(Editor's Note: This is the eighth in a series exploring the worsening crisis of homelessness in the Cleveland and Bradley County community. Today's installment features a look at how some believe …
(Editor's Note: This is the eighth in a series exploring the worsening crisis of homelessness in the Cleveland and Bradley County community. Today's installment features a look at how some believe the problem can be addressed.)
As a growing number of people in Cleveland are experiencing homelessness, some are looking for ways to help them regain stability. Leaders with local charitable organizations and those who have been homeless in the past recently shared the needs they see.
“There are a lot of needs,” said Karen Cross, director of the New Life Community Kitchen. “Unfortunately, there’s a lot of needs that go unmet.”
One of the things believed to be contributing to the number of people who are homeless is the rising cost of housing. Eva VanHook, executive director of Family Promise of Bradley County, said affordable housing is “very limited,” and even those who have steady jobs sometimes struggle.
This is one of the issues being looked at by the Homeless Task Force under the United Way of the Ocoee Region’s Housing Coalition. It has formed a “landlord committee” which will attempt to build relationships with local landlords and connect those offering affordable housing with people who need housing.
Transportation is another issue that has gotten a lot of attention among the local homeless population. Cleveland’s public transportation options consist of the Cleveland Urban Area Transit System (CUATS) bus service run by the Southeast Tennessee Human Resource Agency (SETHRA) in city limits and limited SETHRA bus service for areas outside city limits.
Donald Garner, who has been homeless in the past, said it can be challenging for people who are homeless to get to and from work — especially if one happens to be staying or working outside city limits.
“Some of them have got jobs, but they can’t sustain it without transportation,” Garner said. “If they can’t get to work, they lose their jobs.”
The CUATS bus system currently runs from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday. In a town with many job opportunities at manufacturing, restaurant and retail locations which are open nights and weekends, this can limit which shifts people who rely on the bus system can take.
April Johnson, Bradley County manager for SETHRA, said the agency is funded to serve “rural,” and eligibility to receive individually-scheduled bus rides outside Cleveland’s city limits is based on residency. Still, she urged people to contact SETHRA's Bradley County office at 423-478-3053 if they need help getting to and from work.
“We will try everything we can to help someone,” Johnson said. “As we grow [as a community], there’s more of a need for people to go in and out of rural areas for work.”
Still, some believe Bradley County would benefit from a more robust bus system which offers more widespread service on a regular schedule. A woman who is currently homeless recently pointed out the Cleveland Emergency Shelter is in the city center, yet some of the county’s largest employers, such as Amazon and Whirlpool, are outside city limits.
Some advocates for the homeless also say there should be more shelter beds available in Cleveland.
The city’s only general-population shelter which is open all year long, the Cleveland Emergency Shelter, has 50 beds. Based on factors like the United Way’s annual Point-in-Time Count and records from charitable organizations, it is estimated there are at least 200 homeless people in Cleveland.
Demetrius Ramsey, executive director of the Cleveland Bradley Community Services Agency, which oversees the shelter, said the shelter stays pretty full year round, though numbers are highest during the winter months.
He said he has heard many say the shelter should be open longer hours, so the homeless would have a place to hang out during the day. However, he said it is not currently possible for Cleveland to have a “24/7 shelter” like one might see in a larger city.
“Most individuals, I would say, have a perception that we should be doing more,” Ramsey said. “Our ability to do more is dependent on funding.”
Ramsey said the Community Services Agency is operating on a tighter budget than it has in previous years, because it is no longer receiving a state grant which had been used for the shelter.
Matt Ryerson, president and CEO of the United Way of the Ocoee Region, said many like the idea of Cleveland having a larger, newer shelter. However, that does not mean people will want to stay there. Some people do choose to sleep on the street.
“At the end of the day, it is a choice for them,” Ryerson said.
Garner and others think the city would benefit from having a “day center” where the homeless could spend time and perhaps work on things like job applications. Garner said many “pile up” in public parks and at the public library, “but there’s nowhere for them to really get productive.”
Ramsey said many who are homeless struggle with drug addiction and/or mental health issues, and he believes Cleveland is in need of affordable in-patient rehab and in-patient mental health services.
While people could receive outpatient help while staying in a homeless shelter, he believes patients would be able to focus more on their recovery at in-patient facilities.
Others think Cleveland needs more affordable outpatient mental health and rehabilitation resources. Some who are homeless or at risk for homelessness struggle to pay for the services they need — even if they have health insurance.
Cleveland Police Chief Mark Gibson said he and his officers regularly see the consequences of people not getting the help they need.
“We can’t arrest our way out of homelessess and mental health problems,” Gibson said recently. He also said drug addictions, which can lead some to rack up criminal charges, cannot be helped by law enforcement alone.
There is also a need for more affordable non-emergency health care. Many who are homeless do not have health insurance, and some who do cannot afford their out-of-pocket costs. Cross said she regularly sees homeless people in need of health care.
Cross said a lack of affordable care has had dire effects on the lives of some. She told of people who have developed serious heart problems because they did not receive treatment for high blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Untreated diabetes has left some unable to walk, and a couple have lost their legs.
“It’s a really serious situation for some of them,” Cross said.
Cross added the local health department currently cannot meet the full demand for adult health care services, and sending people to a hospital emergency room is not an ideal solution either. A local doctor used to volunteer to see patients at the soup kitchen, but nobody is currently volunteering.
Leaders of local charitable organizations also said Cleveland needs more affordable childcare services for working parents. Family Promise's VanHook said childcare can take a big chunk out of a family’s paycheck.
These and other issues are expected to be part of the conversation as the Homeless Task Force works toward its mission to help Cleveland become a “Housing First” community.
Ryerson said the idea is that the community will get to the point where there are enough resources available to provide emergency housing to those who need it, such as families who suddenly get evicted. They are placed in housing first, then they receive support to help them overcome homelessness.
“As a community, this is a solvable issue, but we have to work together,” said Corinne Freeman, executive director of The Caring Place and a member of the task force.
Both leaders of local organizations and those who have been homeless agree on one thing: making a difference will take a great deal of cooperation and action from the community.
Garner, who was homeless for 21 years, said he overcame homelessness with help from people working with programs which taught him valuable life skills, such as how to communicate well with potential landlords and employers.
Regardless of what the future holds for Cleveland, Garner urged people to remember that solving the problem of homelessness will take people giving their time — and not just their money.
“If money could solve the problem, there’d be no homelessness,” Garner said. “But there’s so much more to it than that.”
(Next: The Cleveland Daily Banner's series on homelessness concludes Thursday with a look at what local residents have to say about solving the issues surrounding homelessness.)
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