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Published: Thursday, 5/23/2013

Homelessness infighting

A rift between shelter directors and the local homelessness board threatens continued progress

Conklin Conklin
THE BLADE/DAVE ZAPOTOSKY Enlarge | Buy This Photo

NEARLY 1,000 people are homeless in Lucas County at any time, but the horrible experience touches more than double that number of people each year. So far, Toledo has done a commendable job of managing the problem and providing — except possibly in cases of domestic violence — enough emergency shelter beds to meet the community’s needs.

Unlike Detroit, where more than half of the city’s 20,000 homeless people live outside shelters — under bridges, in parks, inside vacant buildings — Toledo does not have masses of people living on the street. Yet a long-standing rift between operators of Toledo’s homeless shelters and city officials threatens to undermine some of that progress.

Relations between local shelters and the Toledo-Lucas County Homelessness Board, which helps allocate federal grant funding, have deteriorated to a dangerous degree during the leadership of the board’s executive director, Deb Conklin.

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A letter last week to Mayor Mike Bell and City Council members from leaders of six Toledo homeless shelters charged that the city, the homelessness board, and United Way of Greater Toledo were essentially trying to shut shelters down. They criticized large proposed cuts in the city’s allocations of federal aid that would in some cases have devastating effects on the services they provide.

More broadly, shelter operators have told The Blade’s editorial page that the homelessness board and city administration no longer listen to them. They cite, among other things, the city’s movement toward a centralized intake system for getting people into shelters, despite the near-unanimous opposition of shelter directors and advocates, who prefer a “no wrong door” policy.

Shelter directors also argue, correctly, that it’s misleading to suggest that federal policies, such as so-called rapid rehousing, are driving budget cuts to local shelters. It’s true that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has promoted rapid rehousing as an effective model in many circumstances.

It’s also true that in all cases, federal officials want accountability and performance measures from local communities. That said, though, HUD doesn’t dictate specific programs for cities, or require them to de-fund programs that work.

Last week, City Council restored funding to three homeless shelters. Bell administration officials insisted that council members had no authority to do so. Toledo deserves better than this schoolyard game of chicken.

Ms. Conklin, in an interview with The Blade’s editorial page this week, denied that the homelessness board wants to close or undermine shelters.

“This unrest is about people not getting their way … or not wanting to get more efficient,” she said. “Someone has to make decisions. That’s our job, but we haven’t done it in a vacuum. People have tried to make it personal, but it’s business.”

Both sides need to chill. Like Toledo’s shelter directors, Ms. Conklin wants to do right by homeless people. Neither she nor the city administration should shoulder all the blame for this rift.

Some shelter directors may, as Ms. Conklin suggests, be resisting needed change. Either way, though, Ms. Conklin’s sometimes autocratic style and dismissive attitude toward the shelters’ concerns are exacerbating tensions instead of resolving them.

All communities, including Toledo, are getting less aid from the federal government to address homelessness. Cities must work harder and smarter to provide services that not only offer emergency shelter, but also prevent people from falling into homelessness, help them make the transition to permanent and affordable housing, and, if necessary, overcome addictions, mental illness, and other obstacles to independence.

These imperatives compel local agencies to cooperate, coordinate services, and work together instead of in virtual silos. That can’t happen if the major players don’t trust each other. Mayor Bell must make sure they do — even if that means new leadership for the homelessness board.



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