Saturday, November 17, 2007

Failures of Government 3

Your Government In Action--OHS II

It is so easy to pick on the Office of Homeless Services when you realize that government created the office in 1992-3 when there were 9,500 homeless people in Cleveland in order to have one group who could focus on the problem and reduce the number of people who find themselves homeless. Fourteen years later, there are 20,000 homeless people and no end in sight. It is no wonder that government gets a bad name with a track record like OHS. This group's primary purpose is to bring in government funds to the county, but they have a book club that meets every other month to talk about the problems over coffee. This group is improperly called the OHS Advisory Board since they advise no one, but it is always nice to talk about homelessness for two hours every eight weeks.

Anyway, they canceled the book club this week instead asking the homeless experts to crowd into a small room to listen to some "experts" from around the country talk about how to better serve families who become homeless as part of the Enterprise national conference. In our weekly effort to demonstrate how your government fails you, I give you the OHS family homeless forum. This invitation only meeting was an attempt to get some handle on this growing population that is overwhelming the shelters. NEOCH raised concerns about the growing problem of homeless families in a forum we held in March 2007. We had actual homeless families give a snapshot of the horrible (soon to be on our website under solutions/public policy) conditions women and children face when they become homeless in Cleveland. It is one of the fastest growing sub population in our community, and it is a near certainty that a Mom and Dad will have to break up in order to get into a shelter. For the OHS forum, we were all pushed into a little room at the Renaissance Hotel (my least favorite place in Cleveland) to hear how other communities are doing so much better than Cleveland. In the ultimate humiliation, we had to listen to the woman from the National Alliance to End Homelessness tell us that Columbus, Ohio is solving family homelessness, and Cleveland is way behind our neighbors to the south.

There was so much wrong with this three hour workshop that I could write a book, but I will just give you the top 10 failings of this conference workshop. I have to tell you that I am not a big fan of conferences. In this day of the internet, just put your powerpoint on the internet and let me go look at the information. In addition, what the hell do people from New York, Washington or Portland know about Cleveland or what will work locally? My feeling is that unless you can tell us how to decrease homelessness by half with a detailed funding plan and without causing others to take their place in the shelter line than you might as well be coming to talk about the proper color scheme for painting the living rooms of shelters. Your tax dollars and government resources in staff time went into this conference designed to give us ideas for how to reduce family homelessness. What went wrong with this forum:

1. The national groups have no credibility with regard to family homelessness. Enterprise-- national, National Alliance to End Homelessness, and the Center for Urban Community Services along with the research they base their work on are all part of the problem. They have pushed a funding mechanism serving long term single adult homeless people stealing resources from women with children who find themselves homeless.

2. All of these groups continue to use the offensive term "chronically" homeless, which makes it seem as though homelessness is some kind of medical condition.

3. The statistics used are bogus. How do you measure decreases in the shelter population when only a few cities in the United States have guaranteed access to shelter? All the other cities see decreases in shelter populations by closing shelters or limiting access.

4. They kept referring to "Housing First" successes, but all of us in the business know that housing first programs are directed at single adults. HUD is giving preferences to programs in funding housing first programs that serve single adults, and so why did the presenters keep mentioning a program that does not serve families?

5. These programs that the presenters talked about may be cool, but there is no money to fund them in one of the poorest cities in America. They do not understand how bad off we are locally, and they never tell us where we are supposed to get the money for these programs. We don't need anymore ideas; we need bundles of cash.

6. They always talk about these incredibly expensive programs to serve only 67 people. We have thousands of families who need help in Cleveland (probably 50,000 households). We need more Yugos or even Scooters, but they keep showing us Cadillac programs. How many times would you go back to the car dealership, if every time you asked to see an old Ford Festiva they would bring out a new Hummer?

7. It is fiction to think that the County Child Welfare, Hospitals, or Jails will give up their money to homeless or housing programs even if we can demonstrate that we will take a few homeless people out of their systems. There are so many thousands who use these public systems, none of them would even realize that a couple of families got into housing. As I have said many times, we need to build 5,000 units of affordable housing a year before any of these systems, including the shelters, would see any decrease in their clients.

8. Why do these national groups keep talking about getting homeless people to rely on "mainstream resources" instead of homeless programs? Everyone who knows anything realizes that the mainstream resources are too difficult to access or have incredible waiting lists. We know disability assistance, public housing, and subsidized housing all have three year waits, and cash assistance, child care help, and food stamps all have huge limitations that make them difficult to access. Many view the Ohio Lottery as a more likely social service program than most of the "mainstream" government resources.

9. The Portland/Seattle program that was highlighted is only 2 years old and only served 67 people. How does this help us? It was so new and served so few people it does not meet our needs. No one ever asks how do we balance the needs of keeping the thousands of homeless people alive with the intensive and expensive needs of some of the population?

10. The report that was just completed on preventing homelessness and preserving affordable housing in our community, Heading Home, was never even mentioned. This was a report in which OHS and other government entities helped write and contained a series of seven or eight recommended solutions for our community that was not even referenced or available at the forum. What a missed opportunity.

Those are three hours I will never get back. It just goes to prove that our current society measures success based on the ability to place your thoughts on a power point slide over actual accomplishments.

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

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