The dangerously cold weather that has gripped Ohio this week has underscored the importance of Toledo’s homeless shelters. Unlike many larger cities with inadequate shelter space, Toledo has enough beds to house all of the estimated 1,000 people who are homeless here at any given time. As many as 3,000 Toledo-area residents are homeless at some time during the year.
As temperatures dipped below zero, shelter workers not only provided a warm spot for all who came, but also identified people in makeshift tents or abandoned buildings, making sure they got out of the cold. In severe weather, living on the streets is both demeaning and dangerous.
Unfortunately, much of the good work done by Toledo’s homeless advocates has been overshadowed by controversies over funding and the new centralized-intake system, as well as acrimony between shelter directors and the Toledo-Lucas County Homelessness Board and the former city administration. “It’s harder to bring people together now,’’ local advocate Ken Leslie, the founder of Tent City, told The Blade’s editorial page.
It’s imperative that these rifts get resolved under Mayor D. Michael Collins. The United Way of Greater Toledo plans to meet this month with representatives of the Collins administration, emergency shelter directors, advocates, and the homelessness board to improve the system and clarify misunderstandings, Maricela Alcala, the program director of United Way’s 211 system, said this week. It’s a meeting all shelter directors should attend, even those who have been critical of centralized intake.
Local officials must figure out how to execute so-called rapid rehousing policies in a rational and flexible manner that meets the needs of Toledo’s homeless residents and doesn’t push people back into emergency shelters. Forging consensus on how people get into shelters could be even more contentious.
Until about a year ago, Toledo had a “no wrong door” policy. Homeless people would go to a shelter and either find help there or get sent to another shelter.
Since early last year, however, people who seek shelter under the centralized intake system must call the United Way’s 211 line. They answer certain questions, then get referred by an operator to a shelter that has room.
Once in an emergency shelter, clients are supposed to meet quickly with a United Way housing specialist, who assesses their needs and works to place them in permanent housing. United Way receives $193,000 a year to provide these so-called coordinated assessment services. The agency gets no additional money for its 211 line.
The new system had some initial glitches. Many shelter directors, as well as Mayor Collins, favor the no-wrong-door policy.
Still, United Way has continued to improve the new system, and it now appears to work well. It has advantages, including up-to-date and thorough information about Toledo’s shelter availability, round the clock.
Blending no-wrong-door and centralized intake might work best, maintaining the advantages of a central database while preserving the ability to respond immediately to people in crisis. The two systems could complement each other, as long as both recorded and reported all emergency shelter placements, keeping the county’s data bank of shelter beds current. Having United Way caseworkers operate out of designated shelters might also improve efficiency.
In any case, cooperation and communication are essential. All communities, including Toledo, are getting less help from the federal government to address homelessness.
Cities must work harder and smarter — and that means working together — to provide services that not only offer emergency shelter, but also prevent people from falling into homelessness, help them secure permanent and affordable housing, and aid them in overcoming addiction, mental illness, and other obstacles to dignity and independence.
If nothing else, this week’s brutal weather reminds us why these services are so vital to the community. Gathering together the people who deliver them is a good start to making them even better.