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Dispute Over Women's Shelter Operator Prompts Potential Changes

Vonnie Gilson is a resident at Norma Herr Women's Center and is critical of the way it's run. [Matthew Richmond / ideastream]

Fifty-three-year-old Vonnie Gilson is sitting outside the library in downtown Cleveland. She’s been staying at Norma Herr Women's Center since August and thinks someone else should run it.

“They don’t care," says Gilson. "They don’t care, enough just to get by, for whatever programs they have going, so they can pass that program, that score, and then it’s back to business as usual.," 

Gilson’s complaints are about the food, treatment from staff and overcrowding. And she says when she files grievances through the official process, nothing happens. The whole experience, says Gilson, is demeaning.

“It’s as if they blame us for the position that we’re in and we’re not really worth to be concerned about," says Gilson.

The complaints about the women's shelter in Downtown Clevenad aren’t new. Brian Davis of Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, known as NEOCH, organized his first protest against conditions there in 2005. The contract to operate the women’s shelter came up for renewal this year and reignited the debate.  County council was expected to renew its contract with Frontline Service, which has been running the shelter since 2004.  But, for the first time, another group challenged its bid to run the Center.  After several contentious meetings at county council, Frontline will continue to operate the shelter temporarily while council re-opens the bidding process. 

Davis of NEOCH says little changed over the years. And so he convinced his organization's board to sign onto West Side Catholic’s competing application to run the shelter.

“This is the last hope we have to make a change," says Davis. "We've tried everything else. We've had meetings with city council members, county council members, we've tried everything - publicity, websites, nothing has worked. If we don't go and support West Side Catholic's proposal then we might as well just never speak about the women's shelter again.”

NEOCH is an advocacy organization - campaigners on behalf of the homeless. This would have been its first attempt at being a service provider. It’s a new role for county council too.

President Dan Brady says the council was created six years ago, and its Health, Human Services and Aging committee is still trying to figure out its oversight of the shelter contract.

“What we've dealt with with the new council here is: what is the role of the council and working along with the executive versus the old system. I'm constantly asking myself around a whole range of issues - what is our role as legislators?” says Brady.

Brady says council’s involvement was compelled by public comments during committee meetings. But oversight of operations will stay with the Office of Homeless Services. Councilmembers won’t be checking on how grievances are handled at the shelter. But he says this time council’s involvement won’t end with the issuing of a contract.

Frontline’s Chief Operating Officer, Eric Morse, defends his organization’s management of the shelter, which runs three 365-days-a-year and takes in every woman who asks for a bed.

“Having all of those people in one location can sometimes cause conflict," says Morse. "And we have to always balance the safety of all, the needs of all people, as well as the desires of all of those people.”

They’ve asked Lutheran Metropolitan Ministries, which runs the downtown mens’ shelter, to staff and manage the women’s shelter and to offer daytime services. Frontline will focus on case management. And Morse disputes the allegation that Frontline ignores grievances from women who stay there.

“We’ve worked very hard to make sure that every woman who feels like they’re being neglected or they had their rights violated – we want to hear that, we want to address that concern," says Morse.

This episode may have been the biggest challenge to their control of the shelter. Brian Davis is leaving NEOCH later this month. West Side Catholic hasn’t decided whether they will reapply to run the shelter. When Frontline’s current contract runs out at the end of the year, it’s not clear that anyone else will challenge them for it.



Matthew Richmond is a reporter/producer focused on criminal justice issues at Ideastream Public Media.