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Ohio City drop-in center for unhoused youth wins zoning approval

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 on Franklin Avenue in Ohio City, owned by Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry, is the proposed site of a youth drop-in center.

A drop-in center for young people experiencing homelessness in Ohio City will move forward after the Cleveland Board of Zoning Appeals voted Monday to grant necessary code variances, despite opposition from some of the building's neighbors.

Those opponents, including former Cleveland Housing Court Judge Ron O'Leary, who lives next door, previously threatened to sue if the variance was approved.

"The people who are most directly affected by this, the ones on the block, are the ones that are going to be affected by the increase in noise and traffic and the potential crime," O'Leary said during the hearing.

O'Leary and other opponents said during the hearing they were worried about people loitering outside the building after its operating hours, likely to be between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. or 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. He also cited the potential for increased litter.

Robert Schenk, another neighbor, argued Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry has not presented them with an adequate plan to monitor or address safety on the block, or enough evidence on why the Franklin Avenue site is the best one.

"Is this the optimal location from which to operate a countywide drop-in center? And what is the potential impact of operating such a service in a residential neighborhood?" Schenk questioned.

Many other neighborhood residents do not oppose the drop-in center, said Marge Misak, who lives about a block and a half away from the drop-in center site. She presented a letter of support during the meeting from 186 neighbors, organizations and others. About 100 of those who signed the letter live within a half mile of the site, she said.

The drop-in center would provide unhoused young people ages 16-24 with showers, clothes and other basic necessities. Staff would be there help young people through challenges they're facing. The group of concerned neighbors have said they're not opposed to that mission; they just don't want the center on their street.

Maria Foschia, executive director of Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry, said there will be a security officer on site during the hours of operation, along with security cameras, staff and community partners dedicated to making sure young people have places to go after the center closes at night. She's also said many in the neighborhood have volunteered to help out.

Kai Cotton, a youth navigator for A Place 4 Me, an initiative of the YWCA of Greater Cleveland to end youth homelessness, helped work on the planning for the project. She told the board she takes pride in helping young people she works with to develop a plan to move forward.

"There's been no interaction or navigation from me that ultimately led to a young person sleeping outside on a bus stop or anything like that," she said.

Benjamin Ockner, one of the lawyers who represented Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry during the board hearing, said he thinks stereotypes of people experiencing homelessness are causing some of the concerns about safety.

"This is a youth drop-in center, most of whom are racial minorities and most of whom, or many of whom, are LGBTQ," Ockner said. "There's an assumption that they're going to commit crime, that they're going to create trash, that they're going to make noise. None of that is supported by any evidence."

Brian Rockas, another concerned neighbor who said he comes from a multiracial family, disputed that racism has anything to do with the neighbors' concerns.

"They (LMM) utilized misinformation, making accusations of racism and classism and basically vilified those asking any question that didn't kind of conform with their narrative," Rockas said. "None of this can be further from the truth. Our concerns are very real and very much rooted in reality."

Cotton, the Place 4 Me navigator who was homeless at one point in her life, said some young people may engage in "survival crimes," like theft, to obtain food, or trespassing on property to find a place to sleep at night. She said the drop-in center is one step toward providing assistance so people won't need to commit crimes to survive.

"National evidence leads us to the fact that people experiencing homelessness are overwhelmingly more likely to be victims of crimes than renters and homeowners," she said. "And the majority of the youth that I partner with are not criminals, and I have yet to be threatened by any of them."

The Board of Zoning Appeals granted the center two zoning code variances, and asked Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry to share a written safety plan for the site.

Angela D'Orazio of the Sisters of Charity Foundation in Cleveland, a partner on the project, said organizers want to create a steering committee, including neighbors, to improve operations after the drop-in center opens.

Board member Alanna Faith said a number of factors swayed her vote to approve the zoning variances First was a letter of support from Cleveland City Council member Kerry McCormack. She also noted testimony from a city planning commission member on the need for the services and the location's close proximity to public transit. And she cited assurances from Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry that the drop-in center would try to minimize impact on neighbors.

The drop-in center would be the first of its kind in Cleveland, joining other major Ohio cities.

Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.