Friday, February 26, 2010

Reflections on the Death at the Shelter

Aftermath of the Shelter Director Death

We now have some distance from the death of Rita Ciofani and it is time to focus less on the grief and start talking about causes. We also need to talk as a community about how to avoid this ever happening again. Before anyone gets the wrong idea, I have to say that I love the VOA Veterans Resource Center. I have been in the facility many times, and each time I feel a sense of pride that this is how we are treating our veterans. It is one of the best shelters in the community and a place that honors the service of those who are struggling after giving a period of their life to preserve and protect the United States. I also have to say that I have the utmost respect for the Volunteers of America as an agency. Their facilities are always clean and well managed. They provide some of the most important services in the community, and we work with them often.

I have begun getting calls about upgrades in security at the shelters locally. While homeless people and shelter workers want to feel secure, there is a danger that we will focus on devices and technology and not on the people. We can't turn the shelters into prisons. There are a great many people already who refuse to use the shelters because of the rules and the institutional environment. We cannot add to this number by making the shelters into jails. As the police said to us at the Homeless Congress meeting, "anything can be used as a weapon, and some times people just snap." So, we need to work on reducing tensions and defusing conflict in the shelters as a part of the security plans. I am sure that Ms. Ciofani was working on reducing conflict because of her background, but I don't know if all the shelters use a similar strategy.

My biggest concern was the article that appeared in the Plain Dealer on the day after the tragedy. I understand the need for the media to get the story quickly, but I was offended that the Volunteers of America responded to the story. The story was basically about the events of the day of the attack and the reason that Raymond Ice was thrown into such a rage. I don't understand why the VOA could not say, "We are not going to comment at this time, because we are focused on comforting the families and the residents at the shelter." Instead we got spin about how the shelter did not discharge Mr. Ice to the streets.

Out of respect for the families, I have held my tongue about this incident. The reality is that discharging someone to Lakeside is the same as discharging someone to the streets. See the way things work in Cleveland is that Lakeside does not turn people away, but those new to the shelter must leave everyday and do not have a standard bed. Mr. Ice had worked his way up to the VOA where he enjoyed semi-privacy and had a place to keep his stuff. Then he was discharged back to the beginning without a bed and without a locker. He had done all that work to get to the VOA and he had to start all over. To the public this sounded like the VOA had found an alternative for Mr. Ice, but in reality he was being kicked to the streets. Why did the VOA official feel the need on the day of the deaths to talk about the private case plans and the veteran's history within the shelters?

I have no idea what happened in this incident except that Mr. Ice tried to find help to prevent his discharge, but he was unsuccessful. He reached out to other agencies (not NEOCH), but no other agency is willing to interfere in the private management of other facilities. I don't know if we will ever know if Mr. Ice was in fact given two weeks notice, but we do know many shelters kick people out the day of the infraction. Since there is no government agency that oversees the shelters, there is no where that a person can go to challenge their discharge. This is a huge issue for homeless people and it came up two weeks later with regard to the scalding death of a toddler.

It is unlikely that anything could have been done to prevent the deaths within the VOA shelters, but there are many things that we could do to make sure that people are not put in this same position in the future.

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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Community Shares Social Justice Award

Promoting Social Justice in Cleveland

Greater Cleveland Community Shares needs your help! We want to ensure that individuals accomplishing extraordinary social justice feats are applauded for their work. Check out our website at and nominate individuals and organizations making a difference.

Awards will be presented at Shares’ Annual Power Lunch on June 18th. Anyone can nominate a candidate, so feel free to go to the Shares website for more info. The deadline for nominations, March 19, is quickly approaching! Get the word out and ensure that those spearheading the most vital social justice transformation in Cleveland get to go home honored for their work!

Brian Davis

PS: NEOCH is a member of Community Shares, and you can make a contribution from your workplace to NEOCH through Shares. This would allow you to make a small donation out of your paycheck to support social justice in the area of housing and homelessness on a regular basis throughout the year.

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Saturday, February 20, 2010

Another Homeless Advocate Passes

Ruth Berzins

NEOCH was fortunate to have Ruth Berzins as an intern as she was completing her master's degree over the last few years. She focused her career on advocating on behalf of individuals. She did all that she could for her clients. She gave her energy, time and all of her knowledge to the people that she worked to help. Ruth had a long career at the Cleveland Housing Network, and attended some of our demonstrations and events through the years. I think that Kate Monter Durban of the Cleveland Housing Network said it best in the Cleveland Plain Dealer guest book on the website.
"I'd like to share my fondness and memories of Ruth. We worked together for many years. She was so sweet yet resolute in her incredible dedication to the homeless families with whom she worked. She led with her heart, and believed in the inate worth and infinite potential of every person. She loved us all. She gave me a poem a few years ago. It ended with this "May dawn find you awake and alert, approaching your new day with dreams, possibilities, and promises. May evening find you gracious and fulfilled. May you go into the night blessed, sheltered, and protected. May your soul calm, console and renew you". I will miss you, Ruth. Thank you for your beautiful dedication, and for everything you left us. We are so blessed to have known you."
Kate Monter Durban,
Cleveland, Ohio
Ruth was a volunteer with Women's Re-Entry network, and was one of the most soft-spoken individuals that I ever met. The homeless community needs another 100 Ruth Berzins working in the shelters and services, and we would have ended homelessness years ago. She sincerely cared about the people that she came in contact with, and was a pleasure to be around. At the end of her internship, she gave me a bamboo plant. She told me it needed a lot of water, but should do well in the office. It was a metaphor for her career. The people she came in contact with needed a lot of nourishment, which she provided, and they did well.

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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Remembering VOA Shelter Director

Moment of Silence

The Volunteers of America staff have sent us this notice of a system wide moment of silence to remember Rita Ciofani. Here is the information from Volunteers of America:

"Tomorrow, Wednesday, February 17, marks one week since the tragic and untimely death of Rita Ciofani, program director of Volunteers of America of Greater Ohio's Veterans Resource Center in Cleveland.
We will observe a moment of silence tomorrow at 10:00 a.m. We ask that everyone in the homeless provider community pause for a moment at that time to honor her life with silent prayer and reflect on her tremendous contributions to people in need and to Volunteers of America."

Nicole Knowlton
Vice President of Development and Communications
Volunteers of America of Greater Ohio

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Sunday, February 14, 2010

Most Media Have Acted Responsibly

Shelter Tragedy in the Media

The last few days have been tough in Cleveland for homeless people and especially homeless service providers. The media has been surprisingly understanding over the last few days. I was impressed by the article done by Joan Mazzolini in the Plain Dealer on Friday. It was a nice feature on the family of Rita Ciofani-Kercher, and her amazing life. I thought that it was great to hear the words of forgiveness in the article.
"She was very, very interested in the veterans' cause," Barnes said. "She would say that they were not always treated the way they should be." It was this personality that leaves her husband with no doubt about Ciofani-Kercher.

"The person that did this?" Kercher said. "She would forgive him."

The Plain Dealer followed up with a story about the Community Women's Shelter today from Regina Brett. We hope that this tragedy will lead to increased awareness of the homeless problem locally. Only one local media outlet has focused on the sensational and the tabloid aspects of the story, and they will remain nameless so as not to draw increased attention. The Channel 5 WEWS reporters seemed to understand the shock of the story, and were willing to focus the story on the reactions of friends and co-workers.

The Fox News outlet, WJW Channel 8, took an interesting angle by talking to the family of Raymond Ice. It was not disrespectful or an accusatory type of story. It seemed to be done in a forgiving manner. Overall, the media did a good job, in my opinion, of presenting this in a fair and balanced manner. I hope that this is a first step to healing for the homeless community.

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Thursday, February 11, 2010

Condolences to the VOA Family

Other Homeless Service Providers Saddened

This message came to NEOCH yesterday:

Dear friends and members in Cleveland:
I was saddened to learn of the murder of the VOA shelter director today, and of the death of her apparent killer at the hands of the police.

Please know that our thoughts are with you at this unsettling moment, together with our appreciation for the difficult and sometimes dangerous work that you do every day.

Wishing you Peace,


John N. Lozier, MSSW
Executive Director
National Health Care for the Homeless Council

Health Care and Housing are Human Rights. Learn more about our work or donate at
NEOCH had a regularly scheduled meeting yesterday afternoon with many of the shelters and social service providers including staff from the Veterans Administration. All were still in shock over the loss of one of our colleagues. We know that the VA and Mental Health Services sent grief/trauma specialists to the shelter yesterday. NEOCH has offered to host a memorial to begin the process of healing for the homeless community. We have heard that the family wants some privacy, and we will respect that. Some of the other service providers in the community have expressed a desire to have a time or place to grieve after the initial shock wears off.

Brian Davis
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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

NEOCH Mourns Loss at VOA Veterans Center

Veteran's Center Director Dies At Shelter Today

There are no words to express our sadness regarding the incident this morning at the Veteran's Resource Center on East 152nd in Cleveland. The Cleveland media will cover the story, and there will be time to talk about the larger issues in the future. Now is not the time. Instead we need to focus on comforting the family, the other residents, and the agency. We hope that everyone involved can get help for the trauma that they witnessed this morning. We are stunned by the loss of Rita Ciofani who dedicated her life to serving others. The NEOCH staff and Board extend our heartfelt sorrow to the Volunteers of America family, over the loss of the director of this shelter.

Here is the press release from the VOA site about Ms. Ciofani who only took the job eleven months ago.

New Cleveland Veterans Resource Center Director - Friday, March 20, 2009

Rita CiofaniRita Ciofani has been hired as the director for the Veterans Resource Center, responsible for running all program operations including transitional housing and employment services for veterans. Previously, Ciofani was the executive director of Lake County Committee on Family Violence, Inc. for 17 years. Ciofani is certified by the Ohio Supreme Court as a mediator and is the past-chair for the Coalition on Housing and Support Services of Lake County. Ciofani earned a law degree from Cleveland Marshall College of Law and her bachelor’s in education from Lake Erie College.

We are all stunned and shocked over this tragedy.

Brian Davis
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Monday, February 08, 2010

Update on Cincinnati Hate Crimes

Madness Captured, Hate Crimes Legislation Needed

The Cincinnati Coalition is keeping us up to date on the situation with regard to the attack on Robert Meehan. On the first posting, we had a strange comment submitted from a self proclaimed witness to the event. It has to be said that the comment from "the witness" does not match the security videotape. In addition, the Cincinnati police were clear that no crime justifies the beating that Meehan suffered.

The alleged attacker, Michael K. Taylor, a.k.a. Madness was captured late last week. Lieutenant Mike John of the Cincinnati Police department reported that Taylor was captured in Las Vegas, late Friday night (02/05/2010). Taylor will be extradited to local officials on Monday. Michael K. Taylor is charged with felonious assault. Witnesses say that he severely beat Robert Meehan on January 24th, near Bootsy’s Restaurant on Walnut Street in Cincinnati. Mr. Meehan was known to be a homeless man in the neighborhood.

The surveillance tape and witness reports explain that Mr. Meehan was picked up and body slammed to the sidewalk, he was punched several times in the face and struck with a beer bottle. Lt. John reported that this was the worst beating he has ever seen in which the victim did not die from the injuries inflicted. Further, there was not enough intact bone structure in Mr. Meehan’s face to do surgery. Robert Meehan was placed into a chemically-induced coma.

Mr. Meehan came out of his coma on Friday the 5th. He is coherent enough to know that he is in a Cincinnati hospital. Lt. John says the struggle is not over. It is essential for Cincinnati to show support for Robert Meehan in the courtroom and through the court procedure. Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless (GCCH) is part of a larger group from around the state and country that are pushing for legislation to be passed at both (State & Federal) levels, in order to prevent these types of hate crimes. Homeless individuals are a very vulnerable part of our society, therefore GCCH along with all the other Coalitions for the Homeless would like to see legislation passed on behalf of all homeless individuals, so that regulation will be enforced and the homeless will not be assaulted and taken advantage off.

The surveillance tape supports what every witness reports; that Robert Meehan was not aggressive, threatening or of a harmful nature towards Michael K. Taylor or the three women around him. Robert Meehan is the victim of a heinous hate crime that had the potential of killing him.

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Saturday, February 06, 2010

Dayton Job Center

Massive One Stop Center for Jobs....

Dayton features the largest one-stop employment center in the United States called the Job Center. It is a huge--renovated old warehouse that was updated to be roomy, well lit, and easily accessible social service headquarters. It is basically, the Virgil Brown Building in Cleveland, part of Tri-C- and many social service providers housed together in an 8.5 acre campus. There are colorful floor panels so that people do not get lost. They have a huge cafeteria, and now some of the homeless providers are moving into the facility. There are charter schools and colleges have satellite offices in the building. Many government entities have offices in the building, and it is on the bus line. The big health care provider is right down the street and the Thrift Store is right next to this building.

We gathered for a meeting of all the Homeless Coalition's in Ohio. It was an awesome building, and made us all envious that we did not have a similar facility in our home cities. The Job Corps, Job Bank, Dress for Success type programs, GED classes, job training classes, Social Security, and youth services were all available at the Center.

The One Stop Center opened in 1997 and was funded by federal and local resources. WEA was first funding to help people get back to work. It eliminates duplication and reduces travel time to get help. It is in an old Federated (Lazarus/May/Macy's) Department Store warehouse that is now operated by County Government but the funding went to St. Vincent De Paul to open it quickly. Just the job bank with computer terminals for looking for jobs serves 3000 individuals per day. It is the biggest in county (8.5 acres). It was a risk to set this up, because it was unknown if other providers would want to set up shop in the facility.

  • 18 conference rooms for meetings.
  • It facilitates collaboration among agencies with quarterly meetings of all the directors.
  • All the partners are briefed when big layoffs are coming.
  • Development folks are now visiting and advertising the place as a community attraction to set up shop in the Dayton area. They champion that it will be easy to recruit labor through the Job Center.
  • - They do have remote center for people subject to mass layoffs with specific case management. For example , the set up next to GM plant closing.
  • The Vet Center is right down the street as well.
  • Re Entry Program starting Feb. 16 starting Specialized Employment Center – training, screening, skills assessment supportive partnership Job Club will help Social Services partner with other agencies. (110 individual per year) Will try to help find a Job mostly soft services.
Other items from the meeting:

  • Appalachia –The shelter served 164 People in 2009. They had to turn away 36 while 84 were turned away in 2008.
  • They are working on funding and revising their structure to try to get help to shelters in the rural communities.
  • Fundraiser was very successful in January with 521 people showed up and did a simulation about homelessness.
  • - Homeless Prevention and Rapid Rehousing is going well and getting out to the right people.
Cincinnati –
Talked a great deal about the Hate Crimes Forum that they organized after two recent events.


The local groups are still trying to replace Barb Poppe who headed the Community Shelter Board and now is the new Homeless Czar in DC. The Columbus Coalition is working on workforce development. Their October conference went well in combining the religious and secular services.

Helping to employ people and try to work out all the details. They are proceeding forward on hiring a full time director. Their VISTAs are looking at a home deconstruction project in Dayton to look at replicating that in Columbus. They have 541 vendors for their street newspaper in Columbus, and 40 regular vendors. They have conducted a writing workshop with 3 volunteers who help.


They have a new Mayor, and are waiting to see what the new priorities are locally. They are working on a community organizing project, which will look at the 10 year plan within the County. They have hired a national assessor to see how people are served within the homeless community especially to the Permanent Supportive Housing. There has been a good deal of media attention over a group of homeless people who were moved out of the woods and then into a neighborhood. Dayton Daily News did a story about a group that wanted have these guys removed from their neighborhood. The neighbors are really angry. The community groups are relocating some of the men to other places to keep them safe. With the move to the Job Center, they have space to help with a furniture donation program. A new site was opened with plenty of land that there is a thought to open up a Social Enterprise or Farm as part of the project where the residents can make money while residing in the housing.

Brian Davis

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