Fix the Systems or Offer Shelter

Isn't it the least we as a society can do to offer a bed and hot meal to our citizens? If you went to a hotel and the water was off, the tv was broken, the food in the restaurant had insects,  the bed had bedbugs, there was a fight outside your room, the cleaning crew woke you at 6 a.m. by just entering your room and were extremely rude to you, would you pay for the room?  No, in fact you would expect compensation to go to another hotel to stay.  This is the system we have for homeless people and instead of offering them a place to rest their head, we are talking about kicking them out if they refuse housing. 

If we can offer people a place to lay their head, then we can get them services. We can find housing if we know that the person has a place to lay their head at the end of the evening.  There is a plan to figure out a way to limit shelter partially driven by County Councilwoman Conwell push toward limiting the time people spend in the shelters (see the notes from her stay overnight).  We need to get over as a society that some people are not pulling their own weight by sleeping in a shelter for free.  It is not a picnic living in the shelter.  There is no privacy, and there is always theft and the threat to your safety.  But there are tens of thousands of reasons that people are living in the shelter.  We cannot crawl in their heads and figure out what is stopping them from going into housing.  We also know that putting punishments on people will only add to the street population.  Help them overcome those obstacles to housing or hold the staff accountable for not helping their clients move toward stability.

The new HUD Secretary comes from that same background and wants to try to pressure people to move out of public housing and out of shelters.  It will not work.  Here is a piece in the Plain Dealer about Secretary Ben Carson's visit to Ohio.

"We have some people who are mentally ill. We have some elderly and disabled people. We can't expect in many cases those people to do a great deal to take care of themselves," he said. But, he added, "There is another group of people who are able-bodied individuals, and I think we do those people a great disservice when we simply maintain them."

Antoine Williams, 45, who lives in a supportive housing complex for the chronically homeless, shook his head after Carson finished greeting officials in the lobby of his building and headed out in a four-car motorcade.

"If he got something to do with Trump, that means he's not really for us," Williams said. "It's not surprising. That's what the rich do, they make it hard for the poor."

Don't people deserve the right to a bed in the richest country that ever existed? Why are we always able to find money for the playgrounds of the rich, but we never have money for poor people?  We find money to add glass to the Q and we have an arts tax to support the orchestra or other places that require an admission.  When the number of homeless families seeking help increases in Cleveland, we do not have an appropriate response.  The County says, "We just don't have the money to offer help, so instead we will limit access to shelter."  These families paid taxes for years, why can't we offer a humanitarian life sustaining place to live?  Are we a compassionate society who care if people sleep outside?  If we put all this pressure on people they will just leave us and sleep on the street.  They will slowly die in isolation sleeping in abandoned buildings and in cars.  It takes a long time to rebuild trust with people once they are alienated from the system.

Eric Morse COO of Frontline Services told the Office of Homeless Services advisory in March that the Mental Health System for homeless people was absolutely broken, but yet the OHS Advisory, which he leads, is still working on efforts to limit access to shelter.  How about fixing the Mental Health system before fixing the shelter system?  How about fixing the addiction system so that detox is available then get around to fixing the shelter system?  How about fixing the health care system so that no one is discharged from the hospital if they do not have a place to live?  How about fixing the housing system in our community so that there is no discrimination to renting apartments and those who deserve a hardship exemption are offered it before there is an eviction?  How about fixing the disability program so that a person can afford to rent an apartment with their monthly disability check?  My point is that all of our human services need work, and so why can't we offer people a bed and some food without all the strings and hassles while we fix the rest of the system? 

It is the least we can do if we care about these people.  It is the least our faith community can do if they want to follow their religious texts.  It is the least our government can do to keep its citizens alive. 

Brian Davis

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Update on Limiting Shelters in Cleveland

This came up in the previous Office of Homeless Services in March, but was tabled after Paul and Jim from Metanoia showed up to protest.   Here is the previous proposal for shelters: "Shelter will be limited for those who refuse to participate in a housing plan or refuse to accept stable housing when offered."

Here is the new suggestion:  "Shelter maybe limited for those who have available resources and refuse all options for stable housing.  Determination to restrict will be based on a case by case review at each shelter site."

Here are my questions for those who are proposing this requirement:

  1. Is there some oversight by an impartial third party without a bias of these decisions by the shelters?
  2. Can you appeal this decision to County Council if you were improperly denied the life sustaining bed in shelter?
  3. Why are we so involved in people’s personal business? As we said previously there are 1,000 reasons why a person would reject housing (it is located in a high crime neighborhood; I was raped in that neighborhood; it is where my abuser lives; it is too small for when I get my kids back; it is not on a busline; it is no where near my job, etc.)
  4. Who will take responsibility for these people when outreach find them living on the streets and will they provide more money to the street outreach teams?
  5. When the street populations increases after this policy is implemented will the County take responsibility for the increasing numbers of panhandlers and people sleeping outside?
  6. How can the County find money for new glass for the Q, but cannot find money for women who need help moving into housing and therefore turn down Frontline’s recommendation for housing? 
  7. Will the family shelter and men’s entry shelter share this information with other shelters when they deny someone shelter?  Thus creating a blacklist of bad homeless people who refuse housing?
  8. If it is determined that staff made a mistake in their determination to deny a shelter bed to a disabled individual, can the County require that staff person to sleep on the street for a period of time?
  9. Is this a solution looking for a problem?  How many people are actually rejecting houisng for a frivolous reason?
  10. Can someone explain to me how this policy will help us locally?  What is the cost/benefit analysis of this project?  Is it worth the hassle since staff will inevitably misinterpret it? Will it save the county any money or just cost more money with incarceration and emergency room visits? 

We have heard that Cleveland Mediation Center will handle grievances from this policy.  The problem is that the Cleveland Mediation Center was recently taken over by Frontline Services, a shelter provider.  So, Frontline staff will be deciding if another Frontline staff person made the correct decision in denying shelter or if another shelter provider made the correct decision.  Would a landlord allow another landlord to decide the validity of their eviction instead of an impartial judge at Housing Court? 

This is government turning away from its own constituents who need the most help.  This will be voted on at the Office of Homeless Services meeting on May 18 at Greenbridge apartments at East 75th and Euclid across from Aldi's (right on the Healthline).  We hope that Paul and Jim will be able to make it to talk about how this "improvement" does not address the fundamental flaws in the previous proposal.

Brian Davis

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County Plan to Limit Shelter to the Deserving Tabled

The horrible County plan to limit shelter and increase the street population was sent back to committee for further discussion.  The three big issues mentioned most frequently were:

  • There is no appeals or oversight of this policy.  The thinking was that we need some discussion to make sure that this policy is not abused.
  • There are many other things going on in the world that factor into this emergency shelter issue--the lack of housing, supportive services, and services to those with a mental illness. 
  • No one wants to pass a policy that results in more people sleeping on the streets.

So, the committee will meet to try to improve the language and policy recommendations to prevent harming the population.  The issue that people kept coming back to was the moochers who are abusing the shelter that could go to a "worthy" individual.  I still do not understand this argument since there is almost no vacancies in the affordable housing market.  If a person who is getting income but wasting their funds rejects housing there are 10 other people who are waiting and would jump at the chance to go into housing.  It is such a small number who are abusing the system, because frankly the shelters are pretty horrible places.  So, we are making policies to limit shelter when we have such a small problem that we need to address.  Our concern is that these policies will be abused by staff and good people trying to get into housing will be harmed. 

Why do all of us care so much about people who are getting a check and sleeping in the shelter?  It is not like they are living in luxury.  It is not easy street.  It is a depressing sterile place with a small plate of food and hundreds of other people.  Why are we begrudging people a bed and some food?  Can't we allow the PTSD guy recover or the rape victim heal in a shelter?  Since the mental health system is so broken and we have no ability to provide the care that our friends with a behavioral health issue need, why are we complaining that they are abusing the place that they feel safe?  It will create all this tension between staff and residents and at the end of the day it will not free up that many resources. 

We need more spaces for people to stay inside and Cleveland should champion the fact we don't turn people away.  We have a way smaller street population compared to every other big city in America.  If we start limiting shelter, this will disappear and business men and women will again have to step over people sleeping on the sidewalk in Cleveland. Taxpayers will have to pay in the end with increased incarceration, mental health and emergency room care.  We will save spaces at the shelter to put more "worthy people" in those beds, but we will pay three, four or five times as much on the other emergency services for those same people.  Also, consider that we reduce the lifespan of the population that we force to sleep on the streets. 

We should expand Metanoia (overnight drop in services) and make it year round.  We should open specialized shelters to certain populations (female youth, pregnant women, moms trying to reunite with their children, etc.)  In a time of huge cuts coming, we need to figure out ways to add capacity at the local level and not limit shelter.  All those who supported this plan and are afraid that someone will point out that there are moochers in the shelters, stand proud and say, "It is the least we can offer. We are a compassionate city and we don't want the addicted, the mentally ill, the lazy or those who have made bad life decisions to sleep on the streets."  There should be some advantage for living in Cleveland and that is at least we will offer you a shelter bed.

Brian Davis

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History of NEOCH Civil Rights

For the entire history of the Coalition, staff have worked on protecting against municipal actions that target homeless people and the hate crimes that result when government singles out one group in our society.  We believe that there is a correlation between high numbers of hate crimes against homeless people and the cities in the United States that routinely pass laws directed at homeless people.  It is for this reason that we regularly oppose “quality of life” laws and targeted enforcement against homeless people for purely innocent behavior of attempting to live without housing.  Here is a summary of the NEOCH Civil Rights work:

Clements vs. Cleveland

The first attempt in the mid 1990s to stop police arresting and threatening arrest of homeless people for purely innocent behavior of sitting or sleeping on the sidewalk.  Police accused of driving homeless people to the outskirts of Cuyahoga County and dropping them off the bus line.  The City of Cleveland eventually settled with the four plaintiffs and basically blamed “rogue cops” for misinterpreting the directives issued from the administration.  Richard Clements passed away in New York this year.

Homeless Grapevine vs. City of Cleveland

The City felt that vendors of the street newspaper must buy a license before they could sell a paper on the sidewalks of Cleveland.  NEOCH won in the district court, but was reversed on appeal.  City tried to pass legislation to force vendors buy a license, but could not get the legislation through the City Council.  Vendors are currently free to sell the paper within the City of Cleveland with only an agency issued license, but City maintains right to regulate the sidewalk if the City Council can agree. 

Key vs. City of Cleveland

This was the second attempt to stop the sweeps of homeless people in Cleveland.  Police began ticketing homeless people around the holidays to encourage people to come Downtown to shop.  Police were willing to testify that this was City policy at the time because they did not want to be labelled as “going rogue.”  Cleveland settled the lawsuit in 2000 and we have posed the settlement on our website.  It basically states that the police will not arrest or threaten arrest anyone for purely innocent behavior of sitting, sleeping, standing or eating on the sidewalk as long as they are not blocking access.  NEOCH tests this agreement every November to assure that it is still being followed (Appendix A). 

Stun Gun Attacks

In the early 2000s, there were young people who came to Cleveland from Youngstown and recorded themselves using a Taser stun gun to shock homeless people and film their reaction.  NEOCH pushed for harsh punishments for these three young people, and held a community meeting to talk about protection for vulnerable populations.

Homeless Exploitation Videos

There were major retailers in the United States online and in stores that were selling videos of homeless people fighting in exchange for change or alcohol.  NEOCH worked with the National Coalition for the Homeless to convince major retailers such as Best Buy and Target to stop selling these exploitation videos in their stores.  These were recorded by young people and collected together and then sold in many stores and online retailers.

Covenant to Serve Food

The City was concerned over the mess being created on Public Square by church groups feeding homeless people.  We worked with the new administration to avoid the City passing legislation that we would have had to challenge in court.  NEOCH worked out a “covenant” where the church groups would move off public square to a parking lot with trash and bathroom facilities and the City agreed to not introduce legislation.

The Right to Shelter

Since the founding of the Coalition, NEOCH has fought to assure that the shelters are accessible to everyone in need and at no time will the shelters turn people away over a lack of space.  For over 20 years we have had guaranteed access to shelter in Cleveland, and we have worked to improve the conditions at the shelters.  When the shelters are full, providers will transport people to a church or recreation center as an overflow site if the building capacity is reached.  We also support the development of an overnight drop in center similar to Metanoia for the entire year.

Voting Lawsuit Against the State of Ohio

NEOCH has filed suit against the State of Ohio and three Secretaries of State from 2005 through the present over voting procedures in the state.  Our concern was regarding the identification requirements and their impact on reducing turnout by low income, homeless and minority voters.  I have provided a series of depositions in this case.  In years 2006, 2008 and 2012, we had a settlement with the state to allow homeless people to use a social security number to have their ballot count if they voted in person.  This agreement was binding until 2014 when the state changed the law regarding the use of identification for provisional ballots.

Brian Davis

Posts reflect the opinion of those who sign the entry