Homeless but not hopeless, most of them said they want to work and get back on their feet as contributing citizens to their community. To do so, however, they suggested changes to meet their immediate needs.
Although several declined to be photographed and preferred not to use their real names, one man who described himself as “fed up and frustrated,” agreed to put a face on the homeless in Cleveland and spoke candidly about his impoverished condition and its consequences.
Mitchell Coleman, a Cleveland native, found himself out of work, out of money and out of options, which led to a life on the streets to etch out a living.
“I was born and raised here in 1961 — on Industrial Park and 20th Street and I’ll tell you what — I’ve never seen the economy and the work industry this bad,” he said. “I’ve worked my whole life. I worked at Larry’s Car Wash half my life. Now I’m sitting around doing nothing. They need to create jobs because it’s beginning to create crime.”
Coleman, the youngest son of a Korean War veteran, said, “They need to build a new shelter with a kitchen and living quarters in it. That’s one of the greatest problems. They need a complete place for (the homeless) to live and eat.”
According to “Marilyn Smith,” a young woman trying to get back on her feet, when the Cleveland Emergency Shelter closes each day, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., its inhabitants must vacate the premises onto the streets, leaving room for improvement on how to help the homeless become more productive with their free time and not simply vagrants or trespassers.
Without a 24-hour shelter the homeless are left to dwell on the streets or occupy abandoned buildings, while others find temporary accommodation with friends or seek shelter in inexpensive hotels on a daily basis.
“It would be nice if there were a day shelter where you can hang out during the day,” said Diane Colquitt, a homeless senior roaming the park.
Dwight Donahoo, director of Cleveland Emergency Shelter, said “We’re moving toward a transitional shelter with comprehensive daytime services — sort of a one-stop shop — provided we can get the funding.”
“Mr. Donahoo is a great dude,” Colquitt said. “He took us job hunting the other day. Once you get to that process there is no way, unless you have a bus pass to get back and forth, to check on the application you put in. Every now and then when funds are available they’ll take us to look for a job.”
The Cleveland Emergency Shelter is already offering services aimed at helping people to break out of a lifestyle of homelessness by obtaining public assistance, food and information, (including job search information for those in need of temporary shelter), according to Donahoo.
In providing case management for each person, the agency also offers some financial assistance, legal aid, support in re-establishing links with family, assisted living for some or a chance to learn basic skills.
While the local consensus is that living on the streets, searching for shelter, begging for food or money, is not the preferred lifestyle of street people, many homeless people are simply asking for an opportunity to get back on their feet.
“If I could get a job I’ll make it after that,” Coleman said. “We want to work.”
Colquitt added, it would help “If someone could check up on those applications after we get them in.”
Smith said the city needs a place where the homeless can stay indefinitely if necessary, without fear of being unproductive and asked to leave to roam the streets.
“Let them fix up a place where we can stay as long as we need to — in case we need a net to fall on,” she said. “I think it should be run by the church, not the government. It’s really the church’s responsibility anyway. Jesus said the poor will always be with you, so it’s their responsibility. Jesus said they represent the kingdom of the heavens.
“I’ve never had a problem like this. Every town I’ve ever lived in I’ve had a job and always had a place to live. If I had the funding I would definitely put a place up for the people who needed it, because I know what it’s like. Jesus wouldn’t turn people away. One day they’re going to have to give an account.”
“Bradley County and Cleveland have always been a self-made town,” Coleman said. “This is a working town. If they don’t do something about this work problem — no wonder our jails stay full.”
While some studies have shown that providing permanent housing for the homeless who are disabled and mentally ill has reduced costs of mental health services, psychiatric hospitalization, ambulance transportation and incarceration, a shift to permanent housing for all the homeless in general is still in question.
“We’re all just a paycheck away from being on the streets,” Donahoo said. “Few can survive six months to a year without a job. It’s a tough climate overall for the whole nation.”
According to the United Nations, there are more than 100 million homeless people worldwide.
The book “Strategies to Combat Homelessness,” published by the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements, said, “To classify someone as homeless indicates a state in which ‘something must be done’ for the victim of such circumstances.”