Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Forum on Shelter Standards II

Three women who have had experience with the Community Women's Shelter were on hand to listen to the testimony at the County Council meeting on June 9, 2011.

County Council members Dan Brady, Yvonne Conwell, Pernel Jones Jr. and Sunny Simon listen to homeless people talk about the homeless shelters within Cuyahoga County.

Photos by Pleasure Simmons

Health and Human Services Focuses on Regulating the Shelters II

We have posted the proposed shelter standards on the NEOCH website along with a summary.

I was able to testify before the County Council with regard the state of the shelters in Cuyahoga County. I started out my testimony by thanking the County and specifically Ruth Gillett and Rick Werner for protecting the lives of homeless people living in the County. We are one of the last areas in the United States with guaranteed access to shelter. We do not turn people away when they show up for help. The shelter doors are never locked to those in need of a bed. This is largely thanks to the political will of elected officials over the last 30 years from the City and County, but certainly the policy was pushed and implemented by Cuyahoga County staff from the Office of Homeless Services under the direction of Ruth Gillett. This policy of not turning anyone away that Ruth Gillett has overseen for the last 17 years has saved many people's lives in our community.

I talked about the history of the shelters rising out of religious community, and the fact that none of us thought that we would still be here 30 years later and still seeing a growing problem of homelessness in America. Everyone who worked with homeless people in the 1980s felt that this was a temporary problem that we would deal with at the federal level and it would be over. There was no need for standards since this was a temporary problem and the community was going to meet the emergency needs of families in warehouses and the basements of government buildings. It is phenomenal that we are still talking about housing instability among families living in Cuyahoga County 30 years later. But the reality is that we are at this place and it does not look like we will see an end to homelessness anytime in the near future. So, it is the position of the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless as well as the Homeless Congress that we need a law to set a minimum standard for the shelters. We need to assure that if a person is in need on the East Side or the West Side they can expect similar treatment.

I talked about the need for regulations to avoid future tragedies within the shelters. Cleveland residents have seen people die or end up in the hospitals after staying in the shelters. I talked about the women being taken by ambulance to the hospital and when they return to the shelter all of their personal belongings were thrown away. We need minimum standards to assure that public taxpayer dollars are being used effectively. I urged the County Council to pass this legislation that Homeless Congress members spent the last four years working on. I gave some details about how our recommendations were put together and developed. I mentioned this is merely a suggestion that we are all willing to negotiate the details. We put our recommendations together as a starting point that if implemented, we would have the best publicly funded shelters in the country. The document that we presented was influenced by the recently passed San Francisco legislation, and we hope will be the basis for negotiations with the County.

I gave some details on common complaints within the community that NEOCH has collected over the years. While we are not in charge of the shelters or the funding for the shelters, many homeless people come to us to resolve their issues. The biggest concern was people having to sleep in the hospital waiting rooms or bus shelters after being discharged from the shelters at night. Improper discharges or punishments being enforced before a grievance can be heard are the main issues that homeless people want addressed. We have heard many complaints about staff mistreatment that could be addressed with conflict resolution or mediation training. I talked about the improper contact between security guards and residents. There were many facility problems such as leaking roofs as well as numerous food issues within the shelters. All of these issues are addressed in proposed shelter standards that we have developed.

The County brings in over $30 million for homeless services, it seems that we could put a little aside to enforce shelter standards. Of the 19 shelters in Cuyahoga County, 16 of them are heavily dependent on taxpayer dollars. The county has a great deal of leverage with the shelters in enforcing regulations. The Coalition receives regular complaints and we hear all these tough stories about shelters. Every other system of residential care (prisons, nursing homes, treatment centers, hospitals) have regulations. The notable exception is the shelter system, which serves 6,000 to 7,000 Cuyahoga County tax payers per year. It has to be said that the workers at the shelters want to do the right thing, and are some of the best and brightest in our society working at the local homeless shelters. There are mistakes and misunderstandings that take place in any job. We need government to step in to provide quality oversight of these facilities. We need elected officials to be aware how the tax dollars that they deliver to these non-profits agencies are being utilized. Finally, I urged the Council to take up this legislation and pass a bill that would regulate the shelters in Cuyahoga County.

A number of the members asked questions, and I made every effort to answer those issues. Councilwoman Sunny Simon asked about the City of Cleveland and if they had taken this up. I explained that we had tried to convince the City to take up this issue, but the administration was unwilling. There were concerns over cost and which agency within the City has the expertise to oversee these rules. One member asked about the County Office of Homeless Services taking up this issue. I said that as an OHS Advisory member, the group has discussed the issue but most of the discussion is to improve the contracting process. The Homeless Congress and the Coalition are clear that we want a law passed that will survive different administrations and that a homeless person can go to if they feel the shelter has done wrong. Contracts are not publicly available, and there are guidelines that are contained in all the existing contracts. There are problems with the shelters and just improving the contracting guidelines will not work. There was some concern expressed about the expense of this law. There was also concern that the County has not passed legislation with the new legislative branch of government, so this will be one of the first pieces taken up by the new government.

Brian Davis
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1 comment:

International Freedom Coalition said...

We encourage you to review, sign, and share our online petition for a Bill of Rights for the Homeless at: http://www.thepetitionsite.com/2/bill-of-rights-for-the-homeless/

The implementation of this 25-point legislation, while comprehensive, can start with simple training to change the mindsets of how staff view and approach shelter clients.

I have been a recognized volunteer in the community for 10 years. Recently, I founded a nonprofit dedicated to building strong families and lived as a homeless person for 7 months to understand the authentic needs of our constituents.

To my surprise, I was subjected to harassment, intimidation, and verbal abuse by shelter staff and security personnel. Additionally, I witnessed the other residents being subjected to the same treatment.

As I took my findings to community leaders and citizens, many dismissed it or made comments to minimize the severity of such abuse. We have civil rights protections for a variety of vulnerable groups such as racial minorities, people with disabilities, and nursing home patients. We have laws to protect citizens against domestic violence. However, once a person enters a homeless shelter, all bets are off.

This should not be happening in our country. More than 1.6 million unemployed professionals, middle-class families displaced by foreclosure, and underemployed blue-collar workers are homeless and possibly face this treatment. Given the slow job market, another 6 million Americans who are doubled-up with family and friends are at-risk of being homeless and facing this maltreatment.

Just as other vulnerable groups needed extra legal protections, the time has come to pass legislation for the dignified and respectful treatment of people experiencing homelessness.

-Sapphire Jule King, MAEd
Founder & President, International Freedom Coalition