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Two Braids has to get back to work. There's a guy in the bathroom who needs help cleaning himself. This is one facet of what it means to live and work at 2100. Resources are scarce, of course, at a place like this. Government funding comes by way of Cuyahoga County, the city of Cleveland, the Veterans' Administration, FEMA and HUD. The VA cash is the only source that's increased along with shelter demand and inflation; the city of Cleveland's chip-in has remained steady. The other governmental agencies have let funding sour over time.
The men pick up the slack every day.
Lydia, by turns both eloquent and speechless, sees faith borne out in nearly every action here (she's notably ordained as a deacon in the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio). As more men come streaming down the hallway toward Central Intake, her eyes touch down on each one of them.
"I was really struck by Studs Terkel. He wrote a few books, like Working People. It was the everyday that was interesting. That's what is interesting for me," she says as we continue on through 2100's hallways. She casts her hand toward the portraits on the walls. "The longer I stayed here — and I've worked or volunteered in this field for about 15 years — I've realized that something significant is happening here that most people have no idea of. Poverty is so overlooked in our culture, and it's huge. It's getting to be more of a subculture; it's getting further away from mainstream culture. People kind of look out for themselves, got each other's backs. The sense is other people don't have their backs."
In here, within these walls and beneath the gaze contained in countless of Lydia's photos, men watch out for each other. It's a mandate, almost. To a point, 2100 ensures a level of comfort that gets them off the streets and looking forward. But most guys caution that 2100 isn't too comfortable. The whole mechanism of this homeless shelter is based on the idea of "transitional housing" (i.e., these guys aren't supposed to just live here). Comfortable, but not too comfortable, they say.
In 2013, 4,070 different men passed through the shelter (1,670 had never been there before). That was the first year since 2009 that 2100 had seen a drop in sheer annual numbers. But as recently as 2009, when the shelter housed 2,939 men, the notion of reaching and then hovering above the 4,000 mark was unimaginable.
The trend very clearly follows the economic recession, post-housing bubble. The homeless population grew in Cleveland and in most other cities. Parents were forced to let adult children go, often to disastrous results. The homeless, a rather indefinable term, as it were, began to comprise all sorts of once unthinkable demographics.
The average stay at 2100 is 35 days, which has slowly decreased from a recent high of 60 in 2007. People are moving on more quickly. Ideally, they're utilizing services provided at 2100 and moving into a rental unit somewhere in Cleveland. At worst, they're hitting the road for unknown pastures. Lydia hopes they all take something away from the services offered at 2100.
It's a far cry to be living on the streets and panhandling at Public Square than to be setting up a new life at 2100. The vast canyon of conscious decisions lies in between.
So what brought Lydia to these front lines, to the edge of homelessness and the precipice of hope? What brought about the photos, the humanity?
"It comes from my faith perspective, in the end. That and Studs Terkel," she says with a cheery laugh.***
I'm 19, one of the youngest people here, and my 3rd time in a shelter. Before 2100, I was at Project Hope in Painesville, and before that Union Mission in Norfolk, Virginia — I got left there by people who I thought were my friends.
I've been in shelters because I have nowhere to go. Mom and Dad have been divorced since I was 4 and I've bounced back and forth between parents since then.
I was kicked out of my room. They gave my room to my older step-sister. My stepdad had me sleep on a couch and wanted me to get a job and give half the paycheck to him — just for sleeping on a couch. Instead, I'd hang out with my friends until late at night. Me and my stepdad have never gotten along.
I was in the Fairport Harbor School District — a small district, just about 35 kids in the graduating classes. I quit school in the 11th grade. No one seemed to notice.
I don't have a drug or alcohol problem. Now I work for MX Energy, signing people up for lower gas bills. I'm told I will be going to G.A.P. Youth Assistance Program, to help me with housing. That was supposed to be a month ago. I just want to get out of here.
— Jeremy Moses, from Portraits of Homelessness***
Any walk through Public Square might reveal what appears to be the homeless population. But any walk through 2100 shows that it's a bit more complex. The homeless fall into cement backdrops outside of places like 2100. Here, though, the rooms burst with life — both light and dark in this sort of metaphorical sense. Faith is a big deal at 2100, though it's not forced on the men per se. Often, they do find themselves drawn to and willingly discussing the teachings of Jesus Christ. Many of them say that there was nothing left for them, no one to turn to.
"Early on, I was struck by these individuals. I thought that someone needs to hear this and someone needs to see this person's face. It wasn't getting out," Lydia says. She's shot photography for many years, and her social work became a natural outlet for the art. And it's this art — the photos, the stories — that opens the doors to this corner of reality. Two Braids and Glenn Johnson describe how invisible you can feel when you're shuffling along a lonely life on the streets. People don't seem to care about this broad swath of the population.