There are a few things I know for certain from my work life:
- Homelessness is a solvable problem.
- People who experience homelessness are stripped of their civil rights daily which is extremely demoralizing, and makes it that much harder to get back your stability.
- Pitchers should never be forced to bat in professional baseball.
- Dennis Ashton and Jim Schlecht of the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless (NEOCH) will always be there to help those struggling in Cleveland.
Dennis came to the work helping people with government bureaucracy at one of the meal programs in Cleveland, showing particular prowess in getting people identification. He also volunteered overnight to stay at one of the winter shelters, a role that turned into a paid supervisory job. Then Dennis started doing outreach for the NEOCH. It was a part time position but he spent long hours driving around the streets of Cleveland looking for people who needed help or responding to concerned citizens who were worried about their neighbors living outside.
The outreach system became more advanced in Cleveland with all the groups sitting at the same table on a regular basis to talk about strategies, housing options and the best approach with certain individuals in need of help. They started to have real success getting to know everyone on the streets and building a trusting relationship, and then the pandemic hit.
Dennis said that it “started out as if it was not real.” The overnight drop in center closed because of safety concerns. The shelters started moving people out to try to de-concentrate and things began to look really bleak. There was a ceremony to give out tents soon after the overnight drop in center closed at the church in hopes that the residents could make it on their own. The men and women were asking, “Where can we go with these tents?” Outreach staff were frustrated that all progress they had made over the last 7 years would be lost. It was decided then and there to try to put as many people as possible into hotels. The hotels were basically sitting empty and there were potentially hundreds who were going to be outside in the rainy spring of 2020. What started with just a few people and no money grew and grew. Private foundations and donors kicked in money to start this program under the leadership of NEOCH. Eventually, the County agreed to front the money for the hotels in order to de-concentrate the shelters until the federal CARES act funding was in place. Eventually, there were five hotels used with an additional space for families as well.
The program was a huge success. Before the pandemic, it took time to build a relationship with those living outside and a great deal of coaxing to find the best solution for the individual to come inside. Now, you could just drive to the campsite and say, “Who wants a motel room?” Then you would work with the person on their issues where you knew where they would be and they knew they were safe. The outdoor population went from a few hundred to a couple of dozen living rough in February 2021. It was difficult to move people into more stable housing because the system was mostly frozen for a year. There were very few evictions, no one was relocating out of their housing especially if there was a subsidy attached and nearly every permanent supportive housing unit was full in Cleveland.
Dennis said it was a horrible year with many getting sick some of the more fragile died. But the federal relief for homeless individuals was successful in Cleveland because it started with a plan for safe private rooms inside. There were challenges with getting people identification and there were not nearly the number of volunteers helping with food or other supportive services that the system enjoyed before the pandemic. Getting food was never an issue for most because of the number of church based groups that served hot meals in Cleveland. All the places that afforded the opportunity for community shut down or were take out only. There were no Zoom meetings to check in with your friends that you saw at lunch every few days.
Dennis said that the local public hospital, MetroHealth, stepped up to provide testing and even sending nurses out to do health screenings. The Central Kitchen delivered food to all these hotels locally which was a huge escalation of their services. He said that all outreach were told not to transport people because of the safety of being in a car with someone potentially infected, but he just could not leave his friends out on the streets to tell them to walk the 3 or 4 miles to the hotel. Dennis said his biggest job was trying to keep people calm and not make them more scared than they already were. He worked from 6 a.m. until late at night trying to meet the needs of those without housing. Law enforcement were calling for outreach help more often and there were some sticky days when the curfew was in place and people who were outside were told to get inside or face a ticket for violating the statewide curfew. Dennis, the eternal optimist, said that everyone was doing the best they could over the last year. He said that unfortunately, the shelters have a bad reputation for a lot of people, and this hotel program gave everyone an option to go inside that we never had in the past. There were also so many people with special circumstances like pets that the system could finally help.
In a crisis, there are people who really step up to meet the needs of their neighbors. Dennis Ashton of Cleveland, OH, is one of those unsung heroes in the local community. He went about his job getting people into housing during the pandemic without a lot of fanfare or assistance. Overcoming the fear of infection while working to keep those on the streets informed and calm during this crisis is how Dennis went about his job.
There are many cities in the United States who could not figure out how to keep individuals experiencing homelessness safe or reduce the number of people staying outside during the pandemic. In my opinion, a large part of that is because they did not have a Dennis Ashton working in their communities.