Last month I was approached by a beggar, and pointed him in the direction of one of our city’s homeless shelters. “Aww hell no!” he candidly replied. “They’ll tear you up in there, those places are more dangerous than the streets!”

Shelters serve no purpose if homeless people are afraid to enter them. Recently, with the help of shelters in Northeast Ohio, many of our cities homeless have organized to make the shelters safer.

The Homeless Congress is made up of two residents from every shelter in the area. The group started working in 2007 to develop a bill with 39 provisions to help improve the quality of shelters and the services they provide. The Congress dreams of a system in which every resident is supplied with a hygiene kit and clean linens, and is required to take courses on life skills like applying for jobs and setting up bank accounts, drug treatment and first aid. The goal would be for residents to have housing plans within two weeks.

Shelters would be required to have an infectious disease policy, teach their employees CPR, and, in larger shelters, provide a nurse on site 24 hours a day. Therapy would also be provided. The staff would be tasked with making sure children are enrolled in school within 24 hours of entering the shelter, and adolescents could not be moved to a new shelter when they became legal adults.

The most important part of the plan is a push for a sort of ombudsman to advocate for the residents of shelters, and an agency tasked with handling shelter complaints by the homeless regarding staff and conditions.

But in the grand tradition of ambitious bills, it has made little progress since its introduction in 2007.

“I think that homeless issues are not a high priority for City Council,” writes Brian Davis, executive director of the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, in an e-mail. “I also think that it is really hard to get homeless people organized on this issue. Half the homeless population is only homeless for 30 days or less. Then most people want to get out of this horrible situation and once they are housed never want to look back on this bad time in their life again.”

Davis points to a study by the Levin College at Cleveland State that estimates there are 4,800 homeless on our streets and in our shelters at any given time, and about 20,000 a year who go without a home for some time in Cuyahoga County.

For Davis, the Homeless Congress’s efforts are a key part of the solution, and his organization has been working to build political momentum for the bill. So far, they’ve managed to garner the support of a dozen candidates for city council, three of whom are incumbents. “We hope that because we can show that nearly 2,000 homeless people voted in the 2008 election that the City Council members will start to take this group seriously.” — Niklos Salontay

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