Editorial: Systemic injustices are at the heart of homelessness in our community

Editorial Board

When the pandemic first tore through the United States, we were told to stay at home—for work, for school, for everything. But what if you don’t have a physical home? 

Approximately 18% of the Cuyahoga County population—230,000 people—lives in extreme poverty and 23,000 people are experiencing homelessness. These rates are similar to that of some other Midwestern industrial cities. In Cleveland, 13 people are homeless per 10,000 of the general population compared to 19.5 per 10,000 in Chicago. Regardless of the city, the incidence should be zero—or at least significantly lower. 

People who are homeless or unsheltered—the latter refers to people who do not use shelters—faced additional concerns last March when stay-at-home orders were issued across the country. Moreover, the fear of COVID-19 transmission resulted in shelters reducing their occupancies. Fortunately, there were some community-based initiatives which sought to provide decongregated housing for people who were left unsheltered. 

The Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless (NEOCH) relied heavily on the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act and donations in order to rent out parts of five hotels where unsheltered people could stay indefinitely. In trying times like these, it’s critical that mutual aid and direct action organizations are able to provide assistance—especially because the local government often does not respond as quickly. Hotel rooms are still being funded, and will hopefully be able to benefit from the American Rescue Plan, though that remains unclear. The provision of these hotel rooms is estimated to have reduced homelessness in Cleveland by nearly 30% in 2020 compared to 2019. 

In case previous years were not illustrative enough, 2020 thus demonstrated that communities can come together to support one another. Moreover, we have the means of providing fundamental human rights for all people, and in doing so, can dramatically improve conditions for our community. Unfortunately, it is never this easy and that is due in large part because we frequently don’t have the support of our local, state and national officials. 

The executive director of NEOCH, Christopher Knestrick, commented that we can try to blame lack of financial support or creativity, but in reality, ensuring basic human rights like affordable housing comes down to political will. 

We need not look far to see this play out in Cleveland. In the last year, $500 million has been set aside for a new Cuyahoga County Jail—which has a long record of deadly misconduct. Additionally, nearly $8 million was given to the Hilton Hotel and we repeatedly see the city using taxpayer dollars to support sports teams. So, the money is there, it’s just a matter of our priorities. 

Two weeks ago, the Editorial Board addressed how gentrification in University Circle is making a lot of housing unaffordable for long-time residents of the surrounding neighborhoods. This issue plays into the housing crisis, and so too does the systemic injustices that perpetuate both problems. 

Knestrick said, “In our advocacy work, [we need to consider] how are we looking at the root causes of homelesness?” He cited the importance of naming structural racism; after all, it’s no coincidence that 90% of families experiencing homelessness in Cuyahoga County are BIPOC individuals. As such, we need to consider what has happened in our community historically—namely, racist housing policies—as well as what continues to occur today. Only then will we be able to effectively provide affordable housing.

Tied into housing is our mass incarceration system and policing. A record can prevent people from accessing housing, especially subsidized units within the community. It doesn’t matter how hard people work—even when it is very hard, with multiple jobs—they won’t be able to overcome the systemic barriers preventing opportunity and success merely because they have a criminal record. This is in part why it is critical that Case Western Reserve University addresses the police overlap; there is absolutely no reason for six police departments to patrol the same areas. 

Knestrick gave an example to illustrate the danger of the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality: a single mother working minimum wage in Cleveland would have to work 73 hours a week in order to afford a two-bedroom apartment. 

Let’s not kid ourselves that this is affordable housing, nor is it acceptable for something deemed by and large, around the world, a human right. We need to support organizations like NEOCH to ensure unsheltered people have access to housing—especially during the time of COVID-19. 

However, we also need to consider our impact individually and as an engaged society. As people, we need to support and listen to others. “Get to know people,” Knestrick suggested. “A person’s individual story can go a long way.” As the pandemic subsides, we should challenge ourselves to begin socializing in a different way. Rather than defaulting to the safe bubble of our phone while standing in line for coffee or the bus, consider striking up a conversation with someone. At a fundamental level, we need to acknowledge and appreciate people, all while recognizing that systemic issues are largely to blame for the issues of homelessness, not personal choices. 

We also need action. We need robust local, state and federal policies that will address homelessness and invest in affordable housing. In Cleveland, Knestrick suggests implementing a Pay to Stay ordinance. Ohio is one of five states where a landlord can evict someone if they are only one day late on rent. The Pay to Stay ordinance would permit people to pay their rent up to the point of an eviction judgment. Such policies have been passed in Lakewood and Dayton and seek to prevent inappropriate eviction. Fighting for a similar ordinance in the city of Cleveland could mean several fewer evictions each day.

As of 2018, there were 12 evictions per day in Cleveland. That adds up to nearly 400 evictions per month, any number of which could have been for being a single day late on rent. While many of us continue working and studying from home, let us also contemplate what this time looks like for our neighbors who are unsheltered. We have a long road ahead of us to ensure affordable housing for all people; our first step can be a simple shift in mindset about the root causes of homelessness, but our next step needs to be action.