Out in the cold

After taking substantial cuts in funding, Toledo’s homeless shelters are now asked to do more


Until now, Toledo has done an excellent job of serving homeless people. Unlike Detroit, where most of the city’s 20,000 homeless residents live outside shelters — under bridges, in parks, inside vacant buildings — Toledo has, year after year, provided enough shelter beds to meet the demand.

But severe funding cuts, an inefficient centralized intake system, and still-frayed relations among shelter providers and the local homelessness board and city administration threaten to undermine that progress.

Toledo has roughly 1,000 homeless people at any given time. But as many as 3,000 people are homeless in the city at some time during the year.

Toledo’s four federally funded homeless shelters — Family House, La Posada, St. Paul’s Community Center, and Beach House Family Shelter — are full. In fact, the Toledo Lucas County Homelessness Board has asked those shelters to accommodate more people in common areas and on floors.

But all of those shelters took funding cuts this year, forcing them to reduce programs and capacity. Perhaps for the first time, some people who seek shelter services in Toledo aren’t getting them.

The new centralized access system, or 211, is not handling the demand. People wait to be seen by assessment counselors. The backlog is even greater for shelter residents who are waiting to move to more permanent housing.

Renee Palacios, executive director of Family House, says some of her residents have waited for weeks, even months. Her federal funding, funneled through the city, has been cut the past four years by $97,000 — from $257,000 to $160,000 a year.

Early this year, homeless people had to start calling a 211 line, run by United Way of Greater Toledo, to be admitted to a local shelter. They couldn’t just knock on a door and get in — the former “no wrong door” policy — or be referred from one shelter to another.

It seems absurd to expect people who are cold, hungry, and possibly mentally ill to call a number and answer a series of questions before they get help. The call system, which uses out-of-county operators on nights and weekends, has also sent people to the wrong shelter.

The city and homelessness board enacted the centralized intake system over the objections of shelter operators. Since then, backlogs have forced shelters to continue to do case-management work, even though their funding has been cut. The average time it takes to get someone in a shelter into permanent housing has risen significantly.

Lucas County needs reliable data to fix the problems. Ken Leslie, the founder of Tent City and a dedicated advocate for local homeless people, suggested in an essay in The Blade’s Pages of Opinion last Sunday that a small task force under the auspices of county government should investigate how long it takes the system to house people. 

Such a panel also could assess how centralized intake is working, estimate how many people are becoming homeless locally, and project how many shelter beds Lucas County must have.

Efficiencies are needed now more than ever before. All communities, including Toledo, are getting less aid from the federal government to address homelessness. Cities are taking more money from direct services.

Toledo must work harder and smarter not only to offer emergency shelter, but also to prevent people from falling into homelessness. Homeless people need help to make the transition to permanent and affordable housing, and, if necessary, to overcome addictions, mental illness, and other obstacles to independence.  Advocates estimate that as much as half of the city’s homeless population has substance-abuse problems.

Lucas County is not in a crisis yet. But a system that has worked well for a long time has started to crack. This community must come together and fix it, before a lot of people get hurt.