By Carissa Woytach, United Way of Greater Cleveland Staff Writer
As cold weather creeps in, the issue of homelessness in Cuyahoga County becomes more visible — groups volunteering at soup kitchens for holiday dinners, schools and other organizations collecting warm clothing — but it is not a seasonal problem throughout the city.
While specific numbers are hard to come by, given the transient nature of the population, an estimated 8,000 single adults and 500 families are homeless in Cuyahoga County in a given year, according to Eric Morse, chief operating officer at FrontLine Services.
Frontline, which provides crisis services and outreach programs, provides the intake for every shelter and housing option for the homeless in Cleveland, including 2100 Lakeside and Norma Herr Women’s Shelter.
“We in some way touch every person experiencing homelessness in the city of Cleveland,” he said.
He said on a given night there are 1,000 homeless, mostly single adults. Because Cleveland doesn’t turn away those in need of shelter, many crisis housing options are often at or over capacity.
“The citizens of Cleveland and Cuyahoga County are some of the most compassionate people in the country,” Morse said. “They elect people who make these really compassionate decisions [about the homeless]. We have world-class providers dedicated to serving whoever is in need.”
It is estimated of the county’s homeless, 20 percent are chronically homeless. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, chronically homeless are those who have a disabling condition and have been continuously homeless for a year or more or those with a disabling condition who have had four or more episodes of homelessness in the past three years.
And while the chronically homeless make up a fraction of the larger population, they take up the most resources, including emergency shelters, medical and justice system costs.
Housing first, treatment second
In an effort to house the long-time transient, Enterprise Community Partners, alongside more than 40 other organizations, signed on to the Housing First initiative 15 years ago. Funded in part by United Way of Greater Cleveland, it opened its first building in 2006 and today operates 11 different residencies with 650 unit, as well as 115 scattered private rental vouchers for chronically homeless young adults and families.
Jenny Eppich, senior program director for Housing First, emphasizes the partnerships it took to bring the model to Cleveland. Alongside cities like New Orleans, Minneapolis and Chicago, the model provides permanent supportive housing — economically feasible units with on-site social services like caseworkers and mental health services — to chronically homeless individuals.
What makes Housing First different is it does not require residents to be sober, looking for work to make use of its on-site services to stay in their apartments. It is not transitional, and while the average stay is approximately 18 months, according to Morse, clients can live there as long as they want.
“It’s not transitional, it’s not shelter, its regular apartments,” Eppich said. “For a lot of the chronically homeless, many of them have concurrent mental health issues, drug and alcohol, chronic health conditions. If we were to say you have to be clean and sober with a job and then we’ll give you a key — that does not work for these folks. Instead, we meet them where they’re at and invite them into housing.”
With a waitlist of approximately 100 people, Morse said, FrontLine transitions five to 10 into Housing First each month. The individuals who move into Housing First are the most at-risk, Eppich said, often suffering from untreated or undiagnosed medical conditions.
“Living on the streets and in shelters is hard,” she said. “Many of them [live] without the medications they need, they haven’t been receiving health care. Somebody who is chronically homeless has a much reduced life expectancy — 26 year less.”
In an effort to close the gap, Enterprise partnered with Care Alliance and FrontLine to provide an on-site mobile clinic serving needs of the rapidly aging chronically homeless population. Funded in part by United Way of Greater Cleveland, the mobile clinic serves Housing First residents and those still on the streets to treat immediate needs and provide tools for disease management.
Since its induction, Housing First has reduced the chronically homeless population by 77 percent in Cuyahoga County, Eppich said. Less than one percent returns to homelessness, with the majority moving on to continued housing stability either with Housing First or within other housing options throughout Greater Cleveland.
Providing support, building a home
During the winter, Morse said, there is often an increase in single men in need of housing, while the number of women in need remains steady and the number of families in need declines. For those in shelters or living on the streets, they often need winter clothing and are especially vulnerable to frostbite and other medical complications stemming from chronic diseases — such as heart conditions, diabetes and mental illness.
FrontLine Services and Housing First are always in need of monetary and physical donations to help those in need.
Frontline Services accepts donations through its website or through allocation via United Way of Greater Cleveland. It also partners with the Salvation Army and Goodwill to help provide clients with smaller items such as cookware and with the Cleveland Furniture Bank for larger pieces like beds, couches, tables and dressers.
To help its residents offset the cost of above items, Enterprise recently set up a crowd rise campaign, which goes directly to fulfilling clients’ needs.
“We’re getting close to ending chronic homelessness,” Eppich said. “We don’t have an exact number today, but we’re reassessing the need and the number of units and feel our community is close to having enough units to meet the needs on an ongoing basis.”