Ending Us vs. Them

In search of a model for ending homelessness and promoting inclusion

For some homeless people, “three hots, a cot and some assistance” won’t get them off the streets and into permanent housing, according to Pat Clifford, executive director of the Drop Inn Center. Cincinnatians understand that, and he believes that’s what really inspired the Homeless to Homes report produced by the Cincinnati/Hamilton County Continuum of Care for the Homeless.

“If you look at our population, roughly 80 percent are coming into the shelters system just needing a temporary place to stay, and 20 percent are the chronically homeless with multiple needs,” Clifford says. “They need some sort of wrap-around care.”

City Council Ordinance 0347-2008 passed in October 2008, calling for a report to “immediately address the inadequacy of the current provision of services for single homeless individuals in the City of Cincinnati and to put in place a comprehensive plan to implement such services.”

Still, getting people to be open to hearing the report recommendations won’t be easy in a city with a dismal track record of prioritizing human services spending. But this problem isn’t unique to Cincinnati.

“Cities have always ghettoized or marginalized their poor,” Clifford says. “The way to deal with social problems is building a wall around ‘us’ and excluding ‘them.’ An alternative philosophy is, ‘We all have different abilities, some of us have struggled. How do we reach out to include those that are “them” into “us” in a way that provides resources, stability, acceptance so you have a community of difference?’

“The problem is that we’re so primed for ‘us vs. them’ that’s so deep within the rhetoric that we’re ready to fight that fight whenever you bring something up.”

Clifford, a member of the Cincinnati/Hamilton County Continuum of Care for the Homeless steering committee, hopes the report published in April is just the first step in dismantling that old way of thinking. The process begins with facts, not preconceived notions or myth.

“It is the first time in our region that a plan for ending homelessness used actual data of homeless persons in the community,” the report introduction states.

Seven subcommittees, in addition to the steering committee, gathered information about the state of homelessness in Cincinnati and best practices throughout the continuum of housing support. They used Homeless Think Tanks — conversations with those utilizing services, site visits to successful supportive housing developments in other cities, best practices research and a host of other means — to craft the plan.

The 109-page report makes an effort to summarize the complex needs, presents the start of an outline of a sustainable, successful solution and cautions against a hasty response.

“The Steering Committee recommends that the members of the Council of the City of Cincinnati read and review the plan in full before taking action,” says the report introduction. “It is only when you take in the context of the data, the work of the subcommittees and the appendices that you have a complete picture of the complexities of the issues, the recommendations that have been made and the careful balance that has been created to support the movement of persons from homelessness into appropriate housing. To that end, the Steering Committee recommends that the City Council avoids ‘cherry picking’ only certain elements or pieces from the plan.”

The four key recommendations make it clear that the group hasn’t turned a blind eye to past failures or successes: forming a transition team to continue work, fleshing out best practices, creating a minimum standard for shelter services and incorporating homeless eradication efforts into the city’s 2010-2014 Consolidated Plan.

“If you look at Cincinnati in relation to other cities, we have one of the lowest percentages of unsheltered-homeless in the country,” Clifford says. “I saw some communities where the shelter system is orderly, nice, neat, etc., but more than half their homeless are on the streets. If you have 100 homeless people and you only take the top 50, you take the 50 most likely to succeed, and your shelter would have a certain environment.

“Cincinnati’s model is ‘We’re taking everyone,’ so the shelter system has had this open feel to it, especially the Drop Inn Center. That being said, looking at the shelters that have a path-to-self-sufficiency and expectations for change, there’s some good in that as well.”

That welcoming approach is valued, but shelters here are organized around addressing emergency needs and providing temporary assistance. While some helpful longer-term programs are offered, such as addiction services at the Drop Inn Center, there is no structure in place to systematically move people from homelessness into permanent homes that utilizes the shelter system.

According to Cincinnati’s 2008 homelessness data, more than 40 percent of the 5,162 women and men served were dealing with some form of addiction or mental illness. Emergency and temporary shelters aren’t equipped to make a long-term impact on resolving those issues. Supportive, permanent housing — a combination of affordable housing with in-house services that help people get and remain stable — is what Cincinnati needs, according to Clifford.

“The good (shelters) — we saw this in Fort Lauderdale and Cleveland — took their population and split it into sub-communities,” he says. “They have a dorm set aside for entry level, or stabilization. Skill development, or maybe decision-making, is the next phase, then action phase is for people are transforming. Some have a place for those in recovery, some are veterans.

“So when you go in you’re not just, ‘Hi, I’m Joe Blow and I’m in a shelter.’ You go into the community with its own staff. So you’re going into a smaller dorm (with) an intentional feel.”

Pointing out that many people never get past the “simplistic” look at the physical location of a facility and don’t go inside that facility to see the work being done, Clifford hopes that this report will get people looking at the complexity of the issues addressed inside those facilities.

“To really do this plan we need broad-based buy-in,” he says. “If people who are concerned about Section 8 just use this as ammo, ‘Oh this is putting another Section 8 property in my neighborhood,’ then it’s a failure. Or if the business community doesn’t see the creation of housing as the solution to chronic homelessness as important as the new condos, then it’s going to fail. It goes hand-in-hand.” 

Read the full Homeless to Homes report at www.cincinnaticoc.org