County Council Meets to Discuss Women's Shelter without Homeless Woman

The Women sleeping at the Norma Herr Center have been complaining about the conditions at the shelter for months, years and in fact decades.  10 years ago, many of the same issues promoted a demonstration set for the day Katrina hit New Orleans.  We cancelled the event because of the crisis and the break down of the infrastructure in the Gulf Coast, but the problems at the shelter still exist.  There are food complaints, staffing issues, grievances, facility problems, lack of oversight, and a lack of enforcement of the County rules for running a shelter.

Over the last six months the women have been bringing their complaints to our monthly Homeless Congress meetings to let elected officials know about the problems.  In May 2014, we had County Councilwoman Yvonne Conwell as the guest speaker at the Homeless Congress to hear the concerns of the shelter residents.  She heard from the women who stay at the shelter along with a response from the County staff and many of the shelter providers were present who disputed the poor conditions and staff mistreatment.  Councilwoman Conwell said that she would take some of the concerns back to the full Health and Human Services Committee.  That meeting took place on June 17, but there were no women from the shelter present. 

We have heard that Conwell wanted to hear from the "other side" so she did not invite any residents from the shelter.   This is absurd.  If I had known, I would have never allowed anyone except residents of the shelter to speak at the May Homeless Congress meeting.  Many of the people who commented on the shelter either worked for the shelter, were contractors of the shelter or were supposed to be overseeing the shelter.  In fact three of the people who attended the County Council June 17 meeting spoke at the May Homeless Congress Meeting to defend the shelter.  We have written a letter criticizing Councilwoman Conwell for this "secret meeting." She owes the women a hearing as she promised at the Congress meeting.

Dear Councilwoman Conwell,

Recently, it has come to NEOCH’s attention that you held a meeting on June 17th about the shelter issues brought forth by the Homeless Congress from May.   We are writing to express our profound regret that you did not invite any homeless people or their advocates to the meeting. However, before doing so, I would like to mention some points brought up in the May Homeless Congress meeting. Bed rest was one of many concerns including disrespectful staff, horrible food, and improper discharges were also mentioned.  At that meeting, you heard from both representatives from the homeless community as well as the social service agencies.  So, then why only invite the social service providers to the June 17 meeting?  Most of the homeless population are intelligent individuals and can describe the conditions in which they live. Why did you hear only one side of the issue?  It is like you held a discussion about bike safety in the County and invited only automobile drivers or a hearing on expanding the Cleveland landlord tenant law into all the County, but only invited landlords to discuss the issue. 

There was not a single resident of Norma Herr at the meeting even though women from the shelter regular attend your meetings? We could have helped facilitate attendance if you had told us?  If someone was there to represent the residents, you could have asked if the procedures being “implemented” to address concerns were effective.  You could have heard directly from people sleeping there if the abuse they allege has continued.  You could have heard if conditions had changed in response to the May Homeless Congress meeting or the 44 complaints submitted in April to the County and to Frontline management.

At both meetings, the issue of grievances came up. At the Homeless Congress meeting you mentioned that cases should be handled on a neutral basis.  It seems disrespectful to the women who find themselves without a place to live to not be invited to the County meeting about the place they sleep.  As you know from your years working at the shelter, these women are taxpayers and largely find themselves without housing through no fault of their own.  Many of these residents can tell you why they do not trust the Cleveland Mediation Center.  They could tell you why CMC is beholden to Frontline Services and cannot be considered neutral.   An organization cannot be a neutral 3rd party when they are paid by one of the parties to administer a program just as a judge could not be considered impartial if they were receiving program funds from one of the lawyers appearing before them.

As for bed rest, the staff has set an arbitrary limit on the number of people who can stay in no matter if they have a bed rest order or not.  They have made severely disable women sleep in the lobby and wait in the cafeteria all day until a bed opens up.   If any residents of Norma Herr attended the June 17th meeting, this statement by Frontline could have been refuted.  We could have brought women in walkers to the table to show that bed rest orders are not followed.   Again, this comes back to the lack of representation of the women who are affected by these issues.  We urge you or any of the Council members to show up for dinner around 5:30 p.m. on any night (UNANNOUNCED)and then answer the question would you want your disabled relative to stay in this tax payer supported shelter?

The women could have talked about all the holes in the “shelter standards” offered by the Cuyahoga County Office of Homeless Services and the fact that there is no where to go if you have concerns that those standards are not being followed.  Finally, after all the heart ache that you heard from the women staying at the shelter that you fund, it seems cruel that the only outcome will be a future committee meeting on the “positive things that are happening at the shelter, since the media focuses on the negative.”  If this were only true then there might be changes at the women’s shelter.  We have not seen any negative stories about the women’s shelter.  From our experience, the women’s shelter is the one facility out of step with the rest of the system.  The staff are cruel and not being supervised.  They do not see their job as intervening to help, but instead are merely employed to prevent a riot.  There is no incentives for women to work a housing plan, and no sympathy for the unique issues of each of the 150 women sleeping in the shelter. 

I call your attention to the feature on WCPN in July (/cleveland-homeless-blog/2015/7/21/wcpn-looks-at-homeless-youth-in-cleveland.html).  This young person was going to Tri-C full time and was sleeping at the women’s shelter.  She was starving because no staff would hold a bag lunch for her and dinner was served before she got back from class.  The media is only reporting was is really happening in our community.   You do not need better publicity, you need to demand a better shelter.  Please, please follow up with a real hearing featuring current or former residents of the shelter who can give you an honest assessment of how our taxpayer money is being spent at the only facility available to single women.

Brian Davis

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PS: Got a semi response to this letter on September 10.  We posted a copy of the letter with a short commentary here.