Advocacy group concerned about rise in homelessness

The past two decades have seen a great deal of progress in the fight to reduce homelessness in the city of Cleveland, says Brian Davis. But he fears that the combination of federal funding cutbacks and a shortage of people advocating for the homeless on a national level could reverse some of those gains.

“There’s just not much of a constituency at the national level for housing and homeless programs,” says Davis, executive director of the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, a nonprofit coalition of service providers, housing activists, members and homeless people. “I fear that programs will be cut, time-limited or dramatically changed, and the homeless will suffer because of it.”

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development made the decision last year to move away from funding local transitional housing in favor of more permanent housing programs.

The problem is the lack of a transitional program can make it much more challenging for people who are homeless to get back on their feet. Job training, mental health services and other elements of transitional programs are often critical to make a successful turnaround.

NEOCH is not the day-to-day contact for individuals who are homeless and sleep on the streets or in shelters.

Rather, it works as a conveyer of plans to address overall issues such as the lack of housing, lack of jobs and the inability of a person with a disability to stay in housing, Davis says.

“We come from a social justice background, not really a social service perspective,” he says. “We’re fighting for the civil rights of an individual to be able to stay inside and at least be offered a shelter bed or not be harassed for being homeless.”

The nonprofit started in 1988 in response to a large increase in family homelessness, and the primary goal was to get more places for these families to be able to go.

“I started volunteering back in the 1990s for the street newspaper called The Homeless Grapevine,” Davis says. “After about a year of volunteering, I took a position here and became the executive director and have held that position for about 14 years.”

Lack of funding
The homeless situation in Cleveland has improved significantly over the past two decades.

“We’ve had a much better relationship with the city of Cleveland,” Davis says. “They don’t send police out to arrest people and they are much more willing to work with groups on homeless issues.”

Davis credits Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson and the Cleveland Police Department for the progress that has been made.

“The mayor fostered a more respectful and open relationship with all the homeless groups,” Davis says. “Previous administrations either ignored the problem or were very adversarial.”

Unfortunately, the number of homeless families is growing again and Davis is concerned.

“There just isn’t funding for groups to work on improving government or improving the delivery of services,” Davis says. “Every city is dealing with this crisis of poverty. They just don’t have the resources to work on how people access the services or whether it is just and fair. They just focus on trying to keep people alive.”

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, more than 564,000 people are homeless on a given night in the U.S. Of that number, nearly 207,000 are people in families.

“They are on the streets for 1,000 different reasons,” Davis says. “Some are behavioral health issues, some are addiction issues. They may be embarrassed that they fell all the way to being out on the streets. They may not want to accept charity.”

As part of the advocacy work that NEOCH does, Davis seeks to help those who are homeless be able to vote, even though they don’t have an address, or to not face laws that are targeted at individuals just because they are homeless.

“That’s the heart of what we do,” Davis says. “We’re not their case worker or social worker. We don’t make decisions about the best course of action or the fastest way off the streets. We rely on social service providers in the community to do that.”

You can’t give up
But as the homeless problem continues to grow, Davis says he and his team will have to assess their situation.
“If we keep seeing these huge increases in family homelessness, do we do more social services and less social justice?” Davis says.

“The dilemma is do you spend resources on public policy that is unlikely to have much impact in the current environment? Or do you spend resources on keeping people in a church basement until we can figure out what to do?”

Homelessness is a problem Davis has worked on solving for years. NEOCH works closely with organizations such as Downtown Cleveland Alliance to build relationships with people who stay outside and try to convince them to come inside to a shelter.

“You can’t just give up on people,” he says. “You just have to accept them for who they are and eventually, they’ll accept your hand up and move into something stable. I get to see more victories because people who we have worked with for a long time, they decide to go inside and it’s rewarding. It’s one of the toughest jobs in society to see people who are really struggling and have fallen all the way to having nothing.”