How Can Akron Better Serve Homeless People

The City of Akron was sued last week by students from the CWRU Law School for displacing people and then dumping their valuables.  This is a throw back from the policies of big cities in the United States from the 1990s.  Frustrated over the growing number of homeless people and what seemed like throwing good money after bad, cities such as Chicago, Cleveland, Seattle, San Francisco, and New York turned to law enforcement to solve a social service crisis.  NEOCH sued the City of Cleveland to stop the sweeps and the dumping of materials from people just trying to survive.   They sent their police force out to arrest, threaten arrest and terrorize a fragile population.

The Chicago Coalition won lawsuits as did Miami advocates against their municipal governments back in the 1990s.  These cities had to pay homeless people for their homeless policies. They used their armed police force to make it illegal to be homeless.  Those policies 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 in 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 is the opposite solution to the department.

Remember that cracking down on panhandling does nothing to the homeless populations.  All panhandlers are not homeless and all homeless are not panhandlers.  We have been working with people who are resistant to shelter for 22 years, and so we have some better ideas:

  • Guaranteed access to shelter is critical to the success of any homeless policy. If there is not a place to refer a person then there will be people sleeping outside.  If when the shelter beds are full they shut their doors, what do you expect a person to do?  If you go to the shelter on a regular basis and they do not have a bed for you, then you are going to give up and sleep outside.  It is also inhumane to push people around the downtown when there is not a bed inside available.
  • Coordinated outreach services is also needed to provide the best possible services to those living outside.  This can help connect a veteran to the VA and those struggling with PTSD with mental health services.  It is important to build trusting relationships with those resist going to shelter.  If there are not people on the streets interacting with people on the streets, they get forgotten. 
  • Laws don't work--competition does!  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.  If you want to address homelessness and specifically panhandling, you have to have an alternative.  Social service providers should be provided funding to get people off the streets.  Those who can help the most people off the streets should be financially rewarded.  There should be a competition for finding panhandlers real jobs.  We need to provide an effective alternative or the problem will continue to grow. 
  • Police are not social workers.  They should not be drafted into forcing people into shelter or arresting people for purely innocent behavior of being outside.  Police should not even be in the business of telling homeless people to move or warning people that they will have their "stuff" thrown away.  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.  Let's look at it in a similar situation to an eviction.  There is an official written notice and then the individual has their day in court.  Then before all these checks and balances are undertaken can the bailiff come out to supervise the throwing away of items.  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.
  • Build affordable housing or plan on more and more money going to emergency services.  We cannot have a community in which wages are stagnant and 5-6% of the population are unemployed, and then people are punished for living outside.  There are another group who are permanently unemployed, and we are losing affordable housing every year.   We still have people who have behavioral health issues, and so there are these huge holes in the social safety net.  We can't let people fall into homelessness and then punish them for finding a way to survive. If we continue to see destruction of affordable housing, there can only be more homeless people in our cities. 
  • Akron should support the creation of a street newspaper sold by homeless and very low income people.  Columbus, Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Toledo all have papers sold on their city streets.  It is an effective alternative to panhandling.  This is much more dignified way to earn money--selling your words on the street.  Cleveland Street Chronicle could help establish a paper.

Brian Davis

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CWRU Students Sue City of Akron over Homeless Policies

The City of Akron has never been good about taking care of homeless people.  They have the worst laws for panhandlers in the State of Ohio.  They have very few shelter options and they do not guarantee access to a shelter bed.  This means that if the shelters are full, homeless people must sleep on the streets.  Last week, we found out from a group of CWRU student law students that Akron Police were moving homeless people out and then throwing away their valuables. 

Eleven homeless people living outside in Akron allege that the Akron Police were stealing and discarding valuables from homeless people.  The lawsuit claims that the Akron Police under the direction of City officials would raid their campsites and then throw away tents, clothing, medicine directly to the City landfill.

The Akron Police claim that they did give proper notice and that most of the items taken were drug paraphernalia and other contraband.  According to the Plain Dealer, the police claim that they acted properly.  Personal property is held in high regard in the State of Ohio, and so government has to go to great lengths to hold personal property in a secure manner.  A person can go to prison for 25 years and government must keep their property safe and return it to them upon release.  To dispose of forgotten property governments must issue a public notice and provide sufficient time to retrieve these items.  A landlord must ask the court to dispose of a tenant's belongings if they disappear.  The lawsuit claims that the City government did not secure their belongings after confiscating them, and the personal property was taken directly to the trash. 

In nearly every case going through the courts, when a City throws away the belongings of homeless people they have to pay. I know that in Miami, Chicago and a number of cities in California were all forced to compensate homeless people for the loss of their valuables.  I can't see how this is going to end any differently for the City of Akron.  In Cleveland, we fought this all through the 1990s with settlements that provided homeless people $3,000 for picking them up and dumping them on the outskirts of town, and then we settled on an agreement between the City and homeless people in 2000 in a case called Key vs. City of Cleveland that police will not harrass homeless people living outside for purely innocent behavior.

The bigger issue for residents of Akron is that when cities start targeting homeless people we see an increase in hate crimes against the population.  When government gives the go-ahead to treat homeless people as lesser citizens, there are disturbed people who take that signal as open season on torturing, attacking and becoming violent with fragile people living outside.  Unfortunately, these are mostly young people who terrorize people living under bridges or in abandoned property.  We know that these laws and police sweeps lead to feelings of betrayal and abandonment by the population and it only keeps people homeless for a longer period of time.  This will not reduce the population, but will do the opposite.  We explore what Akron should do to reduce the number of people sleeping outside in a future post.

Brian Davis

Posts reflect the opinion of those who sign the entry.

Post Script:  The CWRU Observer did a good summary of the case published this last week.  (One note, Brian is no longer Executive Director of NEOCH.  He is a community organizer, but the story is still sound.)

Housing, Income, Health Care and Myths

Nice article in the Huffington Post about spending time as a homeless guy.  The guy was a Navy vet and claimed that the month he spent as a homeless guy was the toughest thing he ever did in his life.  This is a short article on some of his experiences.

There was also a good article about the need for diversity in housing to address the affordable housing crisis.  This talked about the many different funding sources necessary to put together affordable housing. This comes out of Seattle from a developer and legislator who is pushing for expanded rights to tenants and a comprehensive plan to build affordable housing or at least to use the resources that they have in a more strategic manner in Seattle.  We have called for a similar plan in Cleveland

Akron has gotten into the Permanent Supportive Housing Market. Congrats. Cleveland has about 560 units with plans for one more next year.   We just completed our Teach In to showcase how beautiful these places are locally.  We will post more on this in the next week.  There was community opposition, but one local developer in Akron really pushed the proposal forward.

Washington Post highlighted the number of states with lower minimum wage laws when compared to the Federal minimum wage.  This is part of the income inequality debate that is increasing at this time. 

This is a sad commentary that I have seen before.  The reality is that time spent homeless does decrease the lifespan of the individual. 

Dr. Kelly Doran, an emergency room physician, sums it up pointedly: "chronically ill, chronically homeless patients who we see so frequently...are likely to be dead within a few years if we do not do something to change their situations."

It is for this reason on none other that we need to overcome community opposition to affordable housing.  We need to save someone's life, and recognize that homelessness is a health care issue.

Brian Davis

Posts reflect the opinion of those who sign the entry.

Housing Website Now Available for Summit County

SummitHousingSearch.org - A free service to list and find housing across Summit County

Summit County now has a free way to find affordable housing.  Socialserve.com has expanded to the Akron area.  Socialserve is the power behind HousingCleveland.org, and we have worked for years to expand the service throughout the State of Ohio.  Right now, the site is available in Cuyahoga County and Summit County and then in a limited manner, Columbus.   NEOCH is working on an expansion in Lorain County this summer. 

The website in Cleveland is used by nearly 70,000 unique users a year conducting hundreds of thousands of searches.  30,000 units are saved on the site with around 1,400 available units right now.  What separates this site from others is that it is free for both the landlord and the tenant searching for housing.  It also has a call center staffed by bilingual staff who can help those searching for housing, and finally it is updated every couple of weeks.  Every property is checked every couple of weeks to assure that the housing is still available.  The Socialserve folks do a good job of keeping the properties refreshed and stocked with accurate apartment referrals.   Cuyahoga County has really embraced the site, and it has numbers similar to some of the statewide housing search websites administered by Socialserve.  Cleveland officials used the site to relocate Hurricane Katrina victims. 

We welcome Summit County, and thank the City of Akron, the Akron Housing Authority and Infoline for putting the funding together for this new site.  If you are looking for housing in Summit County check out the new site. 

Brian Davis

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Bob Dyer Hates Panhandlers

Some children see a shadow in the night and transform it into the Boogie Man or they hear a strange noise and it becomes the "monster under the bed."  Bob Dyer, columnist for the Akron Beacon Journal newspaper (or the shell of what previously was a newspaper) must have had a one-eyed man with a wooden leg bump into him as a child while Christmas shopping at Higbees, and he has forever had a vendetta for the downtown fixtures known as panhandlers.  He keeps writing these strange accounts about his adventures with panhandlers in Akron.  Give these men and women a break, they are poor people looking for some pocket change.  Isn't there a greedy slumlord, payday lender or evil debt collector, you could go after, Mr. Dyer? 

On June 18, he wrote a column entitled "Surprise! Beggars not all lazy--Offer of a job is met with some enthusiasm from folks on corners, surprising columnist."  I know, the set up for the article sounds like it was written by some guy just off the Greyhound from Mayberry.  But it was written by a guys from a semi-big city of Akron who has lived in the city for years.  Anyway, the hook is that he took a guy who manages property around the city with him and offered odd jobs to panhandlers to see if they would take the job.   The big surprise to this enterprising columnist was that everyone agreed to take the job or have their spouse do the job.  Wow, people asking for money will take any job that comes along because standing outside in the hot sun and being spit on, cursed, and scoffed at is easy street. 

The article never says if this was a ruse or did this property manager actually provide them work for the day.  Did they pay social security and FICA for this spot labor?  Did they do the e-verify system to make sure that these people have the ability to work in the United States or was this all a ruse for the story?   The worst part of the article is that after surprising himself with the revelation panhandlers do want to earn money he ends the piece by saying:

"I still don't believe the majority of people who panhandle  in Greater Akron are the real deal...The problem is this: You can't tell by looking who is gaming you and who isn't. And that is why I refuse to given any of them a dime."

He goes on to recommend giving to non-profit agencies in Akron.  He found 100% of the people were willing to work, and yet he is worried that it is all a trick.  What was the purpose of the offer, if he was just going to throw the panhandlers under the bus?  He learned nothing from this experiment.  He hated panhandlers before he ventured out that day, and he hated them when he got back. 

The article received a ton of comments, some good and others bad.  So, he came back the next week with a follow up to rub salt in the wounds of those down on their luck. "Panhandlers ignoring work offers.  Panhandlers say they'll work but don't return phone calls" had very little credibility and to top it off he ran a column on "readers" negative encounters with panhandlers.  Nothing about the Iraq War Vet with PTSD who cannot cope so is begging for money to buy smokes and other drugs to self medicate.  Nothing about sexually based offender who would love to work after successfully completing his sentence for urinating in a public park, but notification laws make him toxic to landlords and employers.  No one was quoted talking to a panhandler who could not get his child support adjusted after losing his job for 18 months building up such a huge debt that it no longer pays to work except cash only jobs like panhandling.  Surprisingly, the individual who is on disability that will keep her living in poverty for the rest of her life and every dollar she earns above the table is taken off her check was not represented in the "reader's" comments. 

Dyer was able to produce a second column about how much he hates panhandlers from the people who seem vindictive or angry that someone was getting this free money while they are stuck in a traffic jam.  Where is the anger for those development directors at those non-profit agencies who are basically panhandlers in suits?  Or what about the corporate lobbyists at City Hall begging for a contract, infrastructure, or those guys on the Akron Beacon Journal payroll who go down to Columbus to beg that governments will continue to be forced to advertise in their papers with "public notices" that no one reads; where is the anger?   We all have to beg sometimes.  Some do it in the hot sun in front of the entire community, while others do it from the comforts of their air conditioned offices. 

By the way, how do we know these panhandlers don't pay taxes?  They may want to be good upstanding citizens and declare the money that they make as gifts.   None of the stories from "readers" was fact checked.  It was just hearsay and rumors all presenting the negative side of begging.  My panhandler friend drove a Hummer and had a big screen TV.... Did anyone consider that it better to be the best person doing the worst job in the world over being the worst of the worst?  It may be the only way some of these guys can look at themselves in the morning if they say that they are making a goldmine.  I have no idea the point of detailing all the horror stories people have with panhandlers

My big issue is that if you don't like panhandling do something about it.  Find effective alternatives to panhandling.  Start a street newspaper in Akron.  Have a competition in Akron to see which group can employ the most panhandlers, and that group wins a big prize.  But telling people not to give to people they perceive as needy is a waste of time.  Passing laws to prevent begging has never worked, and again is a waste of time.  Find jobs for these guys that meets their needs that is more productive for these individuals.  None of the non-profits mentioned in the articles is helping panhandlers with their barriers to employment.  They are forcing guys to change their ways.  If they are not willing to change their behavior, they give up on them.  Stop complaining about panhandlers and do something to help. 

Brian

Posts reflect the opinion of those who sign the entry

Panhandling Madness

People get so angry about panhandling.  It is a dividing point in our society.  There are passionate people on both sides of the issue.  There are those who love bypassing all the bureaucracy and administration of nearly every non-profit to give directly to a person in need.  Then there are those who hate seeing people have to beg for money, and know that most of the donation is going to feed a chemical addiction.  There are those that want to have a connection with a stranger who is struggling as directed by most spiritual texts.  Others see people who have made mistakes or are perceived to be lazy, and want government to respond to these "problems."

There were flair ups in this war over the last month in both Akron and Cleveland.  The City of Akron and Fairlawn both have extremely restrictive laws to protect pedestrians from the evils of panhandling. The Summit County Council was scheduled to add a panhandling law to cover the unincorporated places in the county.  They were prepared to make panhandling a job as the other communities in the county have done.  They had proposed requiring a license to beg and forcing panhandlers to wear a uniform (a vest).  Calmer head prevailed and they ditched these two provisions, but is working on passing a law that limits where a person can ask for money and outlaws aggressive solicitation (which is already illegal under the menacing laws).  Cleveland suffered a black eye over giving a good samaritan a ticket for LITTERING because the individual threw a dollar at a panhandler and it landed on the ground. 

All of these stories generated a ton of comments in the Plain Dealer and the Beacon Journal.  Yet, there is very little rational thinking on this issue.  No matter how many laws are made, begging will continue.  People will figure out a way around any and every law.  You can sponsor all the campaigns that you want, the people who like giving will continue.  The only way to stop panhandling is to find alternatives (such as a Street Newspaper!!!).  Sponsor a competition among the non-profits to see who can find alternatives for the most panhandlers.  No matter what Akron or Cleveland does with the laws, people will continue to keep giving and panhandlers will figure out ways to beg.  If a person finds themselves without options, they will turn to begging for money as the last option.

Brian