Monday, January 31, 2011

Nice Coverage in the Plain Dealer

Stand Down for Winter Clothing 2011

We had to move the Stand Down this year, because of the popularity of the event. We outgrew Pilgrim Church and the Convention Center is now closed. So, we moved over to the Masonic Temple on East 36th and Euclid Ave. The Plain Dealer did a fantastic job with a great array of photos on their website from the Stand Down yesterday.

From our volunteers at the Sunday Stand Down, here is what was reported. There were 650 people attending and most people loved the portraits that were taken at the event. That is a great service that people loved. There were long lines to get in the building, but once inside the individuals received a number so they did not have to wait in line for the winter clothing. They were just called to go pick up the clothing items that they needed. This was a much needed improvement.

There were a haircuts and doctors providing health screenings. It seemed that we saw more children show up at the Stand Down this year. The chili served by one of the church groups for lunch was excellent. There was a good mix of interfaith volunteers helping out at the Stand Down. The transportation seemed to work (Thanks Larry). Most people in need were able to get boots for the long winter ahead. Overall another positive event supervised by Toni and Sr. Donna at InterAct Cleveland. Thanks to everyone who made the Stand Down work again this year. Remember, the Health Fair/Stand Down is Friday February 18 at the Masonic Temple again.

Picture is of Ice from the 2010 Stand Down. We will have pictures of the Feb. 18 event.
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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Prepare to Close Shelters

Image by Sabrina Otis of dark clouds descending on the Key Tower in Cleveland

Tough Times Ahead--Closing 1,000 Shelters

On January 25, 2011, the House of Representatives passed a symbolic resolution laying out the goal of reducing federal funding back to 2008 levels before the Obama administration took office and before the massive stimulus spending. What exactly does this mean locally especially for homelessness?

I was fortunate to be in Washington on Monday and met with senior Department of Housing and Urban Development staff. I posed this question to HUD officials, and they said that they had actually run the numbers for various scenarios for the federal budget. While they were clear that they did not expect this to take place, and they felt that there was bipartisan support for implementing new guidelines for funding the shelters in the United States, they did indicate that a return to 2008 funding levels would translate to the closing of 1,000 shelters in the United States. This would translate to one or two facilities in each community closing including in Cleveland.

The problem is that in an effort to get funds out to the community to address the unstable housing market in 2008-2009, there was a massive infusion of funds to the emergency shelter system. This allowed for basically a doubling of the funds that each community would receive in federal dollars to be allocated over 30 months. Many communities expanded or started new projects to prevent homelessness. In Cleveland, we hired new housing case managers in the shelters to screen individuals who became homeless and then help those individuals go out and find housing. We boosted our legal assistance, and provided huge support to provide rental assistance to individuals to keep them in their apartments. All of these programs are in jeopardy in 2012 especially if we roll back funding to 2008 levels. Each community will have to decide to either close existing shelters or end those new prevention programs.

No matter what they decide to do, social service workers will be laid off and there will be reduced rental assistance available to keep people in their housing if Congress roles back federal funding for homelessness back to 2008 levels. The big issue for HUD is that in 2007, there was a renewal of the rules for distributing federal dollars that made many assumptions. The first assumption was that there would be many more activities eligible for funding (prevention, capacity building, community planning, legal, services to young people, etc). In order to balance this new broader focus on preventing homelessness there would have to be an expansion in the number of dollars going to end homelessness. We also have a federal push to end homelessness among veterans with additional housing vouchers and expanded services. It will be difficult if not impossible to implement these new rules and new initiatives if funding levels return to 2008 levels. To all those living and working within the shelters, prepare for tough times ahead.

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Thursday, January 20, 2011

VISTA MLK Day Project

"A Day On Not a Day Off"--MLK Day
“We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the sea like fish, but we have not learned the simple art of living together as brothers. Our abundance has brought us neither peace of mind nor serenity of spirit.”---Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love, 1963
For Martin Luther King Jr. day a few of us Cleveland VISTA’s planned a class that included meditation and creative expression through various art forms at a Cleveland men’s shelter. Kimberly Sandoval, Monica Christoperson, Annie Holden all VISTAs at Lutheran Metropolitan ministries, and Holly Lyon a VISTA at the Northeast Ohio Coalition organized the event.

The class started with a brief tutorial on to practice mindfulness, a form of meditation. We then did a few mindfulness exercises followed by artistic expressions as a form of stress relief. Some residents wrote journal entries, drew pictures or contributed inspirational quotes. Several collaborative posters were made out of the art work and will be hung in the shelter.

The best part of the class was socializing with the residents as we all worked on our individual art projects. Many laughs and stories were exchanged. All of us contributing VISTAs hope to develop a regular artistic expression class at the shelter.

[Editor's Note: Holly is an AmeriCorps*VISTA member at NEOCH, and took the day to coordinate a volunteer activity at the shelter. This was part of President Obama's call to service on MLK day. VISTAs everyday work on solving poverty in the local community by developing programs, building collaborations, and supporting public policy initiatives in the area of children and families, homelessness, neighborhood safety, literacy, and workforce development. On the Martin Luther King holiday these individuals go outside of their regular jobs to do community service projects. Holly worked an event at the large men's shelter. ]

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Blanket Drive 2011

Thanks For Your Support!!!

We have had an outpouring of support from churches, citizens, and businesses donating blankets to serve homeless people. We have given out 800 blankets so far to people who sleep outside and those living in the emergency shelters in Cleveland. A special thanks to the Diocese of Cleveland St. Vincent Depaul Society for purchasing 300 blankets and delivering them to us yesterday. This is going to be a huge help to the shelters and the outreach teams in Cleveland. Thanks to everyone who have helped out. We will be collecting blankets through March 2011. If you have 35 blankets or more collected, we can come out and pick them up. If you can only donate blankets in the evening, there are two shelters that can accept your donation. Call NEOCH for more details 216/432-0540.

Also, remember that InterAct Cleveland is collecting other items for the 2011 Stand Down. They are collecting winter clothing and hygiene items for the January 30 and February 18 Stand Down.

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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Underwear Saga Complete

The People Have Spoken
Forty six people joined our poll over what exactly we should do with the donation of thong underwear that we received over the holidays. The majority of the people said "It is just underwear--give it away.

Yes, not a problem, it is just underwear
24 (52%)
It is questionable, but since they are donated do it
8 (17%)
Donate them to a non-homeless facility
7 (15%)
It is inappropriate don't do it
7 (15%)

We have given away all the underwear. We gave it to women in transition, so those ready to move out onto their own. We also gave it out at a daytime shelter. These were really nice pieces of clothing that were rather expensive, and the women were extremely appreciative. Thanks to those who weighed in on this issue. I think for the old geezers in our office (like me) who saw thong underwear, and could not understand what a corporate executive was thinking when they sent this out. It just seemed strange to me for a corporate exec to say, "I really want to help out our society today, I will send some thong underwear out to homeless people throughout the county." What I have found in my extensive underwear research is that people are loyal to their choice in underwear. People have a strong commitment to briefs, granny pants, boxers, or thongs--no matter if they are homeless or housed.

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Friday, January 07, 2011

The Dangers of Bad Statistics

County Paints a Distorted Picture of Homelessness

The County Office of Homeless Services has been circulating a three page summary of homelessness in Cuyahoga County. They have some nice photos of cute kids and faces of the broad spectrum of homeless people. The problem is the data contained in the document is extremely distorted and absolutely false. There is no qualifications about the data or even a citation for the source of the data.

The big issue is on the front page when it gives the total amount dollars raised by the office in public funding for homelessness of $31 million. Then right underneath that they list under "Who are the Homeless?" Setting aside the identification of a diverse group of people with the article "the homeless" problem, but then underneath they identify "6,066 persons were served by Cuyahoga County Homeless Service System in 2009." This is a smaller number then were identified as being homeless and served by the county in 1995 when I started at NEOCH (10,000 people). These numbers are based on the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) numbers, but that system is so flawed that it paints a distorted picture of homelessness. HMIS is the computer system that every shelter enters data for every single homeless person entering their facility. I just do not understand why they would release this information without any context, and without an explanation.

STATISTICS BREAKDOWN: Total dollars raised in Cuyahoga County: nearly $31 million in public funds.
Total homeless served in Cuyahoga County: 6,066 were served. FAIL!!

These documents were given to the new County Council and the new County Executive without any explanation or any qualifier. For the average person who has no familiarity with homelessness, they would read this document or glance at it and say, "Wow, we spend a lot of money on a small number of people." By dividing the number of people into the total raised would be $5,110 per person. So, to the average person or the person sleeping in the shelter they are saying if you just closed down all the shelters and services, you could eliminate homelessness by giving everyone a housing voucher for $5,000 per person for the year. This means the 900 children identified as homeless by Cuyahoga County each could be receiving $5,000 from the system. A family of three, Mom and two kids, would be able to get a voucher worth $15,000 a year. Every homeless person measured in Cuyahoga County should be able to find a place to rent for $426 per month for a single bedroom or $852 for a two bedroom apartment by just dividing the $31 million up as housing vouchers. This could thus end homelessness for the 6,000 homeless people measured in Cleveland/Cuyahoga County for the year.

I, as a policy wonk, understand that the $31 million also involves shelter plus care housing vouchers, and the building and upkeep of the shelters. I know that the numbers that they are using are so low that they are useless for the community. I know that there are about five people waiting for every shelter bed in Cleveland, but for many reasons they have decided not to use the shelters. I know that the OHS count for one day is 2,236 people in January 26, 2009 coordinated by the Office of Homeless Services, and we know that the majority of the population is using the shelters for less than 30 days. So, it does not make sense that on one day there is 2,236 people, but over a year there are only 3 times that number. We know that those numbers do not include anyone sleeping in abandoned buildings and it does not include those sleeping on the streets. I understand that the HMIS data collection system is so flawed that it paints a distorted picture of homelessness. I know that there are many people who are served by the various agencies and never get entered in HMIS so they never get counted. I know that the definition of homelessness used by Cuyahoga County leaves aside many people who sleep on couches or stay in motels, but the general public does not know these things. When they see this document they see huge dollars for a few people. It is reckless to present these statistics in this manner.

Our fear is that when the public sees these figures they will think, "Well, that is an area that could see cuts." The newly elected County Council may say, "Are we spending our money efficiently?" or "How have we not ended homelessness with $31 million annually and only 6,000 documented homeless people per year?" Other communities in Ohio and around the country are documenting huge numbers compared to Cleveland. In fact, the District of Columbia on one day in March 2009 measured 5,983 homeless people , and that is a city of around 591,000 total population (Half the population of Cuyahoga County). So, DC reports almost the same number of people for one day as Cuyahoga County reports for the entire year. At the same time, Cleveland is listed as second poorest city in the United States with Washington DC is the 67th poorest city according to the Census. It is impossible to think that with 35% of our total population within the city living below poverty that only 6,000 of those households will fall into homelessness in one year, while Washington DC has only 18.4% of their population living below the poverty level according to the US Census and 6,000 people fall into homelessness in one day.

The damage that this kind of information could do is dramatic. It could lead to budget cuts, service reductions, and increased demand for scarce services. This is harmful to the community of social service providers and to homeless people.

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Wednesday, January 05, 2011

What is the Big Deal?

NEOCH had the First Golden Voice

I just don't understand the big fuss over Ted Williams, the freeway exit panhandler from Columbus with the golden voice. The story is everywhere from sports websites because the Cleveland Cavaliers have offered him a job, all the major newspapers, and viral video sites. It seems he has a wonderful voice, and became homeless after struggling with sobriety. He was then captured on video using his voice to panhandle. A Columbus Dispatch reporter took a video of Mr. Williams that went viral within 24 hours. Yes, the guy has an amazing voice talent, but what is the big deal? There are so many talented people sleeping over at 2100 Lakeside having their skills going to waste. We have seen amazing photographers sleeping at the shelter (half of the photos on our website are by homeless people). That opening montage of pictures are all by a guy sleeping at Lakeside. We had an art show in the late 1990s and received over 100 pieces of art from homeless people with some amazing work submitted.

This is great for Mr. Williams, and everyone working with homeless people is excited to see someone skyrocket out of homelessness, but there are so many amazing people sleeping in the shelters every night. There are artists, craftsmen, great plumbers, great cooks, photographers, carpenters, writers who are wasting their talent just trying to survive. This is the great tragedy of our society that great thinkers, accountants, computer scientists are focused on trying to find a place to live instead of working to make the world a better place. They are not trying to find a more efficient way to feed America or a new way to educate young people, they are trying to figure out how to get a meal for the night. There are young Billie Holidays, Nathaniel Ayers, Picassos, and JD Salingers sleeping in our shelters tonight in Cleveland depriving us of their amazing art.

From a personal perspective, we are offended at NEOCH, because we had the Golden Voice working for the Coalition long before Ted Williams was discovered. William Gilmore, pictured above, has answered phones for NEOCH for the past two years. He has done voice over work in the past. We are one of the few agencies that still has a human answering the phone, and William is our guy in the afternoon. He has been referred to as the Golden Voice of the homeless for years. We missed our opportunity to make him famous on You Tube.

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Columbus Coalition Conference

Working Out of Homelessness

The Columbus Coalition for the Homeless is hosting a conference focusing on their effort to employ homeless people and start micro enterprise projects. The conference is Thursday January 20, 2011 in Columbus at the Broad Street Presbyterian Church. The keynote speaker is Dr. Fadhel Kaboub of Denison University who will discuss "the economy and the workforce picture today." There will be a panel discussion on the challenges facing homeless people in competing for jobs. There are workshops on how businesses can work with non-profit organizations to employ homeless people. There is a workshop on social enterprise projects and micro-finance projects. Also, some discussion on where there are funding opportunities for employing homeless people will take place.

The conference is only $50 and an additional $10 for Social Work CEUs. They have a workshop on street newspapers, training programs, the underground economy, urban farming, and faith based support for these projects. All the details are available on the Columbus Coalition website. The Columbus Coalition always does a good job, and we encourage you to attend. Plus it is right across from the statehouse, so you can stop in and lobby your state legislator while visiting the Capital City.

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