Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Public Square: A Storm on the Horizon?

A Survey of the Number Sleeping Outside

Every year during the Thanksgiving weekend, NEOCH staff walk downtown to count the number of people who choose to sleep outside. This has two purposes: the first is to make sure that there is no harassment of homeless people in keeping with the Key vs. City of Cleveland legal agreement. In 2000, NEOCH signed an agreement with the City to stop police officers, under the direction of the Mayor, from confronting homeless people and telling them that they could not sleep on the public spaces. We signed an agreement after filing a lawsuit, which prevented police from arresting or threatening arrest of homeless people for purely innocent behavior of sitting, sleeping, standing or eating on the sidewalk. So every year we walk downtown and make sure that the agreement is in place and their is no violation. Cleveland is one of the only cities with such an agreement with homeless people, and so NEOCH staff go out to test this agreement every year. The other purpose is to count the number of people who reject the shelters during the year and look at the extent of the problem. The holiday weekend is a good baseline, because it is the smallest number that will be out for the entire year. Many family members take their relatives in for Thanksgiving while others stay in the shelters to participate in the large number of meals served during the holidays.

This year, we learned a few things on a very pleasant holiday weekend. By the way, the weather has very little impact on the number of people sleeping outside anymore. The people who reject the shelters have an extensive plan for survival with blankets, plastic and even tents. This year we saw 40 people sleeping downtown up from 27 last year--more than a 60% increase. We did not see as many people on Public Square, but saw many around the Square in various places. We saw more people in out-of-the-way locations. We walked on every street from East 20th to West 3rd from the Lake back to Carnegie Ave. to Jacobs Field. Unlike last year, we did not see anyone who was not prepared for the cold. Last year, we found a guy with no gloves, no blanket and a very thin coat lying on the sidewalk in a high traffic area. We have almost reached the number of people sleeping outside that we saw before the men's shelter opened at 2100 Lakeside.

Why are people rejecting the shelters for outside? Some do not like the rules in shelter or find it too demeaning to ask for help. Some have gotten fed up with the wait or the lack of progress in the shelters and give up. That number seems to go up every year. Only a few gave up in the first few years, but now as many as 40 people are giving up on shelters for the streets. Some don't like to be near people, others don't like the problems with theft and some just don't like the smell of being around a hundred other people. In those cold nights of Cleveland with the wind blowing off the lake, there are more than 40 people who find the streets of Cleveland more attractive than the shelters. Think about that as you shovel the snow or clear off your car this holiday season.

I think that we are going to have issues with Public Square in the near future. We did get a complaint from a homeless guy about police urging people to leave the Square. We are following up on these concerns. The Downtown businesses who have now taxed themselves to keep the sidewalks clean are not going to tolerate people sleeping on those clean sidewalks. They are all paying a pretty penny for those clean up crews, and then to have people sleeping on the sidewalk messes up their entire business plan. It seems like the two interests iof homeless people and corporate are headed for conflict. I hope that this can be resolved peacefully with the City asking the corporate community to calm down and help with real solutions instead of law enforcement activities.

A history of the Thanksgiving walk by the Coalition:
2006: 40 people sleeping outside Downtown
2005: 27 people sleeping outside Downtown
2004: 19 people sleeping outside Downtown
2003: 11 people sleeping outside Downtown
2002: 9 people sleeping outside Downtown
2001: 6 people sleeping outside Downtown
2000: 3-5 people sleeping outside Downtown*
*This is the first year that 2100 Lakeside is in operation.
1999: 42 people sleeping outside Downtown
1998: 60 people sleeping outside Downtown

Posts by Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless staff and Board.

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