Board of Zoning Appeals approves Youth Drop in Center

by Bruce Checefsky

     Tasha Jones gets up every morning to go to work just like thousands of residents of Ohio City. She buys food at the West Side Market and shops for groceries at Dave’s Supermarket on Carroll Avenue. Jones exercises at the local gym and uses the Cleveland Public Library West Branch. She pays Social Security, Medicare, and income tax on earned income, in addition to the Ohio income tax, and frequents local restaurants and small businesses that line the streets of Ohio City, a premier urban neighborhood in Cleveland. Unlike most people of this mixed ethnic and socially diverse enclave, she sleeps in her car at night.

     Jones was born in Cleveland and grew up in Tremont and Ohio City. Her grandmother owned an antique store on Loran Ave where Jones learned commercial business practices and the fine art of customer service. She felt safe as a child because the community provided activities in Lincoln Park, local libraries, and the neighborhood. She graduated from Cleveland Heights High School, attended Tri-C to study business management and administration, and graduated with an Associate Degree with a minor in industrial operations.

     She joined the Carpenters Local Union No. 435 and did architectural restoration. In October 2022, Jones was in a car accident and lost the use of her left eye. Her car got impounded, and her eye injury affected her ability to work. During the same month, she made plans to move into a new apartment, giving up her lease, and when the accident happened, she had to use her security deposit to get her car back from the impounded lot.

     The apartment was unavailable a week later. She is still looking for an affordable rental, and for now, it is more cost-effective to live in her car.

     “I wake in my vehicle every morning at about 6 AM. When the temperature is twenty or thirty degrees outside or colder on some nights, the temperature inside my vehicle is the same. Before getting out of my sleeping bag, I warm up my car. I grab a coffee, maybe a workout at the gym, shower and go to work, or run errands. I go to the Laundromat or swing by the bank, and at night, I drive around Ohio City until I find a safe place to park.”

     Most homeless people do not own a car, especially the youth who may have been forced from their homes, unable to find suitable housing, and end up sleeping on the streets.

     “We [homeless] are invisible to the community, and for young people, in need of basic support like a shower, or a place to wash their clothes and charge their phones, or seek counseling, it is key to their survival,” Jones said.

     Jones supports the Youth Drop-In Center (YDIC) proposed for the Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry (LMM) building at 4100 Franklin Boulevard in Ohio City. She could not imagine what it must be like for a young woman in her position, without a history of renting an apartment, no home or car, and no security to rely upon. She believes such a young person would be vulnerable and at risk. Jones is too old to use the drop-in center, which serves people 16-22, but understands the importance of homeless youth having access to a place where they can rest, a shower, food, and receiving support services. 

     “We are all only one bad day away from homelessness,” said Jones.

     The Youth Drop In Center (YDIC) would operate 10 hours per day, providing youth access to basic needs, including laundry, showers, phone chargers, etc., and provide intensive case management and housing navigation services available based on the comfort level of individual youths.

     Dolores Garcia, a resident of Ohio City and property owner on Franklin Boulevard, lives with her seven children and husband a few doors from Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry. She supports the center, just not on her block. Garcia is with several residents and homeowners on Franklin Boulevard, including Robert Shenk, his wife, Celine, and former Cleveland Housing Court Judge Ron O’Leary, that oppose the location.

     “The proposed youth center does not meet the needs of unhoused youths in our community,” Garcia said. “Best practices for your drop-in centers are supposed to be around the clock, twenty-four hours operations, and are not compatible with a residential neighborhood. The YDIC center at LMM is proposed as limited hours, closing at 8 PM. We have been told in no uncertain terms that there is no control by the operators of the YDIC over people once the center either closed or they left the center. We have had previous issues with unhoused people on our block.”

     Garcia said she experienced people trespassing on her property, sleeping on her porch, and trying to open their doors. The YDIC, because it has limited hours, will only exasperate the problem, according to her. 

     “It is also incompatible with development along Franklin Boulevard Historic District,” she added. “Ohio City Inc (OCI) has a strategic plan to continue development along the boulevard for single and two-family homes. YDIC does not fit with that plan.”

     O’Leary and several residents reached out to Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry to offer assistance in finding another site before the decision to move forward with the project, but never reached an agreement. Lorain Ave and W. 25th Street, and the May Dugan Center, were offered as suggestions because of their proximity to public transposition.

     Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry President and CEO Maria A. Foschia, hired in July 2022, said the main issue from residents is safety, which they have addressed. 

     “There are assumptions about young adults coming into the center and what that means to serve young adults experiencing homelessness. I cannot understand why they jump to a conclusion,” said Foschia. “We will have a safety officer on site trained in trauma-informed de-escalation techniques plus a fully trained staff. We plan to improve fencing surrounding the property and add security gates, plus more lighting and safety cameras.”

     Garcia cited an article published by Published Journal of Adolescent Health in 2016 that indicated youth drop-in center users would be incompatible with a residential neighborhood with young children. The National Network for Youth Issue Brief on the Consequences of Youth Homelessness said, in a separate article published the same year, and also provided by Garcia, says that 75 percent are substance abusers, more than a third have engaged in prostitution, and over 50 percent have a mental illness.

     “We are doing our best to address the safety of those we serve and the safety of those in the community,” said Foschia. “If we are improving a property and providing service consistent with the mission of our charitable organization and social service provider, what is the real issue?”

     At a crowded Franklin-Clinton Block Club in the historic St. John’s Episcopal Church, residents from both sides aired their concerns and grievances. Several people opposing the YDIC  asked the Plain Press to leave the meeting, claiming it was a private affair among neighbors. Chair Alex Frondorf had to remind attendees that it was a public meeting open to the press. A vote regarding the Board of Zoning Appeals variance request for the proposed use resulted in 30 for support of the location, 21 opposed, and one invalid.

     Paul Sherlock, an 11-year resident of Ohio City and the organizer of Radical Hospitality, which invites Greater Cleveland residents for free food and conversation every fourth Tuesday of the month at different locations, said he regrets the demonization that took place on both sides of the issue.

     “There was an emphasis on the moral issue, like helping at-risk youth, and that people opposing the location somehow did not care about them.”

     On February 6, following more than two hours of testimony by both sides, the Board of Zoning Appeals granted Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry zoning code variances, allowing them to proceed with plans for the drop-in center, the first of its kind in Cuyahoga County.

     “We plan to move forward with a renovation timeline and look forward to opening the center as soon as the building is ready,” said Foschia.

     Opponents of the youth center threatened to file a lawsuit following approval.

     “The neighbors on Franklin Blvd. are, of course, very disappointed that the BZA did not follow the legal standards governing their responsibilities to Cleveland citizens when evaluating requests for variances and special permits,” said Garcia. “This disappointment is compounded by frustration with the hearing that included blatant misstatements and ad hominem attacks from the proposed operators and advocates for the YDIC.  At this time, the neighbors are evaluating all our options, including potential litigation.”

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