Fighting for justice and equality in housing and economics has been going on for quite some time. The National Coalition for the Homeless was formed in the early 1980’s after advocates had already started opening emergency shelters and food programs because of disastrous cuts made to affordable housing and health care through the 1970’s. Activism in the 1980’s led to the Homeless Assistance Act being passed, now known as the McKinney-Vento or HEARTH Act, which has provided the bulk of Federal homeless assistance dollars.
But what about truly ending homelessness? On July 25, 2003, the key tenets of the Bring America Home Act were introduced to the nation. This plan, created through a national campaign, proposed a four-pronged approach to addressing the root causes of homelessness:
HOUSING JUSTICE Recognizing housing as a basic human right, increasing investment in federal affordable housing programs
HEALTH CARE Calling for single-payer or universal health coverage for all residents of the country
ECONOMIC JUSTICE Working towards living wages and benefits, providing labor supports for un- or under-employed workers
CIVIL RIGHTS PROTECTIONS Ensuring that poor and unhoused persons are free from added criminalization based on their housing or economic status, providing a path to housing and work for those who are formerly incarcerated
Immediately lift over 30 million people out of poverty
Move people closer to being able to afford a two-bedroom apartment at fair market rent
Finally bring the minimum wage to the level it would be factoring in the previous increases since the Fair Labor Standards Act became law in 1938
We encourage you to join us in supporting the Raise the Wage Act of 2021, encouraging your federal elected officials to support strong wage growth for working people. Our advocacy is only strengthened when the citizens of this nation play a part and lawmakers act on their constituent responses.
In January, I took on the Director of Grassroots Organizing role, formerly held by Michael Stoops, and am so honored to be working again for the oldest homeless civil rights organization in America. I was a board member of NCH from 2001 until 2017.
I previously worked 23 years for a small advocacy organization causing trouble in Cleveland, OH. I oversaw the homeless memorials, Stand Downs and constructed programs to better serve those without a permanent residence. I registered thousands of people to vote and sued the State of Ohio to protect the voting rights of low income people without identification. I also regularly organized lawsuits against the City of Cleveland when they attempted to make it illegal to be without a home. Every month I was the guy who faced people living in shelters and on the streets and had to answer their criticism for what a stupid system we the people had constructed for those who were hungry or struggling with housing. I worked for 23 years attempting to amplify those voices so they were heard at the County administration building, City Hall, and at hearing rooms in the Rayburn Office Building of Congress.
Report out from Cleveland:
According to the US Census, Cleveland once again became the poorest city in the United States in 2020. One third of the total population of poor people in Ohio live in Cleveland even though the city on the shores of Lake Erie only represents 3% of the total population of the Buckeye state. The County that Cleveland sits in runs most welfare programs, and funds the addiction services as well as the mental health system, but that often means that people experiencing homelessness are not treated as individuals. They are instead told to conform to the one-size-fits-all approach to receiving help or do it alone.
For decades the city had been one of the few cities in the United States that offered guaranteed access to shelter for anyone who wanted it. This became moot in the 2010s when the conditions in the shelter had deteriorated to the point that the reputation of the shelter was so bad many found that sleeping on the street was more attractive than staying in a shelter. In addition, HUD’s policy of funding permanent supportive housing over everything else closed most of the family shelters in Cleveland. The waiting list for housing was years long and the waiting list for a decent shelter bed was also excessively long. Before the pandemic there were 22,000 to 24,000 evictions a year, and a severe lack of beds for women fleeing domestic violence, and no specific programs for young people. So, in one of the poorest cities in America, the safety net for homeless people was in tatters then a global pandemic hit.
The congregate living shelters in Cleveland were all big facilities housing between 100 and 400 people in the same space. Back in March 2020, these shelters were ordered to reduce the population by half and a few facilities decided to close because they could no longer staff the facility during the pandemic. The County decided to either take over shelters, or begin to fund nights at a couple of hotels operated mostly by some sketchy landlords. They started moving people into hotels, which were operated similarly to the transitional shelters that changes in HUD funding priorities had nearly completely eliminated from the social service system. There were hotels for women, one for men, a mixed gender hotel and a Covid positive hotel. The hotel that the County paid to put families up in was actually a really upscale facility, and provided a degree of respect to low income people that we are not accustomed to seeing in this mean city.
The hotel rooms have been a lifesaver, and advocates hope that they continue past the pandemic. Advocates and service providers in Cleveland have really worked to keep people safe, especially severely mentally ill people who during a normal winter would be sleeping on the streets. Doctors and nurses from the local public hospital have taken it upon themselves to regularly check in on homeless people now spread out in hotels and shelters across the city. There hasn’t been much organized governmental coordination in response to the pandemic, but community groups have stepped forward to take the lead.
There are still holes and problems come up every day during a pandemic especially since it has dragged on for such a long period of time. There are not enough tests for the staff or residents – hotels are not a priority for testing since they are not considered “congregate living facilities,” even though people have to gather for meals and pass each other in halls. There are way too many older folks being discharged from residential facilities, hoping that people will just survive alone in hotel rooms until a vaccine is available to them. While there are far fewer campsites, the number of people who ride around on public transportation all night is way up, and this has spread out the population in a bigger geographic area. Staff are completely stressed out and afraid, and there are far fewer volunteers to make meals and care for the population.
One good thing is that because of there being fewer unsheltered folks, the number of homeless deaths has come down. Turns out if you offer someone a space in a private room instead of just a bed in a dorm with 100 other guys, they are going to take it, and it is going to keep them safe!
In response to the deaths in Sacramento we are also urging that the decisions to open warming centers be made by elected officials and not unelected bureaucrats.
The state capital for the most populous state in the union, Sacramento, is struggling to serve low income people during the pandemic. Last week, they made the tragic decision to not open a warming center as a storm approached. On the evening of January 26 a thunderstorm hit the region with 70 mph winds and flooding that resulted in the death of at least five people living outside.
The National Coalition for the Homeless is renewing our call to open warming centers based on need and not some arbitrary number like the expected temperature outside. In response to the specific tragedy in Sacramento, we are urging that elected officials from around the country be forced to make the decision on when to open a warming center so that they have to face voters when their lack of action has deadly consequences. In Sacramento, NCH is asking that for the rest of the winter that the warming centers or a motel room be opened to anyone who requests a place inside in memory of those who lost their lives during this past storm. Karen Hunter was sleeping alone in a tent as the horrible wind struck Sacramento and lost her life because her government could not provide a safe place for her to ride out the storm.
As the storm approached on Tuesday January 26, three City Council members as well as the Mayor urged the County to open a warming center to get people inside, but City Manager, Howard Chan decided that the temperature was not going to below the 32 degree threshold mandated by the County according to an investigation by the Sacramento Bee’s Teresa Clift. The City of Sacramento has some byzantine rules about only opening the warming centers if the temperature gets to 32 degrees despite the heavy rain expected, and the fact that many people die of hypothermia because they are wet and cold. Chan justified his action to the Sacramento Bee saying that his fear was the warming center would become a Covid hotspot and spread the disease throughout the community. Other cities such as Cleveland have opened hotel rooms instead of gymnasiums to those who sleep outside to keep them safe from the elements as well as the coronavirus.
The public radio station quoted Mayor Darell Steinber as demanding the County open a safe place ahead of the storm. Here is how Kris Hooks of CapRadio described the lack of urgency from the County when describing the Mayor,
“Darrell Steinberg expressed outrage over the slow-moving bureaucracy to move people out of the elements. ‘We can’t get a Goddamn warming center open for more than one night because the county has rules? I’m sick of it,’ Steinberg said.”
The Sacramento Bee also included the same quote in their investigation, “Night of Terror: Sacramento homeless lined up for shelter during the storm. The doors never opened.”
“It is real simple,” said Donald Whitehead Executive Director of National Coalition for the Homeless, “City governments must respond when a taxpayer asks for a warm place inside or if they cannot keep their citizens safe they have no reason to exist. The threat of hypothermia is typically a result of an individual not being able to keep themselves dry and their temperature drops. We urge cities to respond when any individual asks for help by providing a safe, warm place for the everyone to sleep if they do not have night time shelter. So for example, if a couple, lets call them Mary and Joseph, shows up at City Hall and asks for a place to stay out of the elements, cities have a moral obligation to open up their doors and not force Mary to sleep in a barn exposed to the elements especially during inclement weather.”
The Sacramento Bee article quoted Mark Jordan who was living next to the tent Karen Hunter died in saying, “I just thought my heart was going to stop. I was so cold.” Since unelected bureaucrats do not seem to have moral compass to understand the needs of the population they serve, NCH is asking that the life and death decisions of when to open “warming centers” be made by someone in the community who will have to face the public in an election if they make the wrong decision. We believe that Karen Hunter paid with her life because an unelected bureaucrat made a decision that the thousands of people in Sacramento living outside could survive a thunderstorm with only a thin layer of nylon for protection.