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ideastream Focus on Housing: What Type of Housing is Needed?

Monday, June 23, 2003 at 12:50 PM

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Several thousand people in Northeast Ohio have been homeless for more than a year. It's a clear indication that the region has a real need for more affordable housing. But there is debate among advocates about what type of housing is needed most. Some providers say a housing model that assists the long-term homeless with life skills is most important, while others believe the homeless would benefit most from a place where they can pay to stay. ideastream's Janet Babin continues our examination of affordable housing issues.

In the dinner line at the Salvation Army men’s shelter in Cleveland, it’s surprising to find out that many of the men go to work each day. Take William Law. He lives in transitional housing and works as the shelter’s cook. Bubbly and full of energy, Law makes food for more than 450 people a day.

William Law: I’m upset when everybody don’t eat. That’s why I take this very seriously.

Resources are tight; fairness rules. Law doesn’t allow men to take a second serving tray until everyone’s eaten.

William Law: Hey, I don’t got it like that… I don’t got it like that.

Law loosens the food tray from the offender’s grip and passes it on to the next hungry man in line. He’s been trying to translate his 29 years of kitchen experience into a paying job outside the shelter system.

William Law: I’m hoping for the possibility, but I’m not pinning my hopes on it. I’ve got applications out all over town, but you know, because of the job crunch and people I’m competing against, it’s difficult…

Shelter Director Duane Drotar says most homeless people want to work, but face pernicious barriers to gainful employment: they have a prison record, or they’re recovering from drug and alcohol addiction. Others are dealing with mental illness or a physical disability.

So the homeless work when they can, often through temp agencies, but because of the uncertainty surrounding their income, they’re fearful of committing to an apartment of their own. Instead, they make the emergency shelter their home. This in turn crowds the shelter, sometimes keeping the newly homeless, who aren’t familiar with the system, out on the street. Drotar is hoping to house the working homeless in what he calls a “pay to stay” facility.

Duane Drotar: There’s this myth that homeless people are just in need all the time. They’re so poor that they just take, take, take. But at Lakeside, more than half (want to) contribute, would pay to stay, would like to look at a subsidy arrangement that would be let go of completely once their income gets better.

Kathy Kazol is executive director of Eden Incorporated, a local group that develops housing for disabled and low-income individuals. Instead of a “pay to stay” model, Kazol is trying to establish 1,000 supportive housing units in Cleveland within 5 years. Both Cleveland and Cuyahoga County have set aside money for such a facility.

Kathy Kazol: It’s not the answer to everything, but 1,000 units would go a long way to help people integrate, not depend on the shelter, to recover from whatever disability to engage in typical activities. We’ve seen this effort work in other cities.

Supportive housing provides the long-term homeless with shelter plus services where they live: drug and alcohol counseling, mental health treatment, or job placement services.

Brian Davis with the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, or NEOCH, says there are conflicting schools of thought about the permanent supportive housing model. He says some advocates want more resources spent on “pay to stay” facilities. Davis says without unity among providers, divvying up funding and fighting off neighborhood opposition to such projects becomes more difficult.

Brian Davis: We’ve not sold even our group. There’s not universal support among homeless service providers that this is the model. I think there’s trust that, a) they will use their money, and b) the transitional money then will be used in an emergency situation.

Davis says Cleveland and Cuyahoga County’s joint Office of Homeless Services needs a comprehensive strategy to end homelessness.

Brian Davis: We need more organization at the Office of Homeless Services. I don’t think they have a good grasp on how to coordinate funding, not just federal but on the state and local level. How do you involve the foundation community, how do you get all the players on the same page, moving to the same goal.

Cleveland Community Development Director Linda Hudachek defends the work that’s being done by the city and the county. She’s hopeful that a permanent supportive housing facility will soon be built in Cleveland.

Linda Hudachek: I think that as partners everyone’s learning from past experiences and making the best of the assets that we have, not only the partners, but the opportunities that are out there.

Unlike many regions searching for money to create permanent supportive housing, Northeast Ohio has funding ready, but is still searching for a site. But as available state and federal grants for all types of affordable housing continue to dwindle, providers will have to balance the need for emergency shelters with the desire to place the working homeless in more permanent housing situations, both with, and without, on-site support services. In Cleveland, Janet Babin, 90.3.

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