EDITORIAL NOTE: This story marks the first in a series of original reports on Creative Ink.
Lines of cars squeeze into the one-way drive behind the Bishop Cosgrove Center at East 18th and Superior in efforts to drop off goods for day one of the 2006 Homeless Stand Down. There’s an organized chaos to the place, with volunteers poised every few feet and providers from social service and health agencies wheeling in carts of literature and supplies.
They are all here for the single-biggest gathering of agencies in service to Cleveland’s homeless. The gym upstairs resembles a trade show, overflowing with tables and literature. Only instead of selling widgets, providers in attendance are selling health screenings, haircuts and housing options. Downstairs about 150 homeless men and women are gathered in the cafeteria after their hot breakfast waiting for the check-in and the chance for a fresh haircut, a visit with a podiatrist, blood pressure and diabetes screenings and voter registration.
Representatives from Recovery Resources, Mental Health Services, Help Me Grow, West Side Catholic Center, Legal Aid Society, Cleveland Department of Aging and of Public Health, MetroHealth, Y-Haven and the Veteran’s Administration are ready to answer questions, hand out freebies such as socks and soap and connect people to much-needed services.
It’s an all-out effort that also seeks to give the homeless a voice. Jenna Klopovich from Shaker Heights is volunteering for her fourth year and she’s leading a new project this year called “Guest Conversations.” Armed with a notepad and pen, she talks with the homeless to learn how they feel, what kinds of services they need but aren’t getting and how the community can better help.
“We’ve got 50 volunteers over the four days who are talking with the homeless to learn more about them,” she says. “We are trying to empower them by giving them a voice.” She plans to compile the conversations into a booklet.
Some are more than willing to share their stories and I’m quickly spotted with my reporter’s notebook, OU baseball cap and camera. They are ready to talk. I’m ready to listen.
Eric is a 50-year-old black man who has spent the past six months living on the streets. A native of New York City, he’s shuttled back and forth from New York to Cleveland throughout his life. His two sons, Devon and Joshua, are back in New York. Though he is unable to travel to see them, he does talk to them on the phone. A former steelworker, Eric came to Cleveland to be with his grandparents and other relatives. A series of missteps, including getting hooked on crack cocaine, being unemployed, spending time in prison on drug-related charges and losing his grandmother who helped to raise him has left him floundering.
“I had some personal problems going on and I used as a way to get away from the reality of my situation,” he says. He claims to be clean and thanks God for that. “When God lets you wake up everyday, that’s a good start.”
Despite the adversity, Eric is a charmer with a smooth-shaven head and a contagious smile. He’s teasing but respectful but quickly becomes pensive when talking about his life on the streets. I ask him if he’s ever been afraid.
“You have to be selective about people, places and things. You gotta have good foresight and good hindsight. I’ve gotten bad vibes in certain places, but I try to maintain a low profile,” he says.
Sadly, he is one of several veterans I meet today. From 1975-78, Eric was a boatswain’s mate on a ship based at Naval Station Mayport near Jacksonville, Fla. He’s traveled the world—Barcelona, Naples, Germany and Puerto Rico. “I like Puerto Rico, they have beautiful weather there,” he says. Though he’s grateful for the mild Cleveland winter, he has thoughts of moving to warmer climes.
Later he comes back and gives me a little stuffed animal. “Happy Valentine’s Day,” he says, smiling and bowing. “A man’s got to feel like a gentleman every once in a while.”
“Sunday is the worst day of the week,” says Willie, 51-year-old black man who has been on the streets for four months. “There’s nowhere to go from 6 a.m. until 1. I walk around and freeze and wait for the library to open so I can use the computer.”
He found himself on the streets after living for the past eight years at W. 140th and Triskett. “My roommate started getting high. And then he had a stroke. I couldn’t afford the rent on my own. I used to work for the railroad, but I hurt my back and now I’m on SSI (Supplemental Security Income). I have an income, but I have no place to live and these agencies don’t help,” he says.
Although his children are grown and he has four grandchildren, Willie is proud and won't tell his children that he’s on the streets. “My kids are all grown. They got their own problems. They don’t need to know I’m homeless. I got myself into this predicament, I can get myself out,” he says.
Frustration over the lack of affordable housing is taking its toll on Willie and others like him. When asked what he would like to do, he said he would love to get a job working for a social service agency. “I’d show them how to help people like me. Hell, I’d volunteer to help people find a place to live. We have incomes, it shouldn’t be that hard. Half the people working here were once homeless and now that they have theirs, they don’t care.
“It’s getting too hard to live in Cleveland. I’d like to go to Seattle to be near my mother but then I’d miss my kids.”
“I’m older and wiser says George,” a 70-year-old white man who claims to have been a chemist for Diamond Shamrock and Lubrizol. He makes no apologies for the reason he’s on the street. “I had a place but the landlord boosted the rent. I like to drink beer and I like to have a lot of company and I don’t think he liked that,” he says.
He has three sons who live in Painesville, but he’s not seen them in five years. “I did have a granddaughter, but I could have more grandchildren by now. Anyhow I don’t like to impose,” he says.
After his “retirement” he had some emotional problems and now receives SSI. Living on the street hasn’t gotten him down. In fact many at the center today embrace each other like family. “I’m a social animal,” he says, laughing. “I like to talk in case you hadn’t noticed.”
Sitting across from George is a young white man who I initially mistaken for a volunteer. Kyle is one of the “guests” here today, but in his nearly 24 years he’s had a hard life. He was taken from his biological parents when he was 6 years old and placed in an orphanage in Cincinnati. At 10 a Lakewood couple adopted him.
After high school he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force where he spent four years. “I loved it,” he says of the experience. Except for one tour of duty.
“I spent six months in Iraq and I saw a lot of stuff over there. I guess I went a little crazy,” he says. Now estranged from his family, Kyle found himself spending four months in Cuyahoga County Jail after committing “a little bit of a felony.” Turns out he was sitting in the car while his friend attempted to rob a bank. Kyle says he didn’t know what his friend’s intentions were, but he was convicted of accessory to commit robbery nonetheless.
His face is sad and masks a life of trauma. After seeking counseling from the Veteran’s Administration, he was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. He wants out of Cleveland and wants a new start. “I’m trying to get SSI and then I want to move to Phoenix. I want to be away from here. This city is depressing. I need a change of scenery and really liked when I was stationed at Luke Air Force Base.”
If he could do anything, he says he would like to help others—kids who were adopted or abused or neglected—like him.
Security Guard, Larry Collier’s booming voice lets everyone know that the handicapped get first dibs on the services available upstairs. The guests all listen to him and the entire check-in process runs smoothly. Everyone is calm and there’s no pushing and shoving.
Collier chalks it up to the demeanor of the volunteers working the check-in desk. They are a group of four welcoming people from the Mayfield United Church of Christ.
Last year nearly 1,000 homeless people were served at the Stand Down. “This is the only one-stop homeless outreach event where they can register to vote and get their blood pressure checked,” says Sarah Sommers, membership/volunteer coordinator for InterAct Cleveland, an organization based at St. Stanislaus Church that is dedicated to creating an interreligious community working for social justice through service, dialogue and advocacy.
InterAct Cleveland spearheads the event, now in its 15th year. “We have representatives from 30 agencies here today offering everything from flu shots to mental health services,” Sommers says. Men were waiting in line to have podiatrists look at their feet and to get a shave and a haircut. Some were pleased at the results of their blood pressure or glucose screenings. Others shrug and know they need to take their medicine.
There are few women and no children at the event today. Sommers says that the population served is typically 80 percent men and only 20 percent women. More women will show up tomorrow at Pilgrim Congregational Church at W. 14th and Starkweather for the winter clothing distribution. On Feb. 19 and 20, the Stand Down will feature relaxation days, providing entertainment in the form of music and movies, massages and a relaxing atmosphere for the homeless to come in for a rest.
Sadly, nearly 30 percent of all homeless men are veteran’s, says Brian Davis, executive director of the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless. This year the VA is staffing tables in full force. Tammy J. Stennis, clinical administrator for the Painesville/McCafferty Outpatient Clinic wants to spread the word that the VA has 12 outpatient clinics in the region in addition to the two main campuses in Brecksville and University Circle.
Toni, a homeless outreach worker with the VA, says better access to affordable housing, exposure to training programs and effort on the part of the individuals can help them turn their lives around.
But the local government also has a role to play. NEOCH’s Brian Davis has sent a list of 11 recommendations to Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, as he’s done to other mayors, in an attempt to alleviate the problems in shelters. Here’s a rough outline of his points. See the site for more details:
1. We need someone who will take the lead to solve this problem locally.
2. Cleveland needs a 24 hour drop in center downtown in which homeless people could get a warm meal, a place out of the cold or heat, and a place for the hundreds of churches to coordinate their help.
3. We need to pass local legislation to set standards for the shelters.
4. Shelters need to focus more attention on outcomes.
5. There should be no discharges from one shelter to another, and there should be incentives for moving people with multiple barriers into housing.
6. We need help in pushing the state to provide counseling to all homeless people in order to work through the trauma of homelessness or abuse or war in their background.
7. We hope that you will push the State to recognize that it is raining in Cleveland, and we need those funds.
8. We need to follow the lead of Franklin and Montgomery County and create a County-wide affordable housing trust fund.
9. Help us forgive and forget (to accommodate those leaving judicial system).
10. Can we work on planning for problems within our system before they become crises?
11. Please let the panhandling ordinance die a quiet death.