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Neighbors and homeless advocates defend Denison Avenue United Church of Christ’s offering of hospitality to the homeless

PHOTO BY CHUCK HOVEN

Saturday, January 18, 2020; Women’s March Cleveland 2020 Rally, Cleveland City Hall, E. 6th and Lakeside: Rosie Palfy and her boxer Blue protest Ward 11 Cleveland City Council Representative Dona Brady’s opposition to the use of Denison United Church of Christ as a Metanoia Project night time refuge from the cold for the homeless and heat deprived.

PHOTO BY MICHAEL OAKAR

Monday, January 6, 2020; Cleveland City Council Meeting, Cleveland City Hall, E. 6th and Lakeside: Ward 15 City Council Representative Matt Zone takes a stand for the heatless and homeless offering his support for the Metanoia Project using Denison United Church of Christ as a refuge on cold nights.

Neighbors and homeless advocates defend Denison Avenue United Church of Christ’s offering of hospitality to the homeless

by Bruce Checefsky

(Plain Press, February 2020)          On a late Sunday afternoon in January, an old rusted Ford pickup truck carrying a twenty-foot ladder tied to the back pulled up to a stop sign just a few blocks from Denison Avenue United Church of Christ building at West 99th Street and stopped. The driver’s side door swung open and out stepped a young man in his twenties with an orthopedic cast wrapped around his leg that stretched from his ankle upward past his knee. He removed the cast and threw the wrap into the cab, got back in the truck and drove off. A couple of doors down the street, an American flag made from an old wood fence and plywood, painted with colorful stars and stripes, leaned against the side of a two-story house. In this low-income neighborhood made up of empty storefronts and bordered up family homes, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Cleveland and among the poorest in the United States, no one seemed to mind the homeless spending a night at Denison Avenue United Church of Christ in the coldest of cold weather. Most people knew nothing about it.

Last Christmas Eve, the Cleveland Department of Public Safety notified the United Church of Christ (UCC) that it can no longer function as a church if it chooses to house those experiencing homelessness. A ‘Cease Use Notice’ was taped to the door of the church, issued by Angelo Calvillo, Chief, Division of Fire, citing, “No certificate of Occupancy for R-1 Use Metanoia Project Transient Lodging and Housing” and recommended that UCC submit plans and permits to the City of Cleveland Division of Building and Housing to change the use of the facility.

Denison Avenue United Church of Christ pastor, Nozomi Ikuta, has no immediate plans to change the church into transient lodging and housing. “Jesus wouldn’t want us to do it,” she said. “We want the city to commit to working with us to come up with a workable solution that allows us to continue to exercise our ministry to help the homeless at our church.”

Ward 11 Councilwoman Dona Brady forced the issue, challenging the church’s right to act as a shelter ever since a Cleveland fire inspection found that Metanoia had been violating the 45-person limit at St. Malachi Church on West 25th Street. Pastor Nozomi Ikuta accepted the homeless overflow with support from her congregation. Brady called in the Cleveland of Public Safety to shut her down.

Weeks later, over 100 homeless advocates packed Cleveland City Council chambers to protest. Brady sat motionless as minister and social justice advocate George Hrbek stood up in city hall chambers and recited, over the voice of Cleveland City Council clerk Patricia Britt, the name of Lorraine Van De Venter, a woman who froze to death on Cleveland’s east side in 2017. Councilmen Kerry McCormack and Matt Zone gave passionate speeches about the need to take care of Cleveland’s most vulnerable citizens. Basheer Jones called on his council colleagues to have the courage to do something, not just talk about it. Jones should know. He stayed at the city’s Salvation Army shelter with his family when he first moved to Cleveland from Brooklyn, NY, as a boy.

“No matter how bad you have it, someone else has it worse,” Jones pleaded.

As the City Council meeting wound down, Council President Kevin Kelley gaveled the proceedings to a close and disappeared out the side door along with Mayor Frank Jackson and his staff, and most city council members.

Police stood back and watched as protestors chanting grew louder with, “No more neighbors froze to death,” and “Housing is a human right.”

Rose Driscoll was standing on her seat in the vaulted 2-story great hall public space pumping her fist into the air, her voice hoarse from shouting, “Keep the shelter open!”

Other protestors followed with loud clapping protests.

Later that same night, the church got a midnight visit from two inspectors from the Cleveland Fire Department and six police officers. Many in the community felt that the visit was in retaliation for the outpouring of support. Even though the church passed the fire watch inspection, Lt. Mike Norman, Cleveland Fire spokesman, said the inspection was a routine check during cold weather and at night when the shelter would likely have a large population. Still, Nozomi understood the political message all too well.

A half block from Denison Avenue United Church of Christ on the same side of the street, a neighbor stood on his porch smoking a cigarette and checking his phone. When asked about the incident, he said that he read about it in the newspaper. The story has been an ongoing feature in the local media including TV news, The Plain Dealer and Scene Magazine since last November. He added that he didn’t mind if the church provided a warm safe place for the homeless to sleep. “It don’t bother me none,” he said, wishing to remain anonymous.

Back at the Curbside Coffee Shop on the corner of West 99th Street and Lorain Avenue, owner Judy Fitch talked about the good work being done by the pastor, Nozomi, and volunteers at UCC. “It’s a good thing they’re doing. They’re trying to help the homeless and bring them in. They’re helping people and the city’s giving them a tough time.”

The Curbside Coffee Shop is a gathering place for the community where live music is played most nights of the week and the walls are decorated with a collection of hanging guitars, banjos, and mandolins. Fitch and her late husband, Terry, opened the Curbside thirteen-years ago.

“The church is meaning well,” she said. “We have a lot of homeless people in our neighborhood that we’re trying to take care of, too. You don’t want to see anyone freeze to death.”

Doug, a longtime musician and friend of the late Harold King, vocalist and guitarist for the legendary Bluegrass Kings, the regular Tuesday night Curbside band, added, “They’re doing the right thing to feed the homeless. I agree with everything she said.”

Fitch glanced across the room to ask Earl, leaning against the counter and another Curbside regular, what he thought. He nodded his head in agreement.

“He don’t say much,” Doug laughed.

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