Coming in From the Cold

Coming in From the Cold

Brian Davis presses the homeless case

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Cold reality: life on the streets

Homeless in Ohio Cold reality: life on the streets

Homelessness is a family affair in Cuyahoga County, according to Brian Davis, and it’s high time Cleveland has company addressing it. Cleveland officials, he says, work well with the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, which he directs. However, the only homeless shelters in the county are in the city, so other communities need to create facilities to address the region's growing need. The imminent reset of county government following successful passage of Issue 6 should help.

There are about 20,000 homeless people in the county, Davis says from his office in a former vacuum cleaner factory in the St. Clair-Superior neighborhood. The start of the foreclosure crisis in 2005 spawned an “explosion” in homeless families.

“The problem in Cleveland is it is nearly impossible for mom and father and kids to go to a shelter,” he says. “There are family shelters for mom and kids, and a few beds for dad and kids, but an even smaller number for mom, dad and kids. During the Bush administration, there was a focus on long-term, single adult homeless people; that’s where all the money went. That caused us to switch our priorities, and six family shelters closed during that period.”

The Obama administration is dedicating millions in stimulus money to ease homelessness in Cuyahoga county, says Davis. “NEOCH has a budget of only $225,000 per year and our only public money is from the city of Cleveland,” says Davis. “The stimulus was a way to get money to the communities to address all homelessness quickly. 

"The hope was that it would put some people back to work and prevent people from losing their housing. An additional $14 million (in federal money) is coming to Cleveland over the next two years. This is on top of the $30 million going to homelessness every year from public sources (state, local and federal dollars).”

For now, however, the county is using stimulus money exclusively for rental assistance, as it always has, where Davis was pushing for a new homeless center. The state’s budget woes – and Governor Ted Strickland’s promotion of budget-cutting as a badge of courage – aren’t helping, notes Davis.

                                                             NEOCH director Brian Davis

The Bad and the Good

“Housing is certainly the biggest barrier, but what doesn’t get a lot of attention is how you get to the jobs, how you get to appointments at the hospital in light of the huge cost of RTA’s daily bus passes," says Davis. "It’s very difficult to rebuild your life with these huge costs for trying to get around the city.” Granted, about 30 percent of homeless people have severe mental illness, but that doesn’t mean they’re unemployable, only that they’re more entry-level and sporadic than, say, the laid-off General Motors worker.

While joblessness and homelessness persist in symbiosis, some things have improved. Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson has been supportive and then some; not only did he campaign in homeless shelters, he’s helped soften the attitude toward homelessness so that even Cleveland police don’t harass them anymore – a huge contrast to the administration of Mike White, who, Davis suggested, tried to drive the homeless population underground.

A Columbus native, Davis stuck around Cleveland after earning a degree in political science and history from Case Western in 1989. He began his NEOCH work on its newspaper (struggling like others these days), the Homeless Grapevine. He became director 15 years ago. “It’s a great job,” he says. “You don’t have the day-to-day crises that shelter workers see, and I get to see the successes.” Among the key ones: the opening of the 400-bed shelter at 2100 Lakeside Ave. in 2001. “It was just a dirt warehouse, inside was just pretty much just a shell,” he says. “They put a lot of money into it and made it into a real building. That was the first step in moving away from basement mats and horrible conditions.”

Another sign of hope: only one homeless death from cold in Cleveland this year, in January, the first since 2006. The cause: hypothermia. San Francisco has 90 a year, Davis says. Yet another: only 19 homeless people were sleeping outside between East 20th Street and downtown, down from 75 in 2000. Part of the reason: There are 10,000 abandoned houses in Cleveland. “Why stay out in the cold when you can have your choice?” says Davis. That’s another story.

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