Residents Hopeful for Change at Norma Herr Women’s Shelter — But Not Too Hopeful

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ERIC SANDY / SCENE
  • ERIC SANDY / SCENE
Cuyahoga County last month opened up the contract for Norma Herr Women’s Shelter for competitive bidding and received a proposal from a second local organization interested in changing the state of affairs for Northeast Ohio’s homeless women. The move signaled a brief window of time in which a new operator might be selected to run the shelter, thus bringing change to what some women have called an "overcrowded" facility that hundreds of women rely on at their most vulnerable moments.

That said, the women aren’t holding their breath over this bid.

FrontLine Services, formerly known as Mental Health Services, has run the shelter for more than a decade. Once the county published its recent request for proposals, that group filed its paperwork to continue its contract. The other bidder, the apparent representative of change for so many women living at Norma Herr, is the West Side Catholic Center. (Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry, which runs the 2100 Lakeside men’s shelter, has agreed to partner with FrontLine if that group is successful in its bid.)

This is the first time a competitive bidder has jumped into the Norma Herr operations ring since at least the late 1990s, Brian Davis, director of the Northeast Ohio Coalition of the Homeless, told Scene.


For now, the two proposals are being reviewed by an ad-hoc county committee, which will parse through the differences between the long-standing operator and the newcomer, West Side Catholic, and will assess scores in individual categories. The latter is a well known local organization that operates a homeless shelter in Ohio City.

The ad-hoc committee includes two reps from the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services; and one rep each from United Way, the O’Neil Foundation, the ADAMHS Board staff and the child welfare program. It was pointed out with gusto from the women at Norma Herr that there is no person in that review group who had been or was homeless. (Debate ensued over whether that would introduce a pronounced bias. It was pointed out later by Ruth Gillett, the county's director of homeless services, and county spokesperson Mary Louise Madigan that, for instance, NEOCH "is a party" to West Side Catholic's bid.)

Gillet said that the group is meeting this week. A recommendation on the preferred proposal is due to County Council before the end of the month.

“I know there’s a lot of anxiety on this issue,” Davis said during a recent meeting of the Homeless Congress in downtown Cleveland. “But it’s a big step that this was offered to us – an opportunity to make the contract available so that other operators could bid on it.” (The last request for proposals on Norma Herr by the county was in 2014.)

Most women think the open-bid process is little more than a dog-and-pony show, a carefully manicured performance that will result in no change to the operations at Norma Herr.

A recent dinner served at Norma Herr - PROVIDED TO SCENE
  • Provided to Scene
  • A recent dinner served at Norma Herr
For now, though, grievances continue to pile up at Norma Herr. Scene obtained copies of grievances that date back to April 2015, including: “pink chicken” served for dinner; toilets overflowing with waste; overcrowding; leaking ceilings and walls; alleged prejudice against certain women, sometimes on the basis of race; alleged mailroom theft; black mold in the showers; and small rocks being found in the food.

LaTonya Murray, director of FrontLine's emergency housing services, says that FrontLine has responded to its residents' grievances.

During a meeting of the Homeless Congress on Feb. 9, however, multiple women told Scene that things have only grown worse in 2016 and 2017. “EMS basically lives at Norma Herr,” resident Felicia Davis told us.

Women were suggesting simple amenities like a few public computers and Wi-Fi capabilities. With the path to employment and housing now almost entirely dependent on Internet access, the women pointed out the compounding disadvantages levied against them by a shelter operator that refuses to offer even basic wireless Internet. (“The world is changing,” one woman said.)

“That’s a good suggestion,” Gillett said.

Gillett spoke to the room at length, also leading a conversation over whether to cap the time allowed at the shelter for individual women, the idea being that it's better to get people into housing than into a shelter — "emergency housing." (The county works with the shelter’s operator to set policy like that.)

NEOCH has been vocally opposed to time-limited shelters for at least 12 years, according to public statements made by the coalition. Gillett said that she was unaware of that position, and continued to seek input from the women on how long they should be allowed to stay at the shelter. “We want to make the time-frame useful,” she said.

Part of the problem, many women told Scene, is that, say, a 45-day ceiling on women’s time at the shelter might come to a close before they can get in contact with a helpful social worker. Sometimes, they said, that process can take six months or so.

“When you are a homeless person, people think that you have no home and no job, so you have all the time in the world and you’ll wait,” one lady told Scene. Presently, there’s no time limit set for homeless women at Norma Herr. The shelter also has a policy of accepting anyone who’s found eligible in their intake process.

Last year, we sent a Scene contributor to spend the night at Norma Herr. She verified many of the complaints that we had been reading from women who’ve stayed there. While FrontLine currently has 162 beds on-site, and 40 mats, according to Murray, our writer reported that more than 100 women were sleeping around her on the floor. ("There are reasons for people who choose to sleep on the floor," Murray says. "We ensure that everyone has a place to stay each night. We try to ensure that it is safe as possible.") A recent WEWS news story reiterated those claims that the shelter is overcrowded.

After a lengthy intake interview, our writer arrived at Norma Herr right as dinner was ending. Most of the long, laminate tables had been propped up against the wall, and women were already beginning to stake their sleeping locations for the night with blue mats thrown onto the floor. Others were still finishing their meals, seated on the cold tile or leaning against piles of backpacks. The group gazed into the empty room and sat in near silence, save for a few complaints about the food. One woman offered our writer an extra plate of dinner: dried meatloaf and something described to her as “cheesy cauliflower.” It was understood that this was one of the better meals served at that time.

“No pillows, no mat,” a woman shouted as others around her shuffled on their makeshift beds. Some had mats; others propped themselves up on plastic chairs or their personal belongings. It was that woman's first night at Cleveland’s only women’s shelter too, and she continued to go on about the things Norma Herr lack.

“What the hell kind of shelter is this?” she said to no one. “This is worse than the county jail.” - Additional reporting by Brittany Rees

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