By Brian Davis
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!