“Grinching and Penny Pinching” Overwhelm Shelter Residents

            by Kevin E. Cleary

          As a cruel winter night buried Cleveland in mounds of snow on December 23, 2004, Michelle Wilkerson-Guerry was trying to make it back from her temp job in Macedonia to the Community Women’s Shelter. It was very late, and she was cold and tired from a long day of catering. The bus lines weren’t heading toward the shelter, and the snow, the distance, and her fatigue made walking virtually impossible. She wasn’t able to call the shelter and inform them of her absence because her friend’s phone lines were down due to the excessive snowfall.

            Guerry decided to stay with her friend that night because her friend had fallen in her driveway. She stayed through Thursday to make sure her friend was recuperating and to spend some time with her friend’s children. Guerry was unable to return to the Community Women’s Shelter until Friday at 12:30 in the afternoon. The staff Xeroxed a copy of her work receipt from Wednesday upon her arrival. A Christmas party was underway and Guerry couldn’t understand why everyone seemed to be watching her. It was then she was informed, by another client, that her possessions had been discarded at 2AM Thursday morning by the night staff. Angered, and obviously upset, she found that the day staff had no knowledge of what had transpired because a proper inventory was initially lacking.

            Guerry lost eleven $100 bills which she had been saving to buy Christmas presents for her family, and to pay her first month’s rent and gas deposit on a new apartment for which she had already paid a deposit of $450.00. The Community Women’s Shelter had previously allowed residents to store valuables in a safe by having two staff members and the client sign a “deposit of valuables” slip. The same procedure was used for removal of valuables. Because of allegations of employee theft by a client, the use of the safe was discontinued.

            Wilkerson-Guerry also lost her bartending/server tuxedo shirts, pants, vests, bow ties, shoes, and professional suits that she used for her employment and job searching. All of her personal papers such as her birth certificates and current resumes were discarded. Her briefcases, underwear, socks, and personal hygiene products, all were thrown away. The meager possessions they had saved for her were a carton of books, a bag of pennies in a small purse, and some personal jewelry which had still been in the safe.

            Some of the other residents reportedly attempted to stop the night staff from removing Guerry’s things by moving them into their own rooms, but they were threatened with arrest if they interfered. Guerry believes she was targeted as a leader because she has a tendency to speak her mind, and others often listen. She believes the removal of her things was intentional because it didn’t follow CWS’s policy.

            According to CWS policy, if someone does not return within twenty-four hours, her personal items are supposed to be logged and held in storage. This was not done in her case, and women once had more time before such drastic measures were taken. As recently as April of 2004, the women had three days to be absent before their possessions were discarded. At some point, Mental Health Services changed the allotted time to 24 hours, claiming “staff shortage.”

            Guerry believes this incident reflects a larger pattern of disrespect for the residents of the shelter by Mental Health Services staff. A uniformed security officer is on premises, and many women are intimidated into mock complacency while some members of the staff have been said to be verbally abusive. There appear to be instances of favoritism; it seems individuals who can be more easily pigeonholed into mental health categories are treated more fairly. According to Guerry, “There’s an attitude of, well, you’re not a drug addict or an alcoholic, and you’re educated, why are you here? Because of the economy!”

            There are other issues as well. The staff seems to have little respect for client confidentiality, and seems to have no idea that many women staying in the shelter are forced to be there by circumstance. Women who don’t make it to the shelter by 9:30 PM are forced to sleep upright in a chair until 6:30 AM, and are not permitted to go to their rooms. According to Guerry, Mental Health Services seems hindered by not knowing how to properly run the shelter, and frequently changes policies without consulting the residents. The administration often cites budget shortfalls and staff shortages as to why the policies change or why they can’t provide certain forms of assistance to various residents. Yet, when situations like Michelle Wilkerson-Guerry’s occur, these obstacles seem to temporarily disappear.

            Guerry was not fully recompensed for the loss of her possessions, but Mental Health Services did attempt to rectify the situation. She was given rental assistance so she could move into her new apartment, a paycheck was replaced, and deposits were put down for her stove and refrigerator. She is happy in her new apartment, and speaks highly of her landlord. But she feels that Mental Health Services needs to re-examine how it is running the Community Women’s Shelter at 2219 Payne Avenue.

            “They need to start realizing that a lot of these women have absolutely nothing except what they’ve brought to the shelter. It’s inhumane to take that away from them. . . They need to treat us like human beings, not like cattle or statistics,” Guerry said.  

Copyright NEOCH, The Homeless Grapevine #68, February 2005 All Rights Reserved.