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Proposed youth drop-in center in Ohio City generates heated debate

This building, owned by Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry, is the proposed site of the youth drop-in center on Franklin Avenue in Ohio City.
Conor Morris
Ideastream Public Media
This building, owned by Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry, is the proposed site of the youth drop-in center on Franklin Avenue in Ohio City.

A conflict has been brewing over the last year over the location of a drop-in center for youth experiencing homelessness in Cleveland’s Ohio City neighborhood, pitting some neighbors against each other.

Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry, which would operate the center, is hoping the drop-in center – proposed for 4100 Franklin Boulevard - will provide a welcoming space for people ages 16-24 to rest, shower, eat and receive support services. The nonprofit says on average, 550 young adults seek emergency housing support in Cuyahoga County each year. And the facility would be the first of its kind in Cleveland, while Ohio’s other major urban centers have at least one youth drop-in center.

However, some immediate neighbors of the project have raised concern at community meetings over the last year about the center’s location, arguing the drop-in center could make the neighborhood less safe and disrupt its residential nature. And they’ve threatened litigation if the Cleveland Board of Zoning Appeals allows the project to move forward in February.

Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry has partnered with A Place 4 Me on the project, an initiative to end youth homelessness with the YWCA of Greater Cleveland.

Shajuana Gaston, foster care youth navigator at A Place 4 Me, and Tasha Jones, a REACH Youth Action Board member at A Place 4 Me, both have experienced homelessness in their lives. They said the Ohio City site is an ideal location for the drop-in center and is appealing to other young people they’ve interviewed. They said that’s because it’s a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood with close access to frequently running public transit and also because it’s a relatively safe place.

"It just also happens that LMM (Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry) owned this building,” Gaston said. “And so we didn't have to put $4 million-plus dollars into trying to purchase a building that... fits the needs."

The building has been owned by Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry or affiliated organizations going back to at least 1965, but in recent years has mostly been used as office space. Maria Foschia, president and CEO of that organization, said the organization and its parents are putting roughly $1.5 million worth of renovations to make the building more conducive to needs expressed by the young people consulted for the project. However, the project will need to go before the Cleveland Board of Zoning Appeals on February 6. Foschia said the project organizers will either need to successfully argue the board should appeal a zoning administrator's decision finding that the project is not in compliance with city zoning code, or be granted a variance from city zoning code.

Ron O’Leary, a neighbor of the proposed drop-in center and former Cleveland Housing Court judge, said he supports the idea of a youth drop-in center and it being located in Ohio City, just not one being located on his street. He argued the project has the potential to make the street less safe on top of concerns about increased traffic in a residential area.

He cited research that suggests the best practice is for youth drop-in centers to be operated 24 hours a day, but current plans call for the center to be operated between potentially 10 a.m. and 8 p.m.

“A concern is that the people know where it is, but if it’s closed, they basically just go there and park and stay,” O’Leary said, a concern repeated in the study.

O’Leary said he understands some who use the center might be escaping domestic violence situations, and so he also worried about abusers showing up on the street to find the survivors of the violence.

Foschia said there will be a number of safety improvements at the site like fencing, gates, security cameras, increased lighting, and a trauma-informed “safety officer” on site during hours of operation who will be trained in de-escalation techniques. She also said clients will be offered bus passes as well to get to where they need to go after the center closes. She also noted other residents of the neighborhood have voiced their willingness to help out.

“People have offered to escort, you know, walk alongside our young people to where they need to go, literally to a bus stop,” she said.

Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry also shared a document answering several dozen common questions about the project, noting that while the intent was originally to operate the center 24/7, the idea was nixed after feedback from Cleveland Councilman Kerry McCormack and others.

“Many young people who will visit the center already have places to stay overnight and will be using the center to access resources, do laundry, have a meal or seek respite from what may be a challenging situation,” the document explained.

Advocate Shajuana Gaston said there’s serious need for a youth drop-in center in Cleveland. She pointed to data that suggest young people getting “lost” in the broader system of support for people who are homeless; those services typically aren’t designed with young people’s unique needs in mind, causing them to shy away from traditional shelter settings. She also says it’s a group of people who are more likely to be victimized by human traffickers.

"There are literally people that stand outside of 2100 (the men’s shelter) all the time,” Jones said. “And it's not just the people that need the service of 2100, but there are people that are ready to prey upon this already vulnerable population.”

Foschia noted young adults experiencing homelessness are disproportionately people of color and are frequently members of the LGBTQ community. She said she thinks that has something to do with the opposition of some to the drop-in center in Ohio City.

“I think it’s quite clear that there are some racial undertones here, frankly,” Foschia said.

Two other neighbors questioned the project during a community meeting hosted by Ohio City Inc. on Tuesday last week. Lola Garcia, a mother of seven, who is Black, lives several houses away from the proposed drop-in center and has spoken out during multiple meetings about the center. She said the projects’ organizers have not addressed residents’ “legitimate safety concerns” about the project and have acted as if the center coming to her street is a foregone conclusion. She, like some of her neighbors, said she's not opposed to the concept of the drop-in center being in Ohio City, however.

“I want to reiterate our willingness to serve as a resource for finding alternate Ohio City locations that would make sense for the youth drop-in center,” she said. “But I also want to reiterate that we will continue to oppose the plan as it currently stands and that we are willing to litigate that.”

Marge Misak, who lives about a block and a half away from the proposed drop-in center, said she supports the initiative and doesn’t think the drop-in center’s purpose is contrary to the neighborhood’s zoning designation.

“Things like churches and schools and fire stations and charitable organizations are all allowable uses in residential districts,” she said. “And if you think about it, we need those things in our residential areas because we need those kinds of services integrated into our neighborhoods.”

Jones said many young people are only steps away from losing their housing, whether that be a loved one dying or being incarcerated or a person who is a source of income in their household getting sick.

“My main support, she’s now 89 years old and has dementia and doesn’t remember who I am,” she said. “She’s in a nursing home, so I can’t go stay with her. She’s a wonderful person and she’s family. But, you know, things happen to people in life that are sometimes outside of our control.”

O'Leary, the neighbor who opposes the drop-in center going in on his street, also questioned whether Ohio City is the right location for the center. He argued no other youth drop-in centers in Ohio are found in residential neighborhoods.

"It's not really where the people that need it are going to be located," he said.

Hannah Gates, another REACH board member at A Place 4 Me who herself has experienced homelessness, said young people who are struggling with homelessness live throughout the city. Gates and the other advocates also noted that population rides bikes, use public transit and sometimes even have cars.

"It's literally just people who are trying to better themselves like anyone in any type of demographic," she said. "And I just don't understand why it's such a fight on whether or not we deserve to do it in that location."

Angela D'Orazio, senior program officer for housing with the Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland (which is a project funder), said when project organizers interviewed young people who have or had experienced homelessness, they were clear about what needs the drop-in center should address.

"They said, 'we want to be near the amenities of downtown, but we don't want to be in downtown,'" she said. "And I think one of the things that this conversation is really pulling in is challenging this narrative that people experiencing homelessness should be relegated to parts of the city that are industrial or commercial or in historically redlined, racially oppressed neighborhoods. And we're really pushing against that to say this is a residential community that feels safe and walkable and accessible and progressive."

Corrected: January 23, 2023 at 12:00 PM EST
Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.