Every month, NEOCH organizes a meeting called the Homeless Congress at the Bishop Cosgrove Center in Cleveland. This meeting features two homeless residents from each of the shelters in Cleveland and six from the big men's shelter at Lakeside, and three women who represent the Community Women's Shelter. They have worked on a response to the foreclosure crisis, they raised concern in November 2008 about the conditions at the Community Women's Shelter. The Congress has recently commented on the Central Intake, and they have helped with a number of research projects about the state of homelessness in Cleveland. This last week, both Cleveland City Councilman Joe Cimperman and Matt Zone attended the meeting to talk to representatives of the various shelters.
There were 10 different shelters represented at the meeting, and we had a full agenda planned with a discussion about this $12 million that was coming to Cleveland to prevent homelessness. We never got around to most of the agenda, because we spent about an hour of the meeting on the state of the shelters in Cleveland. We were able to get a few updates on previous issues that we have focused on, but the individuals wanted to talk about the sorry state of the shelters in Cleveland. Before people jump to negative stereotypes about the "ungrateful homeless who have the nerve to comment on a charity that they pay nothing for," we have to say that the shelters are way better than they were in the 1990s when the bulk of the shelters were just a matt on the floor of a garage. We have to also say that homeless people pay a higher percentage of their income on taxes than the typical home owner in our community. They often do not qualify for Earned Income Tax credit because of debt, and certainly not all the tax credits for owning a home or heading up a household. So, they pay a great deal in sales tax and pay employment taxes without much opportunity for taxes returned to them from an income tax return every year. Bottom line is that they pay into the system at a high level, and do not get much back (no free health care, no guaranteed safe place to live, or even a solid minimum wage job). So, at least they could expect the overcrowded shelters would provide a safe, decent, warm environment to find stable housing.
There were a lot of charges that came up at the meeting especially around conditions at the Community Women's Shelter in Cleveland. To be fair, the shelter has a new director who started only two and a half weeks ago, and is trying to clean up the facility while at the same time staying in operation. Afterall, a new director cannot fire everyone to get the staff back under control. The shelter is a vital service and must remain open 24 hours a day 365 days a year. It is difficult to steer a shelter that has gone far off course. The women heard about this meeting in February and met to develop a presentation for the Councilmembers. They wrote down dates and times and issues that happened at the facility. Some of the incidents that came up included the serving of expired food, one woman was jailed by the police/security on site. They arrested her for raising her voice to a staff person putting her hands on the resident. Staff disrespect was a common theme for many of the shelter residents. There was a call for better training across the board especially mediation training. The other issue that came up repeatedly was where do homeless people go to complain about these issues? What government entity would respond to these concerns. Other concerns expressed by residents include:
- Staff do not know CPR or other basic health issues.
- We need better oversight of the resources donated to the shelters
- Questions about who makes sure that the shelter dollars are going to those in need?
- We need a place to send those actively using drugs or alcohol (not the streets as happens now.)
- We need more nurses in the shelter.
- There were allegations of some illegal activity at the shelters including sexual harrassment and theft by staff as well as charges that some staff would come to work drunk.
- All the shelters need to be more like West Side Catholic shelter.
- There are not a lot of service offered to teach people how to live independently.
- The current standards are only verified once a year, and no one make sure that the Ohio Basic Shelter Standards are monitored on a daily basis.
- Most do not get basic items like hygiene kits or clean linens or even to talk to a housing professional.
There were a few members of the Congress who urged passage of the proposed Shelter Standards Bill. I have to mention Richard, who recently got into housing and represents the Bishop Cosgrove Center at the meeting, passionately argued that the only way that the shelters will be cleaned up is if the City passes a law to protect homeless people. It is an election year in 2009 for City Council members. There was a great deal of anger and passion at this meeting by people who sleep in the shelters. We will help homeless people make this an issue with the City Council election. Afterall, 80% of the budgets for the shelters comes from public sources. There is extensive scrutiny of most other public funds, but the shelters seem to be outside public oversight except the once per year review. If a taxpayer is sleeping in a landlord's building they can go to court to seek relief from invasions of privacy or harassment, but a taxpayer living in a shelter is at the mercy of the staff and have no where to complain.
We have a special meeting in two weeks to talk about the prevention dollars, and we will take up the shelter standards bill at our April 9 meeting. We have to thank both Councilman Cimperman and Councilman Zone for attending the meeting and listening to the concerns of this constituency.
Posts by Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless staff and Board.