Family Homelessness Crisis Needs to be Addressed

“Mommy, where we at? The shelter again?”- Amaya, age 3.

Homelessness is not just a solitary struggle. The reality is 41% of homeless are comprised of families, a large majority of which are headed by single-mothers. Mothers and children are the fastest growing homeless demographic. In Cleveland, this crisis is growing, and it’s growing fast. We sought to explore the impact it’s having on the already precarious shelter system.

For a family, the path to access emergency housing in Cleveland is facilitated through Cuyahoga County’s Coordinated Intake office (run by Frontline). This one-stop-shop process is designed to direct families to need-appropriate resources within the community. Families are meant to be placed into a shelter or “diverted.”  Diversion, a policy that NEOCH does not support, seeks to place families in non-shelter locations such as with friends or family. Only once they are in a shelter will they be assigned a caseworker or seen if they are eligible for the Rapid Re-housing program. Rapid Re-housing is the only county program available to move families out of the shelter system. Unfortunately, permanent supportive housing is not available to families because the federal funding for the program is reserved for single adults. This system of giving resources only once the family is placed in the shelter means the family’s future is dependent on obtaining a spot in one of the city’s shelters. Families are thus beholden to the hope that these shelters aren’t at capacity.

 Hope doesn’t get them far though: family shelters in Cleveland have been at capacity for a while. Because all the family shelters are full, families are then sent to the overflow program at the City Mission if they are not diverted. Their family overflow program houses roughly 20 mothers and 30 children each night in their gym. It should be noted that the City Mission began the family overflow program in their gym last year in September 2016 because so many families were already being turned away since the other family shelters were full. The overflow program was meant to be a temporary solution to the crisis afflicting families, giving the County time to come up with alternatives. But quickly, it too has reached capacity, and there is still a lack of any concerted effort on the County to even acknowledge there is a family homelessness crisis.

What happens when even the overflow shelter is at capacity? First, countless women and children must continue fending for themselves, having been told by both the shelters and the single overflow program that they are at capacity. Second, the lives of those in the shelter are even more strained than normal since the shelters aren’t equipped to handle this quantity and those in the overflow program can’t be connected to resources until they are officially in a shelter. In the overflow, they will wait for weeks in a gym to be placed in a shelter.

We talked to several families who are currently staying in the overflow shelter to learn more. Tierra, who became homeless after issues with her abusive boyfriend, told us her's and her 3-year-old daughter's "daily routine". They leave City Mission gym before it closes at 7am, carrying all their belongings with them. Then, they get shuttled to Cosgrove Center where she must wait outside on the street with her 3-year-old child and belongings till its 8am opening time. After eating breakfast and lunch there, she leaves Cosgrove Center at its 2:30 closing time. Having nowhere to go at that point, she takes takes her child to the beach or library till 7pm when the City Mission opens again. Then, she falls asleep with countless other families on the gym floor of City Mission and attempts to sleep till the next morning.

In the absence of a stable shelter situation, families must expend a great deal of energy to simply go from place to place. Any semblance of consistency or normalcy is gone. Under this flux, struggles compound and build on one another quickly. One mother, Simera, has been at Overflow in the City Mission for a month now. She has been struggling to obtain medicine for her months-old son who’s sick. Another mother, Joanna, laments the fact that her teenage son, Draymond, is unable to attend school. He's already missed the first few critical weeks of school, who knows how many more he’ll miss this year?  The crisis and trauma of homelessness makes it difficult for her to get her son back into the CMSD. What is a mom to do when they are simply trying to survive?  

Also, the families who are in overflow shelter have no assigned caseworker who monitors them and keeps them up to date on the status of obtaining a permanent spot at a shelter. The lack of a transparent criteria or process for obtaining housing heightens this uncertainty; none of the families we spoke to knew what the criteria was to determine the order for families receiving shelter placements. Is it the number of children a mother has? Is it how long the family has been in the shelter? Is it the perceived likelihood the family maintains housing? None of the families knew for certain.

In one year from September 2016 to August 2017, the family overflow program at the  City Mission went from providing 71 nights of shelter for 23 women and 48 children to last month providing 1016 nights of shelter for 336 women and 680 children. That’s a 1400% increase in nights of shelter provided in one year. The county NEEDS to address this situation, and they NEED to address it FAST. There is a severe, growing crisis of family homelessness. Temporary bandaids like the City Mission’s emergency family overflow have quickly become permanent bandaids.

The county has proposed Rapid Re-Housing as THE solution to the crisis of family homelessness. However, this program is facing serious difficulties. Rent is only guaranteed for 3 months, tenants are given only 30 days to find housing, and some families are even unable to pay rent after that period expires. Shelters are having difficulty finding landlords to take Rapid Re-housing, as they’re in a difficult situation, as they risk a possible eviction if there is no permanent income to pay the rent. We are now even seeing cases where families are re-entering the shelter system after attempting Rapid Re-housing.

The options for homeless families become extremely limited. Family homelessness is clearly going up. Yet, the Office of Homeless Services claimed in a letter that “the number of families accessing emergency shelter through the Coordinated Entry System has been relatively the same over the past several years.”  NEOCH disagrees. We believe that we are in a crisis and other service providers agree. Something needs to be done.

The fact that a mother and her four month old child need to sleep on a gym floor for a month before they have any access to shelter services is the heartbreaking reality. Ultimately, to deny that there is a crisis is irresponsible, as the lack of further solutions to address this community crisis will continue to hurt the women and children who need support in a time of their individual crisis.

By Vishal Reddy 

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Questions for the County Plan to Manage Homelessness

Our friend LOH attends many of the public meetings in the community and regularly comments about the State of Homelessness.  She is especially troubled by the large number stuffed into the women's shelter and the lack of a good plan for housing homeless families.  The two big shelters are completely full right now with single men and single women and nearly every night people are sleeping on mats on the floor.  Families with children are already sleeping on floors at two existing family shelters in Cleveland.  This is the current inadequate plan for the overflow system for families.  All of those beds and spaces on the floor are full so families are being sent to the Community Women's shelter.  For the last seven weeks many families are being sent to the Single Women's shelter with all the mentally ill women, drug addicted single women and a few sexually based offenders.  There are a number of newly homeless women who are just trying to find a job or housing, but the Community Women's Shelter has regularly 200 women and does not turn anyone away.  It was unbearable last year now it is an emergency that needs help tonight before there is a horrible incident.  

We typically have a high number of families entering the shelter in the summer when the kids are out of school, but this is troubling that we are still seeing high numbers after school has started.

Loh made some excellent comments at the last County Health and Human Services public comment time: 

  1. Homeless Families ARE Still Staying at A shelter supposedly ONLY For Single Female Adults, even though Schools already started ......
  2. Homeless Congress already decided to move forward with changing [the] service provider to help residents staying at the County Community Women's Shelter due to No changes from the service provider to improve the daily operation to Help the residents.  [Then, the presentation on Behavioural Health without the insurance and Medicaid part of it, into the Fact that BAD Staff Members are the Key Element to Defeat the purpose of "Sheltering" and "Helping" by Loh!]
  3. Upon the upcoming Voter Registration Event at Cosgrove, I am, personally, looking forward to seeing Council[woman] Conwell and her speech there.

County staff were present, but have offered no solution to this crisis.  Two years ago we had a large church in Cleveland Hts. that had offered space to the families. So, we had to pay for transportation and staffing, but we could serve a large number of families.  Now, we have limited floor space and certainly not enough to meet demand.  We have been forced to undermine our principles of not turning away women with children because of a lack of space.  We know that women with children fleeing violence in their household have been told to sleep in a police station.  We find families sleeping in cars and in parks over the weekend nearly every weekend.  We NEED Media attention, community, business or religious leaders to step in and we need help with this serious problem TODAY!!!

Brian Davis

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P.S. Thanks LOH for the Public Square Image

It is August and the Shelter is Overflowing!!!

Women's Shelter Residents Staged Mock Groundbreaking to push for the creation of a new shelterMost people do not think of homelessness during the summer and we get only a small number of donations during the summer, but right now the family and women's shelters are over capacity.  They are so full this weekend that they are putting women with children in the shelter for single women which is already overcrowded.  A few of the women called this morning to ask what is the deal, "Why are they putting children in the women's shelter again?" 

I did some investigation and found that every shelter is full and they encouraging people to stay with family or friends until Monday morning.  Workers are forced to tell Domestic Violence victims to go to a police station if they fear for their safety.  I guess having your kids sleep in a jail cell at the police station is safer than sleeping in a car or on the streets, but it seems cruel to tell a woman fleeing with her kids to go to a jail to be safe.  She has to uproot her family and flee the comforts of her home and she ends up in jail on her first night of her new life on the run.  This would not inspire confidence that the County encourages fleeing the violence in the home by telling women to sleep in the lobby of a police station. 

The Women's shelter has around 200 women sleeping every where with only 160 beds.  So they are already full to capacity and now they have women with children sleeping in one of the rooms.  This means children are interacting with the 200 single women at the shelter and one bathroom is blocked for only families. They also have one staff assigned to babysit families taking them away from the other 200 women who need help.  For the past five years, we have seen the rise in families during the summer months, but the County has done very little to address this crisis.  We have eliminated 444 beds in the local shelter system most of those in the family system.  This is a crisis brought on by the decisions made by the County staff who allowed over 300 family and women's beds to disappear.  The women's shelter is way over capacity and we have not added any beds for the summer. Because of this poor planning, we have no where to refer a family today.  We have heard that it is cheaper to offer rental assistance to families, but that does not help on weekends like this one when there are no beds available.  A young child cannot sleep on a promise for rental assistance.  We have two shelters that take families in to sleep on the floors until a bed opens up, and those spaces on the floor are full.

I have yet to understand why this is not front page news?  Why is Frontline Services so secretive about this information?   This is exactly what we were talking about with the Coordinated Intake transparency problem this week.  Why does the Coalition for the Homeless find this out from residents of the shelter and not from the agency?  I am sure that there are churches or other groups who would help if there was some media?  The people of Cleveland are generous and would act if they heard children are suffering in the lobby of the police stations or are stuffed into the shelter for single women with those just released from jail, those with an active addiction, and the mentally ill.  The women organized earlier in the year a series of events to practice opening a new shelter in an effort to nudge the County into acting to create a new shelter.  No one listened, and now we are telling women and families that they are on their own until Monday morning. We hope that no one is hurt this weekend because we do not have a shelter bed available in Cuyahoga County. 

Brian Davis

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How Long Do We Keep Overflow for Families?

It is now eight months of family overflow in Cleveland.  Every night we send around 20 families to a church because we do not have enough shelter beds.  How long do we continue to send families to mats on the floor or cots before we resolve to create additional shelter spaces in our community?  Is one year solid of overflow the point when we resolve that we need more beds?   Is it two years? Every night around 20 to 30 kids have to board a bus and are sent to a church to sleep in the evening and then are deposited back downtown in the morning to wander around looking for a safe place to rest. 

The problem is that we keep losing shelter beds especially beds for families.  In August, Continue Life closed down, but before that Family Transitional reduced its size. Triumph House closed, and East Side Catholic shelter closed.  None of these were replaced in the community.   Along with the family shelters,  THI and the Upstairs program for single adult women closed and were not replaced.  These squeezed the existing programs.  We got through the downturn, because we had huge rental assistance dollars available to families to keep them out of shelter, but that has all dried up.  So, now we are stuck with no where to place families.  Continue Life specialized in serving pregnant or new moms with shelter, and now we have no where to turn for these young Moms.  

The other issue is that for the County to suggest more emergency beds they will have to admit that we are not solving homelessness as has been championed recently. County officials will have to figure out how to pay for these beds in a time of reductions from the federal government.  These two obstacles are going to be huge to overcome.  The propaganda value at the local and national level as one of the cities making huge progress in "solving homelessness" is valuable.  Community planners and social service who have dedicated their life to reducing the pain and stress of living without housing and helps people deal with the depressing job of seeing people when they are the lowest point in their life.  We all want to point to victories in our jobs to justify the late night grant reports and the mountains of paper work. 

Someone would have to go before City Council or County Council to tell them that "All is not right in Cleveland and a large number of families are struggling."  That opens up some uncomfortable questions someone is going to have to answer:

  1. Are we using existing tax payer dollars wisely?
  2. Have we evaluated the existing system to assure that we are doing what is best for the community? 
  3. Why are we paying for shelter for some people who seem to not be worthy?
  4. Why don't we have time limits or life time limits on shelter?

Or any of the other inappropriate or misinformed questions that come up when someone has their hand out for money. 

At the end of the day if we want to maintain our commitment to keeping families together, we must open more shelter beds.  If we want to keep Moms from freezing to death in a car this winter, we have to have more shelter beds.  If we want to make sure that when a child asks for a bed, we will have one available for them then we have to build more shelter spaces.  We all know that it is only a band aid that does not end homelessness, but it is impossible to provide assistance after a family has dissolved and each sent in a different direction.  It costs our community much more when the children enter foster care or the Mom gives up her children due to poverty.  Cleveland needs to suck it up and provide more shelter beds to families waiting for an affordable place to live. 

Brian Davis

Posts reflect the opinion of those who sign the entry.

Some are Not So Thankful This Holiday

The US Interagency Council on Homeless published a nice profile of a a new book about homelessness on their website.  This is the story of one author's son called "Losing Tim" and goes through the illness that took control of Paul Gionfriddo's son.  It is a nice profile of a mentally ill guy who needed housing from the perspective of his father.    

The Diane Rehm Show on Monday had an interesting show on homelessness.  It was a story of Dr. Robert Okin who studied the horrible mental health system in the United which allows millions over the last 30 years to live on the streets largely ignored and isolated.  Worth listening to on their podcast.

On any given night, more than half a million people in the U.S. are homeless, and up to 50 percent may be suffering from mental illness. One psychiatrist says these people have become invisible to the rest of us, and set out to learn about their lives. He spent two years talking to and photographing men and women living on the streets of San Francisco. What he found were histories of abuse, neglect, and resilience.

I guess capitalism does not reign supreme in the hotel industry.  The Radisson served as the overflow site in New York City which is serving a record number of family homeless paid to house families in the hotel.  Radisson staff were not happy to hear that the hotel was serving homeless families and has rejected any further bookings from the Department of Homeless Services even if they pay more.  The article says that there were no issues, but the hotel is concerned with the stigma associated with offering a place at the inn for homeless families.  Maybe they could open up their parking garage as was done in Bethlehem around 2000 years ago.

Brian Davis

Posts reflect the opinion of those who sign the entry.

Guest Post: City Mission Official Gives Other Side of Housing First

A New Class of Chronically Homeless?

by Rich Trickel, CEO of the City Mission in Cleveland.

On September 16, 2014, Northeast Ohio Media Group published the article “Housing First Opens Newest Apartments in Work to End Homelessness” by reporter Tom Feran. Certainly this is cause for celebration—the new building with its 65 subsidized studio apartments will be a godsend to some chronically homeless individuals. Furthermore, the article goes on to say that as a result of the last 8 years of housing first in Cleveland, chronic homelessness has been reduced by 73%! Since the reality on the ground where I am isn’t even close to that claim, I tried to find out where that stat come from and how it was calculated. How can a city whose shelters are currently overwhelmed with homeless families state that chronic homelessness has decreased by 73%?

The first clue in understanding the dramatic claims made by housing first advocates is to understand the meaning of “chronic homelessness.” HUD has segmented the homeless into categories, assigned definitions, and focused their strategy and therefore, their resources on only one group – chronically homeless. To be chronically homeless you are an unaccompanied homeless person (single, alone, not part of a family, not accompanied by children); with a diagnosable substance abuse disorder, a serious mental illness, or a developmental disability; and have been continuously homeless for a year or more, or have had 4 episodes of homelessness in the last 3 years. To put this in perspective, there are approximately 600,000 homeless individuals in the US on any given night; only 20% will qualify as chronically homeless. So the primary strategy set by the government to eliminate homelessness, the strategy that is being embraced by almost every major metropolitan area, is only focused on 20% of all homeless people. Furthermore, the largest growing segment of the homeless - women & children, do not fit the definition and are therefore not counted and not able to access the resources dedicated to the chronically homeless.

It’s also helpful to understand how a statistic like a 73% reduction in chronic homelessness was even computed—not by a careful day-by-day count of all homeless, but by a single count on a single night in January. This is called the Annual Point In Time Count. Then, based on that single night comparison over time, the claim – a  73% reduction—is made. Can a single count on one cold January night accurately represent anything?

And there’s another problem. Not only is the majority of energy and attention focused on this small segment of the homeless, but most available resources are as well. In Cleveland, the majority of dollars provided to battle homelessness have been spent on permanent supportive housing – housing only available to the designated chronically homeless. Because of this, a number of facilities serving homeless women and children have been forced to close, resulting in the growing numbers of homeless women and children. And it’s not just happening in Cleveland – Washington DC is bracing for a 16% increase in family homelessness this winter, the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance is reporting a 60% increase in homeless families over the last few years and a 108% increase in unaccompanied homeless kids and the Coalition for Homelessness Intervention and Prevention in Indianapolis reports a 19% increase in family homelessness.

It’s time to take a long hard look. Are we unintentionally creating a new class of chronically homeless individuals – women and children as a result of the current housing first policy? When confronted with the reality most cities are facing right now, why do we continue to insist housing first is the only effective strategy to ending homelessness? How long will we ignore the growing numbers of homeless women and children flooding our cities?

Rich Trickel, CEO of the City Mission, can be reached at 216/287-9187.  We welcome comments to this post by clicking on the "Post a Comment" below this journal entry. Note that Cuyahoga County Officials and the Housing First Initiative were invited to submit a response.

Guest posts reflect the opinions of the authors and not necessarily of NEOCH.

National Updates for March 2014

New York City

The new police chief of New York City, Bill Bratton, has tripled the number of arrests for panhandling as was done in the first two months of 2012.  This is a crackdown on those who sit by the subway asking for change which is annoying, but these guys need the help.  I have never understood giving people who are down on their luck a ticket for begging for money.  This seems like kicking a man when he is down.  Do they allow these guys to beg for the fine that they will be charged for asking for help?   Unless you provide an alternative for these poor people it will only perpetuate the problem. 

Washington DC

As every city in the United States is struggling with family homelessness, Washington is in an especially complicated position that the Courts are demanding changes.   The Mayoral candidates are at least talking about homelessness and ways to increase access to housing in the Capital City.   The families were not being provided privacy and violates they were violating a city law to protect children.  Cleveland does not have a law similar to this DC law, but we have a 25 year history of not turning anyone away at the shelter door.  We try as hard as we can never to turn a family, a man, a child or anyone away.  Why would a fragile 47 year old with AIDS be any less important in the nation's capital than a child?  Why not offer anyone who needs help a shelter bed and not just children?

Extreme Weather on the East Coast 

I missed this story in February from Tell Me More about the extreme weather conditions.  We are so far out ahead of most other states in the United States.   We have operated three overflow sites this winter and nearly two thirds of the nights since November 15 have been extreme weather this winter.  I am so glad that Cleveland does not only open overflow shelters in the winter.  People are more likely to suffer hypothermia during a cold rain that they do not get warmed quickly.  The National Coalition for the Homeless has a report on their website about the responses to cold weather.  Some open their winter shelter if it is under 20 degrees while others wait until 10 degrees.  

Chicago, Illinois

There was a nice story this Friday on Storycorps about a homeless young person and their embarrassment over being homeless that appeared on NPR.  This was the story of a teacher who discovered one of her students had become homeless and did not have a family to take care of him.  They reunite after he has stabilized in foster care.

Nashville Tennessee

In a unique way to get around food restrictions, religious groups are asking for the freedom to give out food as part of their ministry.  This law tries to sway Tennessee legislators without mentioning hungry or homeless people.  They are strictly asking for religious liberty which should be attractive down in the South.  Many Southern states have enacted laws limiting when and where people can be fed, so the activists in Nashville are trying a novel approach. 

Brian Davis

Posts reflect the opinion of those who sign the entry