Contentious Homeless Congress Meeting

Commentary by Megan the Intern

    On May 14th the monthly meeting of Homeless Congress was held at 1pm at Cosgrove, and a large number of people attended because of the speaker from Cuyahoga County.  34 were shelter residents and 16 represented other community organizations came to hear from County Councilwoman Yvonne Conwell. Some of the organizations represented included Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland Mediation Center, Laura’s Home, Cosgrove Center, Norma Herr Women’s Shelter, 2100 Lakeside Men’s Shelter and NEOCH.  County Councilwoman Yvonne Conwell was one of the founding members of the new form of government and had previous experience working in the social service community.  Conwell’s presence caused the large turnout and the tension to run high.

    The meeting began with introductions, followed by a summary of the agenda by the executive director of NEOCH Brian Davis.  First on the agenda Councilwoman Yvonne Conwell addressed the audience, describing her role as a council member and as vice president of the Department of Health and Human Services committee.  Following the address, Brian Davis presented the Congresswoman with some of the major concerns of Congress members, and invited her feedback. 

     Residents of the shelters and permanent supportive housing units attend the Homeless Congress meetings every month to work on issues that impact all their lives.  For this meeting the topic of discussion focused on the lack of enforcement of the recently approved and published list of County regulations for shelters.  Not only are the regulations not enforced, but there are no means to enforcing them.  There is no one to go to within the County to tell that there is a problem and no one goes out to the shelters to see if the regulations are being followed.  This is such a great concern of Congress members because it jeopardizes the civil rights, health and safety of homeless people.  With no forum outside of the shelters or other social service providers that can address the concerns and grievances of its residents, the rights, health and safety of residents are at the mercy of shelter employees.

       The topic of enforcing shelter regulations stirred up quite a debate between those employed by Norma Herr shelter and the members of Congress.  One of the regulations discussed as an example was bed rest.  The proposed regulation states “The shelters must accept ‘bed rest’ orders from legitimate health professionals including Care Alliance.”  Residents of the shelter reported that the shelter was not accepting bed rest orders from Care Alliance, (considering them illegitimate) the health care provider recommended by shelters. Shelter residents also reported that when bed rest orders are accepted, they are only allowed 1-2 hours of rest before being told to leave the shelter. Others said that they were flat out denied bed rest and told if they were too sick to leave they should go to a nursing home. Norma Herr staff disputed this, stating that they do honor bed rest orders even from Care Alliance. 

    Staff of the Cleveland Mediation Center claimed that they serve as an impartial third party forum to enforce shelter regulations and investigate grievances.  This statement caused an uproar among Congress members. CMC staff said that they can address any of these concerns and have had many meetings about these conditions for the past month.  Many in the audience pointed out that the Women’s shelter has been a problem for years and things have not changed.  Even the men at the meeting were tired of waiting for a change in the women’s shelter.  One member pointed out that CMC is on the payroll of the Norma Herr shelter, and cannot be considered a third party.  CMC also argued that the 42 grievances collected by NEOCH in one week against the women’s shelter were impossible to investigate due to the fact that half of them were anonymous. 

        NEOCH disputed CMC’s claim by pointing out that grievances with names were not addressed or investigated.  CMC and Norma Herr disputed this by stating that disputes are a process that takes time.  CMC stated that the organization is making an attempt to improve standards by implementing listening circles designed for shelter residents to address their concerns.  When current residents of Norma Herr were asked if they have noticed any improvements they reported that they had not.

    In an effort to wrap up the meeting, Councilwoman Conwell gave some closing remarks.  She stated that she had compassion for both sides in the debate.  Councilwoman Conwell stated that as a former employee of the women’s shelter, she knows that some shelter residents are truthful and others are not.  Therefore, she believes grievances should be dealt with on a case by case basis by a neutral party.  The problem with this logic is that truth cannot be determined without an objective third party. Congresswoman Conwell also added that she would try to arrange a meeting with the county council committee to discuss improved shelter standards and regulations.  While such a meeting might improve the letter of the standards and regulations, with no means of enforcement, it will not likely improve the spirit of such regulations.

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Regulations of the Shelters

We have spoken often in this space about the lack of effective oversight of the shelters in Cleveland Ohio and here and here (must login to the site).  There is basically no existing laws that oversee the shelters in Cleveland or with Cuyahoga County.  There are state standards or guidelines with no oversight.  Then there are a few local regulations that are attached to each contract and the director signs that they will abide by those rules.  Right now those are posted as a pdf on the County website and as a searchable page on the NEOCH website.  They are not posted in the individual shelters, and there is no one impartial to go to in order express concern that the shelters are not following the requirements.  There are a ton of holes in the requirements that we had identified and a long list of missing regulations.  At the Office of Homeless Services Advisory Board meeting on Wednesday morning at 9 a.m. (2012 West 25th St. Sixth Floor) they will vote on a number of our suggested missing regulations.  Here are the expanded rules that will be voting on. 

It is disturbing that it takes so long to get any rule passed through the County "advisory" group.   There are new rules sent down by HUD regarding fair housing obligations of the shelters.  There are no rules regarding Central Intake, and there are no rules regarding discharge from a shelter to the streets.   The single biggest issue facing a homeless person using the shelter is who do they go to if they have a problem who will listen and respond?  With over $30 million spent on homeless services and housing locally, we need an impartial place to go to complain if the shelter staff accidently throw away all the belongings of a homeless resident.  We need not just a complaint mechanism, but a way to get compensation for the loss.  We have had shelters for 40 years in Cleveland; they are not temporary church based organizations anymore.  We need rules with oversight and an arbitrator to settle disputes. 

Other areas that we have looked at a need for additional requirements:

1. Discharges must be in writing with grievance procedure on the back of the page.  There can be an immediate discharge only for illegal activity otherwise must wait until the next day.

2. Rules regarding intake now that there is coordinated intake is in place in Cleveland.  Are you a client if you fill out the application for shelter?  What if you have second thoughts after being diverted back to a family or friend?  What should you be given upon intake?  Where do you grieve if you have a problem with intake?  What are the privacy rights of the information you fill out?  Who can see this information from intake?   Are you told what programs you are eligible for or what programs you do not qualify for?   Is there a maximum time that you stay in overflow?  It never says that you have a right to be anonymous in the HMIS system as HUD requires.  Does intake provide a housing plan or is that the shelter staff? Does intake staff take into account the person's disability when doing the intake application--mental illness may make it difficult or impossible to complete. Do we have sexual harassment protections in place at coordinated intake?  Are we providing sufficient protections at intake in response to the Violence Against Women act?

3.  Comfort animals are different than service animals are they allowed within the shelters?

4. The gender issues need to be posted in the shelters so that everyone is on the same page regarding transgender individuals using the shelters.  Are we accommodating sexual orientation when a same sex couple show up at Coordinated intake? 

5. Staff training is mentioned a number of times, but never formally outlined with what training is necessary to work in the shelters. 

6.  Operations #12 in the State of Ohio Standards say shelters shall have a policy about the control of weapons.  Can't we just say no guns in the shelters?  Do we want to add firearms to the volatile shelter environment?

There are many other holes, but these are the most serious that need immediate attention.  We will keep you informed.

Brian Davis

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