Is the trend toward diverting from shelter a passive barring the doors?
In November, the City of New York was sued by Legal Aid and the Coalition for the Homeless regarding the tactic of diverting families from shelter. New York City is one of the only communities in the United States with a court protected right to shelter for every family showing up requesting help. Diversion is a trend sweeping the country, encouraged by the so-called experts. to reduce the number of people "improperly" using the shelters.
The policy described by the City of New York is an attempt to "verify that people seeking shelter were truly homeless." There was broad concern that the policy was being pushed too quickly and the social service community would not be ready. The new date for implementation of the policy was scheduled for Friday of this week. Advocates described the policy as "harassing and mean spirited." The new policy in New York City was to determine if the person applying for shelter had exhausted every alternative including sleeping on a couch at a friends house before coming to the shelter. The goal was to free up shelter space for those who have no where else to go. The family shelter population has skyrocketed during the downturn to as many as 48,000 people on any given night just in New York City.
Cleveland is flirting with a similar policy that often confuses those who are seeking shelter. We are one of the few cities in the United States that has guaranteed access to shelter for those who request it. So, a woman or a woman with a child goes to the Community Women's Shelter on Payne Ave. and men go to 2100 Lakeside Shelter. Cleveland has also experienced record numbers in the family system. Over the last two years, the central intake staff at the Women's Shelter have been working to "divert" people from entering shelter. This means an interrogation about alternatives available in the community. I have not seen much change at Lakeside. Either the men truly have no where else to go or they understand that the answer is, "I have no where else to go." The women and women with children get confused by the questions and think that the shelter is denying them access. On the phone the women hear from the worker on the other line, "We are full have you tried to find other places to stay?" Those who do not understand the shelter system or diversion and will get discouraged. They think that the shelter is saying, "go find somewhere else because we cannot serve you." They may decide to stay with an abuser over sleeping on the street or in a car or may jeopardize a family members rental lease by quietly moving onto a couch and trying to stay away from the landlord.
Some of the potential residents looking for help do not press the person on the phone and the shelter worker does not mention that they will take anyone who comes to the door in need of shelter. They are both talking past each other and some women are turned away. It is not until they call our office or call First Call for Help back before they are told to show up at the shelter and they will be offered a bed. I do not know if the shelter is intentionally deceiving the callers or not caring what happens to those seeking the shelter, but it confusing for the mom desperately seeking help for her kids. It seems to me that if we have a truly central intake everyone in need of shelter would show up, and then the shelter would sort out where they can best be served. But playing this game on the phone seems unethical to me. We know that the courts in New York City did not look favorably on the diversion policy and the City was forced to delay implementation of this plan.
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