In the darkness of the coronavirus pandemic in Cleveland last year, there was a ray of hope: Fewer people were homeless and lived on the streets.
Chris Knestrick, Managing Director of Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless (NEOCH), his group estimates that the number of “unprotected” people homeless in Cleveland fell by around 30% in the second half of 2020, down from an average of 124 to 85. “Unprotected” means people who live outside, in tents, or on the street and not in shelters for the homeless.
While there were still hundreds of people living in Cleveland’s homeless shelters, that’s still a positive statistic, Knestrick says.
To achieve the reduction, a lot of relatively unprecedented things had to happen in Cleveland, says Knestrick: A huge amount of Rental support to prevent people from becoming homeless; a moratorium on evictions on site and later at federal level; and money to house the homeless and unprotected people five hotels.
Before most of these measures were taken, Cleveland saw a slight increase in the average number of homeless outside the shelter system in the first half of 2020 – 17% more than in the first half of 2019. That number fell in the second half of 2020, after pandemic-related rental assistance began and more hotels went online, Knestrick says. Check out a table from NEOCH below.
That decline came despite expectations that the number of homeless people suffering from homelessness would increase due to the pandemic, Knestrick says. While none of the efforts mentioned were perfect solutions to homelessness, they did help, he said.
This feat begs the question: can the Cleveland government, nonprofits, and volunteers keep this support through 2021 and beyond? Elsewhere, some cities, like Austin, Texas permanently purchased hotels to continue these types of initiatives.
The Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative (NEOSOJO) asked Knestrick about the work being done in 2020 to keep the homeless off the streets in Cleveland and the possible longevity of those measures.
Note: Knestrick’s responses have been edited for clarity and length. Morris’ questions are in bold (the Cleveland Street Chronicle(Member of NEOCH) is a member of NEOSOJO).
Some people may not know what the situation is for the homeless in Cleveland – where do people live and has that changed during the pandemic?
More and more people had a housing crisis in our community and were looking for emergency accommodation. Before the pandemic, our community had a strong response to homelessness. But it was mainly intended for large shelters in our community.
When the pandemic broke out in March, we quickly realized that crowded life situations like large emergency shelters pose a great risk to our people, who often suffer from pre-existing conditions and suffer from many things that make COVID-19 a deadly virus for people .
Through leadership, through the Continuum of Welfare (a group of agencies responding to homelessness) … and also through great leadership through the City of Cleveland and Cuyahoga County, we quickly started moving people to hotels Gather the shelters (so they) can somehow practice safe distancing.
Photo: Bob PerkoskiI’ve seen homelessness in Cleveland decrease 30% in 2020. Can you just explain to me how that happened?
The 30% is an estimate – it’s difficult to have accurate data on real people in our community. People come and go out of homelessness at any time.
This is something we always check because we need to make sure we know where people should deploy [them] with supplies to survive the winter and really encourage them to seek shelter and move towards permanent shelter.
I think one of the lucky things we saw as CARES [Act] Money came in and we couldn’t afford crowded living environments and took advantage of it. We saw people who were much more inclined to engage with our services.
Since people are only working to survive outside, they are out there doing their thing, and it is much harder to hire people and connect with them. I think hotels gave us the opportunity to build really deep relationships with people and to accompany them in a living process in a way that was new to us.
We also have [permanently] hosted over 70 people in our church since March [who were unsheltered]. We were able to join them as they worked to figure out how to end their housing crisis or homelessness [and get into stable housing, like rentals].
What other lessons we learned from Cleveland’s response to homelessness from 2020? Can any of this be replicated in the future?
I think if we look at the eviction moratorium put in place by our local government, evictions were in decline, and I think they continued to decline after a federal eviction moratorium. In our minds we learned how to give tenants more rights and opportunities to prevent eviction. (We had) a robust housing aid program set up to really prevent homelessness this year. I think the question arises of whether we can really see this robust housing aid coupled with measures to protect tenants [continued]?
One of those things we do [saw this year] is a really deep talk about homeless prevention and that’s a new thing in our community. Before COVID-19 and the pandemic, homeless prevention was not possible because there was no funding. I think it’s really about how we move forward and develop guidelines and gain resources to prevent people from becoming homeless.
Previously, we expected a big boom in the homeless population with unemployment, and that didn’t happen. We are far from finished with the pandemic. But I think we realized that robust homelessness prevention in our community is really necessary and a really important resource that we didn’t have in the past.
Photo: Bob PerkoskiWhy were there no such means for the prevention of the homeless in the past? Is it a federal problem, a local problem, a state problem?
It’s all three. We’ve talked a lot with our local officials about the need over time, for example a flexible, flat one [small] Housing subsidies in our community for people who live insecurely (which has not yet happened).
I think it comes down to having a living wage. A mother of two on a minimum wage in our community would have to work 75 hours a week to be able to afford a two-bedroom in our community (RentCafe.com says the average rent is $ 1,134 per month in Cleveland), which is an impossible feat.
So we know that housing assistance and homelessness prevention are necessary, but we never prioritized it like we did during the pandemic.
I really think it’s a matter of political will.
Is there enough money to keep the five homeless hotels running for the rest of 2021?
I don’t think the funds have been used for the whole year. We definitely know that we can survive the entire winter season with hotels. We look at what happens in Washington during this time.
I think we’re so excited to have (US Rep) Marsha Fudge was selected to be the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) secretary. I think it really depends on a CARES Act [stimulus] will continue to be postponed and allocated throughout the year so we can keep doing it. Will our local government continue to prioritize? I think they will, they have. But I think the question we really need to think about is that we don’t want to go back to normal.
We want to go back to a place that is better than where we left it. Because wherever we left the accommodations were full and more and more people were homeless. Trying to get to a place where we can get better and better out of the pandemic to get more people into homes is the way to go.
Photo: Bob PerkoskiWhat should someone do to help the homeless in our community?
First and foremost, always treat people with dignity. Whether they are homeless or whether they are your neighbors or the people you live with.
The person who is downtown in the public square is just as much a member of our community as is a person who lives in one of the condominiums or large buildings down there. I encourage everyone to keep getting involved, getting to know them and learning their stories.
If you are interested in supporting our work or learning more about it, you can go to our website. I think we are always looking for support in many different ways.
Conor Morris is a member of the corps Report for America. You can email him at [email protected]. This story is sponsored by the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative, which consists of more than 20 news outlets in northeast Ohio, including FreshWater Cleveland.