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'It can be life and death': Homeless advocates concerned some choose streets over shelter in winter

tents on the sidewalk with snow all around
Ygal Kaufman
Ideeastream Public Media
Tents on Superior Avenue near Downtown Cleveland provide some protection from below-freezing temperatures.

On a winter day, before polar winds descended on Cleveland, Raysean Johnson stood outside his forest green tent posted on a tree lawn along Superior Avenue in Downtown Cleveland. He’s been unhoused for nearly five years, bouncing between homeless shelters and city streets — and this winter is his first living outside.

A car pulled up and a stranger handed him and his girlfriend Myesha Carroll a bag of supplies.

Carroll thanked the woman, but the contents of the bag were baffling: false eyelashes, microwave popcorn and food they had no way to cook.

"Why would they give us canned goods?" Johnson said with a chuckle.

"Right, like, how we supposed to microwave this?" Carroll asked, joining in on the laughter.

"I’m not savage, I’m not eating this out of no can," Johnson said, as he put the can of mushroom soup back in the bag.

Raysean Johnson (right) has been living along Superior Avenue in Downtown Cleveland since last summer. This is his first winter living outside instead of the men's shelter. His girlfriend, Myesha Carroll (left), has been staying at the Norma Herr women's shelter for two years.
Stephanie Czekalinski
Ideastream Public Media
Raysean Johnson (right) has been living along Superior Avenue in Downtown Cleveland since last summer. This is his first winter living outside instead of the men's shelter. His girlfriend, Myesha Carroll (left), has been staying at the Norma Herr women's shelter for two years.

Johnson said he’s grateful for the help, but it’s an example of how people — including those responsible for solving the problem of homelessness — don’t understand what people living on the streets need.

Northeast Ohio temperatures have now dipped into the single-digits with subzero wind chill further stressing the safety net system already struggling to accommodate Cleveland’s estimated 250 chronically unhoused people.

Shelters provide some relief, but Johnson said between overcrowding, safety concerns and rules, it’s impractical for him to stay at the shelter — even when it's extremely cold.

"They only give us a place to sleep for like a couple hours," he said. "Then we got to get up in the morning — at six in the morning and go do something. I’m homeless. I ain’t got nothing to do at six in the morning."

That means packing up his belongings and carrying them with him during the day, until returning to the shelter where he said he doesn’t feel safe, citing incidents of violence erupting during previous stints at the men's shelter. A spokesperson for Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry, the county-run men's shelter, said they have policies in place to address safety issues by working closely with law enforcement and behavioral health community partners, as well as training staff on de-escalation techniques.

"When you put 400 people together in a room or in a space that that they're living their absolute worst day, you're bound to run into some fights and other things happening there," said Chris Knestrick, the executive director of the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless. "But if people have to make a choice between sleeping outside or sleeping inside in a shelter, then we're hoping people make the choice to go to shelter."

Knestrick is worried about people like Johnson who may choose to stay outside potentially facing frostbite, hypothermia and in extreme cases, death.

"It's harder to get away from the wind when you don't have a house around you, obviously," he said. "Then there's... other conditions. We know that people that are sleeping unsheltered... also have a variety of health conditions and struggle with issues of substance use."

Those kinds of problems combined with the extreme cold can be extremely dangerous, he said.

Three tents on a sidewalk in the snow
Ygal Kaufman
Ideastream Public Media
Raysean Johnson's tent sits between two others on a frozen sidewalk with bags of food frozen on the ground around it.

Those who do choose shelters, like Myesha Carroll who has lived in the county-run women’s shelter, Norma Herr, on and off for two years, report rough conditions.

"Everybody that's been in that shelter is here because I feel more safer in a tent than I feel in a shelter," Carroll said.

Online reviews for Norma Herr detail issues with pests, poor food and drug activity causing safety concerns.

"It’s horrible," Carroll said. "The food's horrible. Some of the staff is horrible. It's horrible in there. Am I grateful? Am I thanking God for, like, a place to stay? But it's horrible in there.”

Norma Herr did not respond to request for comment.

There are many reasons a person may choose not to stay in shelters, Knestrick said, but it’s important people get inside in the winter.

"It can be life and death when it's cold," he said.

There is additional space that opens up in seasonal shelters, like ones in local churches and community spaces, and warming centers in the winter, but those are just stop gaps when temperatures dip.

Cuyahoga County Executive Chris Ronayne, who wants to reduce homelessness by 25% in the next three years, said shelter conditions like the ones Johnson and Carroll describe are unacceptable.

"What struck me right away, particularly with the homeless shelter for women at Norma Herr, is it's too crowded," Ronayne said. "It's a basic human right that we provide shelter space that gives women enough room such that it's dignified."

Cuyahoga County recently added about $2.5 million to its budget for the Office of Homelessness to help fund expansions — and better conditions — at both shelters in the coming year.

At the city level, Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb said he’s trying to do just that with the recent hire of a senior advisor focused on homelessness.

"What we know is that when people have a safe place to go, they will go there," Knestrick said. "It's up to us to figure out what type of investments need to be made to create those safe spaces for people that are sleeping unsheltered."

The people living in tents along Superior Avenue said they want permanent housing: a solution that homeless advocates and elected officials recognize but said is complicated and requires a tremendous amount of coordination.

tent sits on sidewalk in front of fence in front of brick building
Ygal Kaufman
Ideastream Public Media
People living in tents on Superior face a brutal winter without permanent housing.

In the meantime, folks like Johnson and Carroll will continue to endure potentially dangerous conditions — either on busy streets in freezing temperatures or within shelters.

Carroll said she’s praying she’ll land in her own apartment.

"I didn’t ever think I can be homeless. I did not know that. But I'm homeless. I am grateful that we do have somewhere to stay or whatever, but I hope and hope and pray to God that one day I do get out of this," she said. "I pray and hope to God I do get out of this because I can't live like this no more."

If you are in need of shelter, contact Cuyahoga County’s coordinated intake at 216-674- 6700 or visit www.clevelandohio.gov for information on the city’s warming centers.

Updated: January 19, 2024 at 12:53 PM EST
The city of Cleveland and Cuyahoga County announced Friday they will invest $3 million to support the city’s unhoused population.

The money, which comes from Cleveland’s Department of Community Development and Cuyahoga County’s Office of Homeless Services, will support seven local agencies’ programming for youth, families and older adults, according to a city press release.

Roughly half the grant money will go to the Emerald Development and Economic Network for rapid rehousing efforts, including shelter and meal assistance, domestic violence services, disability housing and more, the release said.

Other grantees include the county-run men’s and women’s shelters and other privately-run shelters.

This story has been updated to include a comment from the Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry, the county-run men's shelter.
Abbey Marshall covers Cleveland-area government and politics for Ideastream Public Media.