National Coalition for the Homeless plans to open a regional office in City of Cleveland

National Coalition for the Homeless plans to open a regional office in City of Cleveland

by Bruce Checefsky

(Plain Press, January 2022)                 The National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) plans to open its first field office in its 40-year history in Cleveland, Ohio this coming summer. Brian Davis, who served for many years as the director of the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, will staff the field office. As part of the celebration of the plans for the new office, the NCH held a November 23rd forum in Cleveland titled “Racial Equity Issues within the Homeless Sector and Possible Solutions.” The forum was conducted by NCH Executive Director Donald Whitehead.

     Homelessness is all too common in our cities. Each year at least 2.5 to 3.5 million Americans sleep in shelters, transitional housing, and public places not meant for human habitation, National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty currently estimates at least an additional 7.4 million have lost their own homes and are doubled-up with others due to economic necessity. The fallout from the pandemic will cause chronic homelessness to climb 49% nationwide. The homelessness crisis will peak in 2023, with an additional 603,000 American adults without a permanent roof over their heads. The current definitions of homelessness vary depending on which agency defines the problem.

     The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) creates four broad categories of homelessness: homeless, imminently homeless, homeless under federal statutes, and victims of domestic violence. If a person meets one of these categories, they are eligible for HUD funding.

     Homelessness includes school-aged children who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence, according to the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, a federal legislative response to homelessness. Families unable to stay together in the same place, children doubled up with more than one family in a household due to loss of housing or economic hardship, and children living in cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, or other substandard housing.

     Donald Whitehead, Executive Director of the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH), believes he knows why there are so many homeless people in the United States. Whitehead offered his views in a recent forum on Racial Equity in the Area of Housing and Homelessness held in Cleveland.

     “The structural or systemic levels of racism cause homelessness. The intentional advantages provided for white people to the disadvantage of people of color causes homelessness. Federal and local policies that make it hard for a person of color to make a living,” he said. “Racism is at the core of homelessness.”

     Whitehead used the George Floyd case as an example of structural racism that led to institutional and interpersonal racism. Floyd died after being handcuffed and pinned to the ground by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in an episode captured on video, starting a nationwide protest. The officer used institutional policy and racial bias to put his knee on Floyd’s neck. People will not want to talk about race, he said. But racism and poverty cause homelessness. People of color face poverty at a much higher rate than the white population.

     “African Americans are disproportionately homeless at a rate of 3-to-1, compared to the general population,” Whitehead said. “African Americans make up 13% of the general population and 40% of the homeless population.”

     Based on Census Data and the Department of Education definition of homelessness, Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless (NEOCH) estimates 23,000 people experienced homelessness in 2018 in Cuyahoga County. The Office of Homeless Services estimated that only 7,000 of these people entered a shelter for housing. Over 80% were people of color.  

     Poverty is not an indicator of homelessness, said Whitehead. Racism is.

     Brian Davis, Director of Grassroots Organizing and board member of National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) from 2001 – 2017, stressed how important it was for NCH to set up a midwestern regional office in Cleveland, one of five regional offices in the United States. For more information:

     “Cleveland has a strong history of people with lived experiences to help set the advocacy agenda and attend city council meetings,” Davis said. “We are trying to mobilize our experiences to help other midwestern cities.” 

     The Bring America Home Now Campaign, a grassroots campaign to end homelessness led by NCH and people who have experienced homelessness, will focus on the passage of federal legislation. They aim to address the interconnected solutions to the decades-long epidemic of homelessness. The goal, according to Whitehead, is not to sanction encampments or build shelters for the homeless but to examine structural issues that affect social change. NCH is more interested in political policy change on the local and federal levels, not handing out bus vouchers. For more information:

     Whitehead worked on the Biden campaign where Section 8 housing was a promised entitlement. Even if everybody eligible for Section 8 housing gets it, the problem will not go away, he said. 

     “Lifting the minimum wage to a livable wage, addressing structural racism by changing the fair market rent, and making it illegal to discriminate against people because of the source of their funding for housing, are a few examples of structural change. Passing the voting rights bill is essential for a level playing field.” 

     Andrea Wilson, Chair of the Housing Committee of the Cleveland Branch of the NAACP, said that housing is a basic necessity. It provides stability in a neighborhood. Stable housing provides an individual with growth opportunities. For many years, the black community did not have as many business opportunities as the white community. Home equity, a luxury for some families, is not available to many blacks. Teaching people about the importance of homeownership will build a strong community.

     “When the housing market crashed in 2008, it brought an influx of foreign investors with very little community investment,” said Wilson. “Bad landlords added to the destruction of our communities.” 

     Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority (CMHA) provides a few emergency resources for the homeless or near homeless. That is not always the case, she added. As of June 2021, Akron Housing Authority had 22,000 people on their waiting list. Individuals and families with children in need of housing are placed on a waiting list. CMHA has 19,000 people on the waiting list with only 15,000 housing vouchers. On average, it takes more than three years for an individual or family to get assistance. Many people on the list either have moved, or their contact information has changed, losing their place in line.

     “Housing vouchers are a short-term solution,” Wilson said. “Some families use housing vouchers for generations. Education is needed to teach people to transition off the vouchers. In the black community especially, people suffer many obstacles, including racism.

     “Blacks represent 80% of the homeless population in Cuyahoga County. It happened by design. Even today, the black community is dealing with low denials for home loans even when they are proven creditworthy,” Wilson said. “Low appraisals add to the home equity issues. Home values on the East side of Cleveland are much lower than on the West side. Zoning is a legal way to discriminate with restrictions on a multifamily apartment and lack of affordable housing.”

     The NAACP has partnered with NID Housing (NID), a HUD-certified housing counseling agency, to offer rental and homelessness assistance, foreclosure prevention, budgets, and people experiencing discrimination in housing. Wilson suggests more funding for affordable housing and partnerships with agencies across the board. HUD needs to work more closely with the housing authority and homeless organizations to assist people and reexamine the voucher program. For more information:

     Brian Mallory, a resident at Riverview Tower since 2018 and a member of the Steering Committee of the Cuyahoga County Jail Coalition, knows how it is to deal with CMHA and HUD. CMHA is decentralizing its process, privatizing services, making it harder to get simple repairs done, for example, which is a problem as a tenant.

     “I wanted to organize a rent strike in my building. Our housing authority has so little regard for our basic rights,” said Mallory. “I reject that the system is overworked. It takes CMHA forever to make a simple decision. They are not a credible partner.”

     Wilson agreed that the HUD system remains broken. It should help people get off housing vouchers, not depend on them. The majority of people using housing vouchers need help. The program does not offer that kind of assistance, she said. The political will to add funding for education is not there. 

     “More education,” Mallory added. “We are tired as poor folks of having experts tell us what we need.” 

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