 
  • We have had the experience when a police officer is discharged or put on leave from his job for some questionable (often violent) behavior and publicly identified in the newspaper but continues to work security at the shelter.
  • We have received complaints that security staff threaten people with a stun gun if they do not be quiet.
  • We have received complaints that shelter staff are careless with private information or say that a woman must give over her personal information or she cannot get a bed.
  • We have received complaints that shelter staff threatened to call the Child Abuse Hotline if a woman were to bring her children to the shelter. 

We are not the designated agency in the community to receive complaints, but we regularly get this written complaints about problems.  We know that especially women feel vulnerable in the shelters and are unwilling to complain.  They don't want to risk falling all the way to having to live on the streets or sleeping in a bus shelter.  There is no real protections for women that if they speak up at night that they  will be kicked out onto the streets.  The threat of immediate discharge is constantly thrown around by shelter staff.  In fact, the most memorable part of the Rev. Kelly Burd sleeping at the shelter in 2005 was that she witnessed an obviously mentally ill and upset woman kicked onto the streets at midnight.  I can still remember her describing this feeling of helplessness as this woman is walking under the street lamp in the middle of the dark July night into the unknown.  The County does not receive incident reports even when a client dies in the shelter at night.  Everything stays within the organization and all problems are supposed to be resolved by the shelter staff.  This system in Cleveland and in most cities is easily corrupted, and even though 80% of the dollars coming to a shelter are tax dollars government cannot say definitively that public dollars are not paying shelter staff to proposition women living in the shelter.  We, as taxpayers, don't really know what goes on at night in the shelters. 

This is not to say that the vast majority of staff who work at shelters are not amazing people who get paid way too little money to take care of our forgotten population. Most shelter staff only work in the shelters because they deeply care for people struggling in our society and are mission driven.   It is just when even the nicest people are left without oversight and have the lives of these people in their hands bad things happen. 

Brian Davis

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