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In Cleveland, Unsheltered Homelessness Decreased In 2020. Can It Continue?

People living outside in the Greater Cleveland area, taken in 2016. [Bob Perkoski / FreshWater Cleveland]
People living outside in the Greater Cleveland area, taken in 2016. [Bob Perkoski / FreshWater Cleveland]

By Conor Morris, for the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative

There was one bright spot in the darkness of the coronavirus pandemic in Cleveland last year: Fewer people were homeless and living on the streets.

Chris Knestrick, executive director of the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless (NEOCH), said his group estimates that there was a roughly 30 percent decrease in the number of “unsheltered” people experiencing homelessness in Cleveland in the second half of 2020, a drop from an average of 124 people to 85. “Unsheltered” means people living outside, in tents or on the street and not in homeless shelters.

While there were still hundreds of people in Cleveland’s homeless shelters, that’s still a positive statistic, Knestrick said. 

To achieve the reduction, a lot of relatively unprecedented things had to happen in Cleveland, Knestrick said: A large amount of rental assistance to prevent people from becoming homeless; a moratorium on evictions locally and later federally; and money to support putting homeless and unsheltered people into five hotels

 Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless (NEOCH)

Before most of these measures were in place, in the first half of 2020, Cleveland saw a slight increase in the average number of people experiencing homelessness living outside the shelter system, 17 percent higher compared to the first half of 2019. That number dropped in the second half of 2020, after the pandemic-related rental assistance began and more hotels were brought online, Knestrick said.

The decrease happened despite expectations that the number of unsheltered homeless people would increase due to the pandemic, Knestrick said. While none of the efforts mentioned were perfect solutions to homelessness, they did help, he said.

This feat begs the question: Can Cleveland government, nonprofits and volunteers keep up this support into 2021 and beyond? Elsewhere, some cities, like Austin, Texas, have permanently purchased hotels to continue these kinds of initiatives.

The Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative asked Knestrick about the work done in 2020 to keep people experiencing homelessness off the streets in Cleveland, and the potential longevity of these measures. [Editor’s Note: The Cleveland Street Chronicle, which is supported by NEOCH, is a member of NEOSOJO.]

Some people might not know what the homeless situation looks like in Cleveland generally speaking, so, where are people living and has that changed much during the pandemic?

More and more people were having a housing crisis in our community and seeking emergency shelter. Before the pandemic, our community had a strong response to homelessness. But it was mostly designated toward large shelters in our community.

When the pandemic hit in March, we quickly realized that congregate living situations like large shelters are a huge risk for our people, who oftentimes already have preexisting conditions and suffer from many of the things that make COVID-19 a deadly virus for people.

Through leadership, through the continuum of care [body of agencies responding to homelessness]… and also with great leadership from the City of Cleveland and Cuyahoga County, we quickly began to place people into hotels to de-congregate the shelters [so that they] could practice safe distancing in some way.

One of the statistics I had seen previously was there was a 30 percent decrease in unsheltered homelessness in Cleveland during 2020. Can you just walk me through how that happened?

The 30 percent is an estimate, it’s hard to have exact data on real human beings in our community. People come and go out of homelessness at any given time. 

That’s something we’re always checking because we need to make sure we know where people are to provide [them] with supplies to survive the winter and to really encourage them to go into shelter and to move towards permanent housing.

I think one of the lucky things that we saw, as CARES (Act) money came in and we were able to afford non-congregate living settings and took advantage of that, we saw people much more apt to engage in our services. 

As people are working just to survive outside, they’re out there hustling and doing their thing and it’s a lot harder to engage and contact people. I think hotels offered us an opportunity to build really deep relationships with people and to accompany them into a housing process in a way that was new to us.

We’ve also [permanently] housed, since March, over 70 people in our community [who were unsheltered]. We were able to accompany them as they worked to figure out how to end their housing crisis or homelessness [and get into stable housing, like rentals].

Were there any other lessons learned from Cleveland’s response to homelessness from 2020? Can any of this be replicated into the future?

I think if we look at the eviction moratorium that was issued by our local government, evictions were down and I think they continued to be down after a federal moratorium on eviction happened. In our minds, what we learned is, how do we give tenants more rights and opportunities to prevent eviction? [We had] a robust housing assistance program that was put in place to really prevent homelessness this year. I think it begs the question, can we really see that robust housing assistance, coupled with policies that protect tenants [continued]?

One of those things that we [saw this year] is a really deep conversation around homeless prevention, and that’s a new thing in our community. Before COVID-19 and the pandemic, homeless prevention was not possible because there was no funding for it. I think it’s really about how we are going to move forward and build policies and gain resources to help prevent people from entering into homelessness?

Previously, with unemployment we did expect a large boom in the homeless population and that has not happened. We’re far from done with the pandemic. But I think we’ve realized that robust homeless prevention in our community is really needed and a really important resource that we haven’t had in the past.

Why hasn’t that kind of funding available for homeless prevention in the past? Is it a federal problem, a local problem, a state problem?

It’s all three. We have talked a lot with our local officials over time about the need for, for example, a flexible, shallow [small] housing subsidy in our community for folks who are housing insecure [which has not happened yet].

I think it comes down to having a living wage. A mother of two making minimum wage in our community would have to work 75 hours a week to afford a two-bedroom in our community [according to RentCafe.com, average rent is $1,134 per month in Cleveland], which is an impossible feat. So we know that housing assistance and homeless prevention is needed but we’ve never seemed to quite prioritize it like we have during the pandemic.

I really think it’s a question of political will.

Is there enough funding to continue running the five hotels for the homeless for the rest of 2021?

I don’t think the funding has been appropriated for all of the year. We definitely know that we can get through all of the winter season using hotels. We’re looking at what’s happening in Washington during this time.

I think we’re super excited that Marsha Fudge has been selected to be the [U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development] secretary. I think it really depends on if a CARES Act [stimulus] is going to be continued to be moved and allocated throughout the year for us to continue to do it. Will our local government continue to prioritize it? I think they will, they have. But I think the question we really need to think about is, we don’t want to go back to normal.

We want to come back to a place that’s better than where we left it. Because where we left it was shelters were full to capacity everywhere and more and more people were experiencing homelessness. Trying to get to a place where we come out of the pandemic better and more equipped to get more people into housing is the way to go. 

If anyone wants to help out people who are homeless in our community, what should they do?

First and foremost, treat people with dignity all the time. Whether they’re homeless or whether they’re your neighbors or the people you live with. 

The person that’s downtown in Public Square is a member of our community as much as a person who lives in one of the condos or big buildings down there. Continuing to engage and get to know them and learn their stories is really what I encourage everyone to do.

If you’re interested in supporting or learning more about our work, you can go to our website, it’s NEOCH.org. I think we’re always looking for support in many different ways.

Conor Morris is a corps member with  Report for America . You can email him at  cmorris@advance-ohio.com , or find him on  Twitter . This story is sponsored by the  Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative , which is composed of 20-plus Northeast Ohio news outlets, including ideastream