Sunday, August 05, 2007

You Want Service?

More Hurdles to Get Help

This is one of those commentaries that will get us in trouble. It is one of those times when our critics will say, "Don't complain about a free service." The problem is that I don't believe that we should race to provide the minimum service, but we should strive to provide overwhelming help in hopes that some of it actually takes hold. I think that we have an obligation to provide the best care to those who are facing their greatest challenge to stability. Homeless people have no place to store their stuff, very little contact with the world, and they usually have a hard time getting transportation.

The folks at St. Vincent DePaul began running a furniture bank in Cleveland a few years ago. They grabbed the name Cleveland Furniture Bank, but would not agree to transparency in their operations. A big concern of the homeless service providers was with the disposition of well maintained furniture and the link with the St. Vincent DePaul store. The question that came up was: would only the crappy furniture be given to the newly housed and all the good stuff be sold in the store? Because the furniture bank would not agree to clear and transparent guidelines, all the service providers were wary.

Now the program has been underway for a little over a year, and they are making changes. The latest change is that clients have to bring a caseworker with them in order to get furniture. This is an unnecessary burden on homeless people and the social service providers. We don't have time to go all the way out to Biddulph and spend a couple of hours babysitting an adult ready to move into housing. How do homeless people who figure out their own way off the streets access the furniture bank if they have to bring an already overwhelmed caseworker? St. Vincent DePaul claims that 40% of the people do not make their appointments, and so this is the reason for the change in policy. If they have figured out the statistics can't they overbook to make sure that they have enough clients. All of us overbook having realized that we cannot count on 100% participation with an appointment based system. We do not put barriers in the way for homeless people to have to navigate in order to get assistance.

This is an example of the problem with some groups never sitting down and talking to homeless people or having only token representation of a formerly homeless person from 1977 as a point of reference. No current or recently homeless person would think that this was a good idea. In fact, those experiencing homelessness and service providers don't always agree, but this is one area in which the service providers would probably agree that this is a bad idea. I hope that it does not take an entire year of very small numbers getting help before they realize this policy change is harmful to the community. I hope that they realize that the County case workers, shelter staff, and mental health agencies are drowning in requests for help in one of the poorest cities in America. They do not have time to send a case worker out to sit with a client while they are screened for eligibility with the Furniture Bank. The whole system would grind to a halt with mile long lines if all the agencies started requiring a case manager to babysit at every appointment. Just because this is easier for furniture bank staff does not mean that it is a good idea.

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

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