Monday, December 05, 2011

Is Diversion Ethical?

Guests at the 2011 Hand Up Gala 

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. 

Posts reflect the opinion of those who sign the entry.


bk said...

I will always stand by the fact that advocacy is imperative, espeically on behalf of groups otherwise rendered voiceless by fear or marginalization. However, I am disappointed to read this post. I understand this article is opinion, but it only portrays one side of a multi-faceted issue. Instead of going after the Community Women's Shelter and demonizing diversion (which can help re-unite family & friends across city and state and prevent the trauma of entering a shelter altogether), why don't you take a look at the system itself? Why not ask, "Why aren't there enough family shelter beds for families that need them?" Or, "How can we work to funnel more funding into housing services so people don't have to enter shelters at all?" Homelessness is not caused by CWS. It is caused by systemic issues that create poverty, which can lead to homelessness. I hope to see a more well-rounded critique of issues that surround homelessness in the future.

clevelandhomeless said...

Regarding BK's comments:
First, the blog is only our voice, it is not designed as a venue for point-counter point. We did not "go after" the Community Women's Shelter. We pointed out how the message delivered in theory to the staff plays out on the streets. We receive weekly complaints about how taxpayers of Cuyahoga County misinterpret this diversion message. They do not want to file a formal grievance for fear that it will stigmatize the family from getting into any shelter.

Regarding the questions you pose...We are not sure the relationship between the issue we raised and poverty public policy? Our position is to fight for social justice and that is regularly expressed in the blog. We struggle for universal housing; universal health care; civil rights and economic justice. We hold government accountable every month to preserve affordable housing with our CAHA meetings. But that does not mean that while we fight for access to safe decent affordable housing, we let the shelters perform social experiments on fragile populations. It is difficult to argue for more shelter beds at the same time we are arguing for more housing. There are not unlimited funds in the United States. If we took the $35 million that came to Cleveland last year for homelessness and put it all in housing, how many could we serve? About 280 to 350 people at most is the answer. So, what would we do with the other 9,500 people who sought shelter last year or the 19,700 who were homeless last year?

All we were talking about with this post was a problem that exists for families when they request a shelter bed. As we stated in the post, this is not just a problem for homeless people in Cleveland. The New York Coalition went to court to stop the diversion policies being implemented by the Bloomberg administration. It is another trend pushed by social scientists in New York and Philadelphia on the rest of us as the silver bullet for homelessness and in the end our community must struggle with the consequences. Have we not learned our lesson from the failure of the "ten year plans to end chronic homelessness?"