Temporary Overflow Shelter Reveals a Growing Homelessness Problem in Cuyahoga County

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The City Mission is turning toward donations for the families sleeping there each night. - ERIC SANDY / SCENE
  • ERIC SANDY / SCENE
  • The City Mission is turning toward donations for the families sleeping there each night.
Last night, 10 women and 21 children slept on the floor of the gym at The City Mission, a charity organization that runs a men's shelter located at East 55th and Carnegie. Mattresses and cots were pulled up against the wall, and the families huddled under blankets for a another nightly respite from the ongoing homelessness crisis in Cleveland.

Holly and her 17-year-old daughter, Aiyana, have been sleeping here every night since Aug. 17. Every morning, they depart on a Lutheran Metropolitan Ministries bus that takes them downtown, where they ask once again for placement in an actual shelter. Every evening, they return to the gym. Two months in, they’re quickly losing hope for any change. They’re pretty sure they’ve been here longer than anyone else.

The gym was designed for recreation, of course, but it’s now being used as the de facto overflow shelter for homeless families in Cuyahoga County. This was never the intention, but there is no actual overflow shelter for homeless families in Cuyahoga County. (The word “family” here refers to a single woman and at least one child.)

“My mom and her boyfriend’s family all had problems, so we had to get out,” Aiyana says, tucked under a thin sheet and leaning against a bag containing her and her mother’s worldly possessions.

Several dozen children race around the gym, tossing basketballs haphazardly and screaming in play. After a long day of doing nothing, there’s boundless energy to expend in this room. Nearby, a woman holds a 1-month-old baby and tries to sleep.

“You have to wait for a family to be out before you can go in [to a shelter],” Aiyana says. “It’s a waiting process. That’s what we do all day.” She and her mother had never stayed in a homeless shelter prior to Aug. 17, so the entirety of that process presented a steep and mind-numbing learning curve. Each morning, they join the line at the Cosgrove Center on East 18th Street and Superior, where Cuyahoga County and FrontLine Services run an intake process for the area’s homeless shelters. Each morning, they’re turned away. The shelters are full.

Once they’ve been denied, most families just sort of stay on the sidewalk outside the Cosgrove Center. “Or we go to Tower City and hang out,” Aiyana says. “I know other people go to the Greyhound station and hang out.”

“‘See if you can find somewhere else to stay,’” Holly says, reiterating the line she says she's heard so many times from FrontLine Services. “Well, if we had somewhere else to stay do you really think we would be here?”

It’s a bleak situation unfolding daily in downtown Cleveland.

A woman emerges from the gym locker room, a baby tucked under one wing, announcing to the room that there’s no hot water right now. “Again?!” another woman shouts. This happens often. City Mission CEO Rich Trickel notes that it’s not like this gym was designed to accommodate a dozen or so families in need of showers.

Andrea, a mother of three (ages 1, 4 and 9), says that the waiting game is a nightmare. She spends her days huddled in the bus stop outside Cosgrove, wrapping her children in whatever blanket she can find. And now she’s worried about the coming winter. “We done complained so many times at Cosgrove, to supervisors and all that … but it’s been like this for six or seven months,” she says.

Trickel interjects: “It’s been like this for more than a year.”

The family homelessness crisis in Cleveland has grown since last summer, when Trickel and the staff at The City Mission opened their gym as a temporary overflow shelter.

From Oct. 13-15, 26 moms and 46 kids stayed on the floor of the City Mission gym. Dozens more made calls for shelter at Laura’s Home, which is also operated by the City Mission. Based on pure numbers, provided by Cuyahoga County, the family homelessness crisis is getting worse. In 2016, 1,682 families stayed in emergency shelters (to say nothing of whatever "overflow" there was at the time).

“The weekends suck,” Aiyana says. “You can’t be here during the day, and on the weekends during the day at Cosgrove they’re not open so you don’t get nothing to eat. You gotta sit there all day. And if you don’t got no money, then you have nothing. You can go anywhere, but we just sit there."

Even though Cosgrove is closed on the weekends, the LMM bus still carts these families to the building. And that’s where they spend their weekend. “If you got nowhere to go, then why leave?” Aiyana says.

They can’t return to the City Mission gym, because there’s really no accommodation structure for daylong stays. The whole idea here is that Trickel and his staff saw a desperate need for beds — safe places to sleep and gather resolve — and so they opened the doors and allowed struggling women to toss a few thin mattresses on the ground for the night.

That was more than a year ago. Then things got worse.

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In a very general sense, the emergency shelter process in Cuyahoga County is run simply through Coordinated Intake, located within the Bishop Cosgrove building at Superior Avenue and East 18th Street. From there, a mother and her children would be referred to one of the county’s shelter partners. With the homelessness crisis worsening, those places are often at full capacity; the mothers’ requests are denied.

This short list of shelter partners for local families includes: The City Mission, which operates Laura’s Home, with 55 rooms and 166 beds; Westside Catholic Center with 35 beds; The Salvation Army with 35 rooms; and Family Promise with accommodations for eight to 10 families. Those facilities are fully booked on most days.

Seeing a crisis on hand, Trickel says his organization decided to open its gym as a temporary overflow shelter for families. The idea was to stem the bump in demand, for which the county cites a “seasonal increase” during summer months and a reduction in beds while Family Promise was under renovation last year.

The City Mission, which is the only privately funded venue on that list, receives an average of 374 calls from mothers each month, all seeking shelter for their family, according to Trickel. (Places like Norma Herr Women’s Shelter and 2100 Men’s Shelter offer emergency beds for single women or men only, respectively.)

In September 2016, Trickel and his staff opened the gym. That month, The City Mission provided 71 “nights of shelter” for 23 women and 48 children. (A “night of shelter” is an accommodation of one person for one night.) In August 2017, The City Mission provided 1,016 nights of shelter in its gymnasium.

With more families seeking emergency shelter, it’s clear that the problem has grown worse in the past year.

Cuyahoga County, eyeing a 2018-2019 budget package now, does not currently have plans to build additional shelters — overflow or otherwise. Trickel says they need to prepare some sort of plan.

One of the core issues, as always, is public fund allocation. More federal dollars from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) have been shifted toward short-term rental assistance and efforts to improve access to permanent housing. The county has championed its efforts to build low-cost homes.

“I think we would agree that no matter how wonderful a shelter and how caring the staff, families and children do better in their own, stable home. At the end of the day, everyone needs permanent housing," Ruth Gillett, manager of the county's homeless services office, wrote in a letter to Trickel last month.

"By shortening the shelter length of stay, more individuals and families can be served within the existing capacity. Ending homelessness will not be achieved by increasing shelter beds in Cleveland or throughout our country. A national housing policy focused on meeting the gap between private market housing rates and low income working and disabled families financial resources is the economic and just solution.”

Trickel says that the long-term view baked into that statement does nothing for the families needing a bed tonight. Shelter placement is a part of the path, often a temporary stepping stone to the county’s Rapid Re-housing program. HOUSINGfirst, a county-city project, serves primarily single men, though, Trickel says. Families are left out in the cold, for the most part.

"We've lost approximately 400 beds in this city," Trickel says, pointing to the shelter problem.

For now, Trickel says the outpouring of support for the City Mission's gym is incredible. People have donated vital items — diapers and hygiene kits — and offered help for families in need.

"We're going to continue to do what we're doing," Trickel says. "But I think what needs to improve at least is communication."

Trickel met with County Council President Dan Brady on Oct. 11, and called the meeting "productive." But there remains no clear path forward for the sheer quantity of homeless families in need of shelter. "It is time for the county to step up and provide a dignified emergency overflow facility for women and children," Trickel says. "Clearly there is a need."

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