Fair Housing Rights of People in Shelter

            Discrimination is a serious issue that can be heightened in vulnerable populations. Until recently, there were no explicitly stated laws citing the rights of the homeless. During the Obama administration, the federal department of Housing and Urban Development took a much broader interpretation of what constitutes a residential setting.  They began looking at shelters as residential facilities and therefore had to abide by the federal fair housing laws.  NEOCH worked with the local fair housing Center, Housing Research and Advocacy Center to put together a brochure for homeless people to use to assert their rights.    Examples of discrimination regarding housing can include rejecting a person from housing opportunities, denying them housing, and segregating people within a facility. Identifying the available resources for reporting discrimination grievances is an important step in overcoming barriers associated with homelessness.

            Sexual orientation, gender identity, race/ethnicity, and religion are all protected classes under federal law. Within each class, specific acts mandate actions that housing providers cannot take against a person simply based on who they are. For example, the Violence against Women Act (VAWA) protects women against violence and stalking, including while they are living in public-assisted housing. This act is an incredible safeguard for women because it relieves them from a constant fear of danger. In some cases, this may help protect them from the reasons they became homeless in the first place. Factors qualifying individuals as having a disability are also very important to be understood. These range from mental illness to cancer to HIV/AIDS. Housing providers including shelters cannot use these as reasons to turn a person away and an individual can press charges if there is evidence that a provider was attempting to violate these rights. Related to disabilities, it is illegal to reject a service animal from living in a home with the owner including in a shelter.

        While housing providers can ask for proof of the need for a service animal, requiring “pet deposits” or refusing an animal for some other reason is unacceptable. There have been situations in the past where a service animal was considered a “pet” by a housing provider and, therefore, the service animal and the person were rejected. In these circumstances, it is essential for the person facing discrimination to know their rights and to know the laws.  This brochure and webpage should help homeless people know their rights. 

            Fair housing is a fundamental right, regardless of a person’s background that was a cornerstone of the Civil Rights acts of the late 1960s and early 1970s. This brochure that was recently published outlines how shelters need to respect the fair housing rights of homeless people.  This includes service animals, protecting the rights of LGBT individuals, and protecting against sexual harassments.  If you feel you have experienced discrimination, follow the steps to filing a fair housing complaint. This brochure gives contact information for agencies who can offer assistance if you feel your rights were violated.  The Housing Center has over the previous four years worked to protect the rights of homeless people who felt their rights were violated.  We will have hard copies of these brochures available to distribute in the near future.  Right now there is a link at the bottom of the webpage to print out and make copies of. 

by Kelly the Intern

Posts reflect the opinion of those who sign the entry

Quiz: Standard vs. Policy in Government

It is difficult to interact with government.  Homeless people are frustrated that there is no where to go within government to complain about conditions or to get an impartial verdict on discharge.  [Editor's Note: The County says that Cleveland Mediation Center acts as an impartial third party.  Most homeless people feel that CMC is too closely related to Frontline Services as the administrator of the "diversion" program at Coordinated Intake.] For example, where do women go if they get sick from the food served in the shelter?  Where do they go if they are transported to the hospital and the staff throw all their items away before they return from the hospital?  Where do you go to get someone not connected to the shelter to determine if your discharge from the shelter was fair and followed the rules?

Two weeks back a woman on a breathing machine and a walker was kicked out of the shelter for fighting with another resident.  Where can she go to complain that the staff just sat back and did not do anything about the escalating verbal altercation until the situation led to a physical pushing match?  Then they stepped in to kick both women out.  Most women find the current grievance process broken and the procedure never involves an impartial third party that is not a subcontractor of the Women's Shelter. 

The only way that homeless people have found that they have influence over how the shelters operate is the contracts given to the shelters by Cuyahoga County.  The County says that any shelter receiving public money must abide by "shelter standards" in order to receive public funds.  The director signs the contract verifying that they will in fact follow the "shelter standards" and then from what I have seen  forgets about it until the next year.  Over the last year, the shelters have been good about posting these rules on the bulletin boards, and the County included a change in the discharge procedure.  This was a big change and does not allowing staff to discharge people for non-criminal behavior.  It also allows for punishments not to be imposed that have an impact on a person's health and safety until they complete the grievance process.  These are huge improvements in the shelter.   The County has set up this elaborate system to approve new standards within the shelters.   At the July OHS meeting the County Homeless Advisory approved the following:

Public Policy recommendation (minus two members present at the meeting) to the OHS Advisory Board for confirmation

a) Scope of matters to be considered codifying as a Shelter Standard

  • The scope of a shelter “standard” will address reasonable requirements that concern basic shelter operations to assure safety, health, sercurity, and respect within the shelter facility. The objective of setting community standards is to establish a minimum benchmark for shelter operations. Standards are different from “policies”. Policies describe how a standard is implemented by the provider agency. 

In reviewing suggestions for shelter standards, the first step will be to decide if the proposal meets the criteria of a “standard” as opposed to a "priority."  We have come up with a quiz here for you.  From the current list of shelter standards pick if this is a standard or a policy.  The answers will be at the end of the quz.

Is this a standard or a policy?

1. Standard or a policy: 

A. All shelter staff shall receive training in at least the following: a. Emergency evacuation procedures; and b. Agency operating procedures.  OR

B. The shelter shall be clean and in good repair.

2. Standard or a Policy?

a. Shelters providing food service shall make adequate provisions for the sanitary storage and preparation of foods.

b.  The shelter shall have a written policy regarding the control of infectious diseases, such as HIV, tuberculosis, etc. (I.22)

3. Standard or a Policy?

a. The shelter shall post and read, or otherwise make known, the rules, regulations, and procedures of the shelter. (I22)

b. The shelter shall only require clients to perform duties directly related to daily living activities within the shelter.

4. Standard or a Policy?

a. Shelters must have written policies related to serving healthy, balanced meals, and shelters must have access to consult with a dietician regarding serving clients with special dietary needs. (IV.32)

b. The shelter shall provide sufficient showers/baths, washbasins and toilets that are in proper operating condition for personal hygiene.  These should be adequate for the number of people served.  Clean towels, soap and toilet tissue shall be available to each client.  (I. 13)

5. Standard or Policy?

a. The shelter shall assure that at least one staff person on duty is trained in emergency first aid procedures. (I36)

b. The shelter shall post and read, or otherwise make known, the rights and responsibilities of shelter clients that shall include a grievance procedure for addressing potential violations of their rights. (I22)

6. Standard or Policy?

a. The shelter shall have reasonable access to transportation services.

b. The shelter shall provide adequate natural or artificial illumination to    permit normal activities and to support the health and safety of occupants.  Sufficient electrical sources shall be provided to permit the use of essential electrical appliances while assuring safety from fire.

7. Standard or Policy?

a. The shelter shall maintain an attendance list which includes, at least, the name and sex of each person residing in the shelter.

b. Each shelter must have a written visitation policy as part of its safety plan (Visitation” refers to non-shelter residents seeking to enter the facility.)


We have no idea what the answers are for this quiz.  We have no idea the difference between a policy and standard are.  We have no idea what this new rule means or if they will go back and take out all the policies from the current shelter standards.  It is a strange game of symantics we have to go through to get social justice within the shelters. 


Brian Davis

Posts reflect the opinion of those who sign the entry.

Cleveland Tough Featured Vet Robinson on WCPN

This is reprinted from the WCPN.org website and a story by Brian Bull from a series called Cleveland Tough. Listen to the story here.  Here is the full series of stories.  Photos also by Brian Bull.

My name is Joyce Robinson, I’m a 56-year-old previously homeless, unemployed female veteran.  I was in a garage apartment when I became homeless.  I sold most of my furniture, jewelry, uhm... I went to Half Price Books and sold records and books, and everything.  But after a while, I thought, "You know what? I’m just gonna let this go."  I called the Veterans Service Commission, and they referred me to the West Side Catholic Center. That’s the shelter that I stayed at.

Early reflections of living in the shelter

The first night was difficult for me. And that first night through the next seven days, I cried. Every single night. I had truly hit rock bottom. The first week I was just walking around in a haze. 'Cause I think that when you become homeless, you lose something of yourself. It’s like, "Okay... I’ve lost my home, I’ve lost this, I’m a loser."

On the accommodations and care

I was there about three weeks and then I got my own room, which is good. There was a twin bed, a rocking chair, a chest of drawers, and a little side table.

They gave us a washcloth and a towel. Shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste, toothbrush... everything you would need for your hygiene.

Upstairs, there were five bathrooms. And it was difficult, especially during school times because parents with children, occupying everything. Because not everybody’s idea of 'clean' is the same.  I had to be in at 6 o’clock every night. That was the most difficult thing for me. Not being able to just go when you want to and come back when you want to.  But after a while, it was a comfort to know that I had this regimen. It helped in the healing process.

Perceptions of the homeless

If you were to ask any ten people ...what they think of when they think of a homeless person, I don’t think that I would fit that description. I have a Master’s Degree. Been in the military. I’ve raised a daughter to adulthood successfully.  But when you think of homeless people, you think of people living under the bridges, pushing carts, they don’t want to work. You made a choice to be homeless. Which is ridiculous.

Making her way back to independence

In June of last year, I became involved in a program at Veterans Administration. We would transport patients to appointments, basically re-acclimate us to the work world. Having to be at work at a certain time, doing whatever and getting a paycheck. Helped me get back into residential living.  I just recently moved and am now in my own apartment.  My daughter is excited for me, she says, "Now when I come to visit, I’ll have some place to stay."  I said "sure, you can pull up a piece of floor."  But she’s excited for me because she knew it was very difficult.  Stepping into my new place was almost as scary as the first night I was in the shelter, because I had my routine down, and I have nothing but time.  And it’s like, "Oh, what do I do now?" (LAUGHS).  I remember... I was with a friend. I kept looking at my watch.

She says, "Joyce... you’re not at the shelter. You have all the time in the world."  And I says, "Oh, that’s right. I do."  It’s a great feeling.  My apartment doesn’t have everything in it just yet... but it’s mine.


Robinson on the early phases of living in a shelter

Initially, my day was filled with... to be honest, just walking around in a haze. Just trying to figure out how I got here, now what do I do? Just getting used to the routine. After the weather broke, I’d walk across the Lorain-Carnegie bridge for exercise which is good. Or walk to the library, or walk around the West Side Market area.

After a while, I’d attend the employment clinics and those were great because presenters gave us tips on job searching, helping us with resumes, that kind of thing. Though them, I also participated in a three-week program for veterans. It helped me with job search, refined my resume, and really built up my confidence again.

Because when you become homeless, you lose something of yourself. "I’ve lost my home, I’ve lost this, I’m a loser." And I remember talking with one of my counselors at East Side Vets Center, and she asked me how I felt. And I said, "I felt worthless" and she said, "Are you sure ‘worthless’ is the word you’re looking for?"

And as we talked, she said, “I think the word you’re looking for is ‘unproductive’.” But I think at that time when I said “worthless”, at that point that’s what I felt. But after talking to her I think “unproductive” was a more accurate term. But you feel that way, it’s like... I don’t know.

On getting emotional support from VA specialists

What helped me get back to residential living was going through the program at VA, and Toni Johnson (Cleveland VA Medical Center’s Women’s Homeless Coordinator) was very instrumental because she connected me with a primary care physician there, and in talking to a psychiatrist, was prescribed anti-depressant medication. Because I really hadn’t realized how depressed I was. And just going to counselors and talking to them about the situation…it was difficult because it was like trying to tear a scab off a wound and digging in there, I realized I’d been carrying garbage from 35 years ago. And as we went through therapy, I saw how it affected my life up this point. It was a good six months before things were clear to me.

On making friends at the women’s shelter

I made some friends at the shelter. I was closer to the veterans. One moved to Alabama in August. Another one moved to Georgia... I think in October. And there was one who moved in June of last year, it’s interesting because she went to school with my daughter and she knew my daughter. Those were the closest three I think.

I stay in touch with them. And am keeping them abreast of my situation. “So…have you moved yet?” “Yes.” “Yay! Yay!” “Did you get furniture?” “Yay!” “A bed?” “Yay!” So it’s great keeping track of them. The one in Alabama was the one who got me out and walking, and walking really helped me to decompress and de-stress.

On her job with the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless

Having been homeless for 14 months, and now working with the homeless on this side of it, it’s really interesting. Part of what I do is contacting political officials, different organizations, and fielding calls from people who need resources and being able to suggest various resources, because I’ve used them myself, or am more familiar with them now because I’ve worked with the organization.

And I like the fact there’s so many aspects to this positon. Data entry, meetings, going to shelters, and talking with resident council members, going to meetings with the Homeless Congress, and seeing what’s going on. If people really understood that homeless are not happy to sit and accept handouts, but are really trying to do something to help their plight and other homeless people, it might just change the idea of what homelessness is and what homeless people are about.

We have lists of agencies, on street cards which are really great because they list medical facilities, churches and all they provide, that kind of thing. Even if you lose your home and temporary stay, there are places that you can go for assistance. The sooner you do the better.

One thing…there are more resources for families and males, single females is really difficult as far as finding shelter.

Now if you’re a veteran, there are more options. But for the average female, it’s difficult to find a place to go because lots of places are geared towards families. More and more families are becoming homeless. Needing shelter. Like they’re priority. We at NEOCH have tons of information on things that you can do. Or call 211.

That’s the thing. If you think you’re going to do it, don’t feel you have to do it by yourself. You don’t have to be alone, there are resources and people out there to help you, it takes a load off. It’s awesome the assistance available, but you have to ask.

And don’t be afraid to ask.

On what people can do to help the homeless

I just want to say that when people see people on the street, a lot of the homeless I’ve noticed from working here, they do not ask for assistance because they’re not very trusting. The ones who really need the assistance aren’t the ones asking for, 50 cents, whatever. These people don’t ask, they’re sought out, found by outreach workers.

If you see someone down on their luck or whatever, if you don’t want to give anything, say a prayer for them. You have no idea what happened in their life to bring them to that point. If you feel that you want to assist, take clothing and hygiene kits to the shelters. Volunteer at a shelter, or NEOCH, to see up close what it’s like to work with the homeless.

Don’t be so quick to judge because what you think may not really be. If you really want to help, don’t give your money, give your time. That’s the thing.