Thursday, December 29, 2011

What is Happening With County Homelesness?

Jan Eaton (Community Women's Shelter), Ruth Gillett and Sheri West (OHS) and Cathy Alexander (Mental Health Services) (sitting) at the June County Council hearing on Shelter Standards. Photo by Pleasure Simmons.
Cuyahoga County Homelessness 2011
The County Office of Homeless Services (OHS) "Advisory" board only meets every other month.  The last meeting was in November 2011, and we haven't written much about the County for the past few months.  At their last meeting they worked to clarify the definition of homelessness to include transitional programs, which was causing confusion for the Mental Health/Alcohol and Drug Boards and their staff.   This will all have to be updated again as the newly passed HUD rules are implemented locally which dramatically redefines homelessness.  This new definition will only confuse the entire community (Thanks Congress).  The Board also expanded to include a representative of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District--a very good idea.

The Housing First group (overseers of permanent supportive housing programs) has decided to expand to include families and young adults as the HUD rules change to allow for a small portion of federal dollars to go to these populations.  With the huge increase in family homelessness in America over the last three years (including Cleveland), this makes sense if not a little late.  Progressive cities such as Minneapolis and Denver expanded to include families years ago using state and local resources since HUD dollars were not available.  These communities have done a much better job in addressing the problem of homelessness, because they have not chased the federal gravy train, but instead set about solving homelessness and found the dollars to implement their strategies.  We did learn from the Housing First group that there is not really a solid source of funding for the supportive services associated with these properties.  This is concerning in that if HUD moves on to a new trend will these severely disabled people be left in apartments without case managers? Also, will we see the same problem we saw with Public Housing when they got rid of their social workers repeated with Permanent Supportive Housing?

We regularly criticize the Office for having the most talented and knowledgeable people sitting around the table, but wasting those opportunities never doing anything of substance.  From the surveys conducted by a consultant to OHS, it seems like one quarter of the board is similarly dissatisfied.  A lot of this frustration came up in the discussion as the "advisory" made plans for the next three years.  They attempted to put in writing some goals for the Office of Homeless Services, and I heard concern from many of the members that the Board should be working more on solving community problems and bringing more resources to address homelessness.  There is also some confusion if the "advisory" really advises anyone and are staff, elected officials or county bureaucrats really listening to the advise?

One of the best things that the OHS accomplished this year was to remain committed to universal access to shelter in Cuyahoga County by negotiating overflow beds for this winter.  With the disabled men's shelter gone and the building being used for offices and the VOA using their facility for other purposes, we were worried that we would not have a place for overflow mats.  Gillett assured us repeatedly that there would be overflow, and in the end she negotiated over 100 spaces for overflow of the men's shelter in Cleveland.  This is always difficult but important for Cleveland to keep the population inside and safe.  OHS staff, Ruth Gillett, attended the November Homeless Congress meeting, and heard from the men that they wanted the County to host a meeting of all the shelters to clarify the rules for staying open during an extreme weather situation.  Last year, on an especially snowy day in January a few of the shelters closed while others stayed open.  There did not seem to be clear guidance to all the shelters about the Cuyahoga County snow emergency policy.  This meeting has yet to be called.

Ruth Gillett did attend the November CAHA meeting about homelessness in Cleveland.  She presented some interesting statistics for the group:
  • The Office was established in 1993 and federal allocation of dollars to Cuyahoga County has grown dramatically from $1.4 million in 1989 to over $34 million in 2010.  
  • There are 1,122 shelter beds and 868 Transitional Shelter beds in Cuyahoga County.
  • 22% of the funds go to emergency shelter, 12% goes to transitional housing, 49% goes to permanent housing and 5% goes to supportive services, and 12% goes to prevention services.  (0.0% goes to public policy/advocacy/dispelling myths--FYI).
  • Using the deeply flawed management system, Gillett claimed there were 5,208 un-duplicated individuals using the shelter system in 2010.  So, using those numbers (which are probably way off) we spent $6,528.41 per person to get those individuals into housing.  (An apartment at fair market rent is around $7,236 for a one bedroom unit in Cleveland.)
  • Gillett tracked only 471 families using the shelters in 2010 with 645 kids using her deeply flawed management system. (the schools served over 2,000 school aged children in the same time with an broader definition of homelessness that the Department of Education uses.)
  • Using more credible statistics, Gillett claimed that 50% of the population stay less than 30 days in a shelter, but 20% stay more than a year.
  • Ruth Gillett presented statistics on the one day count of homelessness.  These are of no use to the community since so many people are missed on this one day count compared to other cities. 
  • Currently, there are 470 permanent supportive housing units open with a goal of 1,000
Gillett also identified a few problems with the current system in her presentation.  Those included:
  • Homeless people cycle through the shelters
  • There are minimal prevention services.
  • There is a mismatch of need and access to resources.
  • The homeless system is inefficient. 
  • The current shelter system is not very effective. 
The OHS staff are proposing a "NEW Approach" to address homelessness.  This includes:
  • Close the front door to homelessness by putting more resources into prevention activities and diversion activities.  (We have discussed diversion activities in this space earlier this year.) Better discharge planning and the creation of a real central intake where everyone gets a unified screening with a clear path outlined to get out of homelessness.)
  • Open the back door which means using HUD funding to develop permanent housing and affordable housing options for those experiencing homelessness.  There should be more short term rental assistance funding available and housing subsidies.  Finally, Gillett's plan includes more permanent supportive housing to serve those who have been homeless for a long time.  
  • Need to focus on shortening the length of time people are homeless.  Gillett suggests that this can be accomplished by helping people rapidly exit from shelter (Are there a lot of people hanging out at the shelter for longer than necessary because it is so fun to live without privacy or keeping your stuff safe from theft?)  Ruth Gillett suggests moving toward home based case management for those leaving homelessness.  She is proposing re-thinking assessment of household needs to focus on housing stability.  Finally she is suggesting that we connect people with mainstream resources for ongoing assistance. 
Brian Davis
Director of Community Organizing
Posts reflect the opinion of those who sign the entry.


Anonymous said...

Please educate yourself with the Homeless Mangement Information System (HMIS), the purpose of HMIS and the congressional mandates surrounding HMIS.
The HMIS system is a government mandate. This has nothing to do with Ruth Gilllett or the Office of Homeless Services. "HUD has been directed by Congress to work with jursidictions to gather homeless data by 2004." (US Department of Housing and Urban Development). You can find further information about the Homeless Management Information System by visiting The US Department of Housing and Urban Development Website at You will learn that the government has deemed HMIS mandatory. This is not "Gillett's deeply flawed management sytem" as you report. This is a government mandate.

In reading your past blogs, I see you talk about how other cities provide homeless services. I would like to share with Cleveland readers that other cities have homeless coalitions who support community providers. Your many blogs include rants and accusations about Cleveland's shelters, and even individual service providers. You discredit yourself and have discredited NEOCH as a whole by representing your agency as an adversary to the people who serve the homeless in the community.
Please do some research into HMIS and learn the mandates and the strategic planning goals of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. Then please reflect on how you can make this new year one where you can work with the homeless providers in Clevland and not against them.

Cleveland Homeless said...

Why the anger? We have discussed the Congressional mandate many times on this blog? Here:

The issue is that HMIS is implemented locally. Publishing this deeply flawed data dramatically underestimates the number of homeless people. If the public or media picks up these numbers it looks as though we have millions of dollars to spend on only a couple thousand people. It is not a big step to say that we should use those dollars for other issues in the community? Why are the complete counts in similarly impoverished communities so much higher than they are in Cleveland? DC is almost the same size as Cleveland yet it reports twice as many homeless people during the complete count. (Both cities use HMIS as the basis of their count).

HMIS is a terrible waste of money. If we spent the money and time trying to count homeless people on housing people instead we would be further along in these goals to end homelessness. Some of our shelters are so big they have to hire additional staff to keep the count accurate every night. Shouldn't we have those full time staff spend their time on helping people find housing? Shouldn't we get these families out of the shelters faster so we don't have to spend the time counting people?

HUD has certainly mandated the HMIS system, but it is up to the Office of Homeless Services to implement it. Also, Ruth decides how to advertise the stats. So, when we see that there were 471 "homeless families" it should have a note saying "at HMIS reporting shelters and using the limited HUD definition," but the qualifiers always get left off the presentation.

NEOCH supports community providers, but we do not support HMIS. We do not understand why you confuse attacking HMIS as attacking a provider. To the local shelters it is just another annoyance that they must submit to if they want government money. It should also be noted that many of our local social service providers do not support HMIS. The City Mission among others do not report. Nationally, the Domestic Violence agencies asked for and were granted a waiver from reporting HMIS numbers by Congress. Also, many homeless people are suspicious of giving their personal information including social security numbers to a database maintained by government with any social service provider in the community able to log in to view their personal data.

HMIS is Big Government at its worst, and is a waste of money. Just get these people houses and it will be way easier to count them.