Most of you know that one of the major reasons I am running for Cincinnati City Council is because of my work with the low-income & homeless population in our City. Not only did they inspire me to seek public office, but my frustration at how the social service sector was (is) (mis)managed led me to desire a seat at City Hall. Yes, I do believe that I can make changes that will benefit ALL in our City.
I posted a status this morning on Facebook in response to Sheriff Jim Neil’s threatened arrest of homeless people on the steps of the Court House. It received numerous responses and “likes.” The topic of the Drop Inn Center came up and its (potential) move. I served on the board of the Drop Inn Center for two years and it taught me so much about the lack of prioritizing the City places on the homeless. The poor – yes. The homeless – no.
So, I felt the need to publish the following paper (nine pages long) that I wrote for my Public Policy course at the University of Notre Dame. It is a comprehensive look at the reallocation of shelter funding at the City level – and how that has forced those in the field of sheltering the homeless to make very difficult decisions. These are just facts, nothing more – but they shed light on the inner-workings of institutions that affect our City’s most vulnerable population. These facts also show that pointing the finger at one single entity is not the answer – nor is a siloed mentality when trying to alleviate the burden of homelessness. We have to come together.
The Drop Inn Center:
Stuck Between a Rock and a Reallocation of Shelter Funding
Homelessness has always, and not always, been a problem in the United States. It always has been a problem in the sense that there have always been people living on the “streets.” From the inception of this country, inequality has always played a major role in in keeping those at the top, at the top. However, it was not until the 1980s that homelessness became an epidemic in this country. In the first four years of Reagan’s presidency, homelessness more than doubled in the United States. Apparently, “trickledown economics” did not have the desired effect.
Furthermore, in 1980, the year Reagan took office, federal funds accounted for 22% of city budgets. By 1989, that number had become 6%. Add on top of that the deinstitutionalization of mental institutions, Congress’ slaughtering of HUD funding, and a debilitating lack of affordable, rental properties in urban areas and you have modern-day homelessness.
In 1981, In response to the inevitable, Coalitions for the Homeless began sprouting up in major cities across America. Groups of concerned citizens rallied together to try and head off what they saw coming; namely, a homeless population with which the country was unprepared to deal. It was at this time that The Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless (GCCH) was formed and served as a model for the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) that was to come in 1984. In fact, the GCCH was formerly located at 1506 Elm St., the current site of Choices Café, and many of the plans for the NCH were drafted at this location. A Cincinnati man, and good friend, Donald Whitehead was one of the first Executive Directors of the NCH.
Donald was a graduate of the recovery programs at the Drop Inn Center (DIC), Ohio’s second largest shelter and the state’s largest emergency shelter (i.e., one that takes everyone, intoxicated or otherwise – unlike many faith-based shelters). The DIC has been in operation since 1978, three years before the first Coalitions arose. A local man named buddy gray founded the DIC, the Coalition and about six other local social services. He was a man of vision who saw the “writing on the wall,” and realized that, due to historical and upcoming political decisions, the homeless were only going to get pushed further and further down.
Donald was one of buddy’s friends. Donald also suffered from the disease of addiction – a disease that, until the 80s, was seen as a moral deficiency and not something that was actually a medical condition. buddy had alcoholism in his family and did not see the sense in someone dying in the snow just because they drank. This was his inspiration for the Drop Inn Center, a shelter that was far ahead of its time and that many try to emulate to this day.
Tragically, buddy was murdered on November 15th, 1996. His partner, Bonnie Neumeier, tells me stories of the feds hauling buddy off, telling him to be quiet, etc. buddy was killed by one of the mentally ill men in the DIC, but to this day no investigation has been launched, and no one is certain how Wilbur, the killer, managed to get a brand new gun to kill buddy when the man could not even tie his shoes. Regardless of what really happened, when buddy was killed, everyone knew they had to mobilize to fulfill his legacy.
CURRENT VOICES AND STAKEHOLDERS
Around the time of buddy’s death, in 1995, the Cincinnati Continuum of Care was founded. In fact, all around the country Continuums cropped up to serve as City Hall’s wing of homeless advocacy and process implementation. Recently, in Cincinnati, the Continuum changed its name to Strategies to End Homelessness (SEH). Their purpose is to implement “a single, coordinated and inclusive process for the planning and management of the local (City of Cincinnati and Hamilton County) Continuum” (www.strategiestoendhomelessness.org). The Executive Director of SEH is a man named, Kevin Finn.
Roxanne Qualls was the former mayor of Cincinnati and political aficionado. She supports renewed economic development in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine (OTR) neighborhood. After World War II, the “white flight” of urban cores all across America struck OTR the hardest in Cincinnati – particularly when the Mill Creek Expressway was leveled to make way for Interstate 75; displacing 1,000s of people in section 8 style housing. OTR had always been an historically working class neighborhood, but in the 50s and 60s it saw its most debilitating decline economically. As a result, OTR became the home of the DIC, the GCCH and a number of other 501(c)3 public benefit organizations that serve the poor. This concentration of services is currently a policy debate that wages daily at City Hall, i.e., the debate of whether or not these services should be spread out to de-concentrate and redistribute the homeless population.
Roxanne’s mission to redevelop OTR is spearheaded by the development company, Cincinnati Center City Development Corp (3CDC). Their Mission Statement reads: “3CDC is a non-profit, real estate development and finance organization focused on strategically revitalizing Cincinnati’s downtown urban core in partnership with the City of Cincinnati Corporate Community. Our work is specifically focused on the Central Business District and in Over-the-Rhine” (www.3cdc.org). The CEO of 3CDC is a man named, Steve Leeper. Their Board is comprised of business leaders and executives from Cincinnati Bell, Kroger, The Cincinnati Enquirer, Deloitte and Touche, Western & Southern, PNC, US Bank and Procter & Gamble (to name but a few).
So, we have Kevin Finn (SEH), Roxanne Qualls and Steve Leeper (3CDC) on the development side. Kevin speaks on behalf of the homeless.
The Executive Director of the Drop Inn Center is Arlene Nolan – recently named by the Cincinnati Enquirer one of Cincinnati’s “20 Women to Watch.” Arlene was hired 2 ½ years ago when the DIC’s long term ED, Pat Clifford, was fired. Pat’s removal was a result of the changing nature of the DIC’s current issues – namely, continuing to serve those that no one else wants (including the other shelters) while feeling the pressure from the city and 3CDC to move out of OTR and make way for further development. The Board of the DIC is comprised of representatives from the banking and legal communities, religious communities, advocacy community, formerly homeless community and educational community (this person is, of course, me).
OVER-THE-RHINE (YESTERDAY AND TODAY)
All of the voices and stakeholders named above have the same vision in mind – that OTR become a safe place, filled with renewed life and business, and void of a homeless population that has long gone underserved (even by the public benefit groups who have always vied for the same dollars). However, the methods through which we navigate this ambiguous territory of serving the homeless and revitalizing downtown are all but similar.
OTR is the nation’s largest intact historic district at .67 square miles. In the late nineteenth century, German Immigrants came to Cincinnati to settle. The result of their settlement is a beautiful downtown neighborhood just north of the Central Business District (CBD). The CBD and OTR are separated by Central Parkway. Central Parkway used to be the Miami-Erie Canal and was traversed by a number of foot bridges; hence the coinage of “crossing over the Rhine” to get to downtown’s residential and brewery district.
At one time, OTR brewed the majority of beer in America. It still hosts one of the largest open air markets in the country, Findlay Market, the nation’s largest Music Hall, the only K – 12 performing arts school in the country – School for the Creative and Performing Arts (SCPA) – and is renowned as housing the country’s first incorporated fire department. For these reasons and more, it has become the focus of Cincinnati’s push to revitalize downtown.
OTR is also one of eleven cities on the National Historic Registry’s “endangered cities” list. For this reason, and the registration of OTR as “historic” a number of years ago, the rehabilitation of housing in the area has grown much more costly. I led an affordable housing rehab project before the registration and it cost around $30,000 (for a pretty nice, three-story unit). Just last summer, I finished leading a project on a similarly-sized unit and it cost $250,000. In short, without massive financial backing, the rehabilitation of these historic buildings for market or affordable housing is next to impossible. As a result, on behalf of Choices Café, I approached 3CDC a couple of years ago to help finance an affordable housing rehab and they agreed. This was done, in large part, to hold them to their word that they were not looking to gentrify the area. So far, they have been good neighbors.
Today in OTR there are shops, restaurants, theaters, the Art Academy and many more amenities. People are vying for spots in OTR to live, and streets that a few years ago no one would walk down are crowded and lively. It is quite nice to see, actually, and I enjoy many of these new amenities myself. However, walk a few blocks east or west and you will see examples of a failing economy and poor policy decisions.
OTR is also host to Washington Park. The park historically was a home for the un-housed and vagrant, mentally ill people. It is currently fenced off and being redone to the tune of 6 million dollars. Washington Park Elementary school was torn down to expand the area, and the park should be re-opened in a year or so. The park will have a 500-space parking garage beneath it and its main entrance will be directly across from Music Hall. Sitting just on the southwest corner of the park is the Drop Inn Center. Right next door to the DIC is the brand new, state-of- the-art School for the Creative and Performing Arts (which was moved to that location only 2 years ago). Flanking Washington Park are condos, Memorial Hall, a church and OTR Community Housing.
So, here we are – in a revitalized district of the city, many new neighbors, a brand new K – 12 school, a lot of money pouring in and a homeless shelter sitting right in the middle of it all.
HOMELESS TO HOMES
SEH, in conjunction with the city government, published the Homeless to Homes (H2H) plan around 7 years ago. The plan’s goal is self-explanatory, but the methods are a constant source of debate in board rooms and city chambers. The issue that affects the DIC most is that of the reallocation of funding for shelters.
As with any emergency shelter, we do not receive many fees from programs. As a result, we rely heavily on individual donations and foundation monies. Last year, the DIC received around $400,000 from foundations. These very same foundations are now giving their money to SEH & the authority to the SEH Board to allocate their foundation money as they see fit. This, on the surface, seems like a nice, streamlined way of doing business.
Around three years ago, SEH and the City called for action and implementation of the H2H plan. Admittedly, the DIC dragged its feet. The plan called for a new woman’s shelter, even though DIC already had one. The YWCA jumped at the opportunity and got the SEH money. Even though they still receive the money, they are still not open and the DIC is taking all of the women. It costs us $50 per bed per woman, and the YWCA’s shelter will cost $250 per bed per woman. Regardless of the reality, we still serve the city’s homeless women population, but do not receive funding.
H2H also called for an adolescent shelter – Lighthouse Youth Services leapt out front and grabbed the money. This was two years ago, and although they still receive the funding, they are not yet equipped to handle the burden of chronically homeless youth (a growing problem in America and Cincinnati), so the DIC is taking the youth. Again, with no funding.
The writing has been on the wall for years, well before I moved to Cincinnati and well before buddy gray was murdered – the writing being, of course, that the city wants the DIC to move. The heat is felt more today due to the redevelopment of the park and the movement of SCPA, but the sentiments have always been the same; no one wants an emergency shelter near anything else. Ironically, or appropriately (you decide!), no one wants homeless people either. This is a clear division of the desires inherent in the market vs. the polis.
We formed a site committee a while ago to work with 3CDC to find us a new location. Admittedly, our facility needs a facelift and could better serve the homeless population. If the DIC can get its dream facility by moving, then so be it. This has caused a rift in the advocacy community that sees us as “sellouts” and not living up to buddy’s legacy. Of course, SEH, City Hall and 3CDC are not happy with us either. The good news – and the only news that I really care about – is that the homeless community is happy with us because we exist. However, their voice is rarely, if ever, heard in these crazy policy battles.
3CDC has brought us three sites, all of which are either in disarray or too far away from the population we serve. We took one option to them in an effort to take the reins of our fate and they unilaterally dismissed it. So, here we are, right at the beginning.
As all of this has been going on, SEH has taken a hold of most of the major foundations’ money and become the overseer of who gets what. This was recently finalized in the past couple of months. The way it will work is, to wit: If an agency takes money from foundations, they cannot receive money from the city or SEH (the line between which is rapidly fading). However, if you take money from SEH and the city (which an agency has to if they do not want to get shut out of the helping the homeless business) then you cannot solicit foundations for funding. The long and short of it is that the DIC has to play ball with SEH and, in so doing, receive far less than the $400,000 we were accustomed to in the past.
At the last DIC board meeting we discussed, ad naseum, the above “catch 22.” We have been compliant with the city and 3CDC’s desire for us to move and gotten nowhere. We have been compliant with H2H and gotten nowhere. The DIC board goes to great lengths to avoid going down the “conspiratorial route,” as that kind of “hell no, we won’t go” attitude tarnished our reputation in the past. However, looking at the realities as they are, it is difficult not to believe that the city just wants the emergency shelter gone and would rather farm out all of the various homeless populations to brand new, more expensive agencies.
HOMELESSNESS IN CINCINNATI TODAY
The most recent “Point in Time” homeless count mandated by HUD and published by SEH was just released. The numbers are somewhat skewed as the DIC opened a “Winter Shelter” for the months of December, January and February because the city closed their “Cold Shelter.” A significant difference between the Winter and Cold Shelters is that the Cold Shelter was only open if it was below 10 degrees. The DIC’s Winter Shelter was open throughout the tenure of the chillier months. Not to be redundant, but while of this bickering regarding potential moves and monetary allocation was going on at City Hall and in our board room, the DIC was still taking care of those that no one wanted. As a result, we seem to be being punished for skewing the numbers to HUD.
So far, in 2012, the number of people in emergency shelters has increased by 33%. The number of people on the streets declined, however, due to the opening of the Winter Shelter. The number of folks in transitional housing increased by 40% in 2012. This last number is excellent, but is due largely to the fact that HUD has redefined an “emergency shelter program” as a “transitional housing program.” A little word-smithing is the surest way to garner more support for your organization and show better organizational effectiveness, no?
I cite these numbers to show that the homeless population in Cincinnati is not getting any smaller. H2H calls for fewer shelter beds (50 max) and more affordable housing. This is something with which I cannot argue. However, cutting beds with no contingency plan in place is irresponsible. What we did at the DIC was split our 180 bed shelter into thirds. We have one “entry shelter” with 50 beds. We have one “safe shelter” with 50 beds. We have one “step-up shelter” with 50 beds. What’s more – each of these “separate” shelters have 10 beds for overflow – a grand total of 180 beds. More wordsmithing.
Every policy debate is a paradox and filled with quandaries that have no clear dividing line. OTR cannot remain poor as poverty breeds crime, desperation and drug use. At the same time, without better funding of the educational system, those issues will never go away (but I digress). The new development in OTR is not inherently bad and 3CDC has proven to be a good neighbor in many ways by mixing condos and rental properties so as not to jack up the property value in OTR by too much. Additionally, they have included affordable housing units in many of their residential properties. Strategies to End Homelessness’ H2H plan is very good in principal, but there is a population that cannot be served by the plan – the chronically mentally ill, addicted, homeless and diseased population of society – those who the DIC embraces.
The DIC is prepared to move if need be, but every time we get to a point where things look good, we get shot down. Furthermore, SEH has not promised any operating capital once we move. My position on this issue is that we do not move if we do not get some kind of legally-binding agreement that stipulates SEH, their posse of foundations and City Hall fund, in part, the continued operations of the DIC. All of the sites we are considering are significantly larger than where we are now, and we can’t even pay the bills where we are. If we move into a site with 1,000 square feet more space, the writing will, once again, be on the wall.
I was a proponent of the move for many years. Today, I propose a new strategy (one I proposed at our last board meeting): We sit still and refocus on who we are and who we serve. For years, the DIC has had an inferiority complex. For years, the DIC has taken arrows from advocates and business owners. For years, foundations have played games with those who sleep on our shelter floor. And, for years, the DIC has served, on average, over 60% of the city’s homeless population annually. If we stopped doing that, then the city would really have something to complain about. I feel it is time to let the City know that we know we do a good job. It is not time to drop the bomb, but rather, let these stakeholders know that we have a bomb – that we are confident in the job we do – and that, regardless of how many of our programs get stripped out from under us, we will always be here to serve those that Lighthouse, the YWCA, City Gospel Mission and others will not serve. Furthermore, we have re-branded ourselves, hired a new executive director, re-staffed, cut costs at the expense of our recovery program and our reputation is currently gold. We no longer have to be the whipping boy. We want to be a team player, but if we continue to get put in a bind, I say we go our own way and make our own fate. There is no law that says we have to abide by SEH’s policies (aside from the “law” of pragmatism). We own our building and cannot be moved if we don’t want to move. In many ways, we could do our own thing and ignore the pressure. This is not my style, nor is it the board or Arlene’s style, but it is where we are going if something does not change and we are not treated with a bit more dignity.
If we do move, I reiterate my stance that future funding needs to be on the docket. Without it, we are sealing our own fate. We also need to be the party in charge of site selection, not the city or 3CDC. It is possible for new restaurants, schools and homeless people to all live in the same area. However, no one knows what it looks like because it has never happened. Cynicism is the enemy of progress, and I feel too much cynicism from the city and SEH. I contacted Roxanne Qualls to come down to the DIC and meet with Alrene, as she has not been there for many years. She agreed and now the dialogue is opening up. The board is (in my mind) frustrated from years of not going over people’s heads. At our last meeting I tried to convince Arlene that she needed to go above Kevin and Steve. For, at the end of the day, Roxanne calls all the shots. That’s how it is in Cincinnati.
In conclusion, my guiding principal in this ongoing, ever-changing landscape of social service funding is written in Latin on the City of Cincinnati’s flag – Juncta Juvant – “Unity Assists.” It seems that two-word phrase was good enough for our founding fathers and mothers, and I do not see why it shouldn’t be good enough for us today. If nothing else, it is something to shoot for. 3CDC, the city, SEH and DIC need to unify for the common good. In this case, that would be serving the homeless and revitalizing Cincinnati’s economy – two phenomenon’s that are not mutually exclusive. The DIC needs city money and 3CDC’s power brokers. 3CDC and the city need the DIC to serve those that no one else can; if, for no other reason, that it helps make OTR more attractive for the new YPs that are moving to the area. Ideally, the motivation would be to help the homeless because it is the right and just thing to do, but one cannot have it all.
One thing’s for certain – whether my solution to not move or move with contingency is the answer – the city needs to realize that the issue of homelessness is not going away and if people are willing to work for a pittance to help deal with it, then all concerned parties should allow them to do so and support them. Egos and agendas need not be a part of this discussion of societal betterment – yet they are – and navigating those waters is tricky, but necessary. At the same time, DIC needs to be the loudest voice and leading the way in Cincinnati regarding serving the poor. If we are strong, the other agencies are strong. Years of history back this point. Hopefully, in the coming months, a solution will be reached in the form of an ideal, practical facility. One thing I have learned – you will not always make loads of friends when you are speaking on behalf of those without a voice.