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Tuesday, July 29, 2014
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Published: Tuesday, 6/4/2013

Repairing the rift

The Toledo Lucas County Homelessness Board has hired its first full-time executive director, replacing part-time head Deb Conklin. Thomas Bonnington, who moved to Toledo from Washington state, assumed the position this week.

Ms. Conklin’s departure gives the board a timely opportunity to repair a dangerous rift between local shelter operators and the homelessness board, which threatens to undo some of the excellent progress this community has made. Ms. Conklin, who led the agency for five years, became a lightning rod for shelter operators who complained that they no longer have a voice.

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Moving to a full-time executive director is prudent, given the demands of the job, including community outreach and fund-raising. It’s a plus that Mr. Bonnington starts with fresh eyes. He’s not from Toledo, and Ms. Conklin was not involved in his selection. A former mental-health counselor, crime victims program manager, and director of a community service to end homelessness, Mr. Bonnington appears well qualified.

Still, he will need political and people skills to succeed. His first big challenge will be to smooth relations between the agency and the shelter providers who do the on-the-ground work.

That doesn’t mean he always needs to agree with shelter operators, but he does need to listen. A good start would be to reinstate a policy of holding board meetings, on a rotating basis, at the shelters.

Homelessness board president Paul Tecpanecatl told The Blade’s editorial page this week that the agency would be open to such a change. It would give Mr. Bonnington and his board a chance to observe shelter operations, hear from staff members, and — most important — talk to homeless people. They are the board’s customers and consumers.

Moreover, Mr. Bonnington needs to evaluate the new centralized intake system for getting people into shelters and housing. Most shelters oppose that system, and favor a more flexible and less cumbersome “no wrong door” policy.

During a tour of Toledo’s shelters last week, a Blade editor heard concerns about centralized intake, including sending homeless people to inappropriate shelters. Shelter operators said case managers are already backed up, forcing shelters to continue to provide those services even though their funding has been cut.

St. Paul’s Community Center, which serves many people with mental illnesses, had to install a phone near its entrance so that staff members can assist homeless people, who are trying to get in, with 211 calls and questions before they can be admitted.

Marcia Langenderfer, executive director of St. Paul’s, said people who are trying to get into her shelter may be tired, hungry, and mentally ill. It’s unreasonable to expect all of them to dial 211 and answer a long list of questions.

“They’re going to bang that phone down,’’ she said. “It doesn’t work.” At the very least, Mr. Bonnington ought to commit the board to improving the system.

Finally, the board should execute so-called rapid rehousing policies in a rational and flexible manner that best meets the needs of Toledo’s homeless residents and doesn’t push people back into emergency shelters.

“We have to be able to answer the question of how it’s actually going to work — of how these changes are going to impact people who can’t get housing quickly,” said Ken Leslie, founder of 1Matters. “They haven’t thought that through.”

There’s no need to panic. Toledo generally has done an outstanding job of meeting the shelter and housing needs of some of its most vulnerable residents.

Nearly 1,000 people in Lucas County are homeless at any time. Even so, the Toledo area does not have, as do many other communities, large numbers of people living on the street, under bridges, in parks, or inside vacant buildings.

To continue that success, all of Toledo’s stakeholders must work together, especially as resources get even tighter. Making sure they do should top Mr. Bonnington’s to-do list.



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