A group of shelters and advocates for the homeless in Toledo are waging a pitched battle against the chief of an area planning board, accusing her of trying to force them to change how they operate and of influencing a city decision to cut their funds.
Deb Conklin, as executive director of the Toledo Lucas County Homelessness Board, is the lead coordinator in coming up with a city-wide plan on how to combat homelessness. The plan, and Ms. Conklin as leader of the board, help guide some of the City of Toledo's decisions on how to distribute federal funds to agencies that assist the destitute.
But some shelters and a local umbrella group of social-service agencies say the board has shut them out of the conversation on how to address homelessness. That's unfair, they maintain, because it's their organizations that work with homeless people on the ground. The result has been proposed funding cuts to five shelters, local and state advocates said, which could shrink options for Toledo's estimated 900 to 1,000 homeless at a time when economic uncertainty continues to push more people into uncertain living situations.
"There's a huge disconnect, and it's because the shelters are being told what to do to fit into [the board's] plan," said long-time homeless advocate Ken Leslie, a former member of the Homelessness Board. "There are two ways to manage social services. One is by decree and one is by collaboration. Ms. Conklin has been managing by decree."
Loss of federal funding
At issue is a proposal before city council that would eliminate federal Community Development Block Grant funding for the shelters Aurora House, Bethany House, La Posada, Harbor House, and Family House. That amounts to nearly $204,000 in lost funds to the shelters. To replace that funding loss, the city says the shelters can apply for a different funding source called the Emergency Solutions Grant. But regulations surrounding how that money is used could mean the shelters still will face as much as a 24 percent cut in their federal funding.
Final funding proposals for the shelters are expected to go before Toledo City Council next month for a vote.
Ms. Conklin and the city insist the Homelessness Board had no part in the decision to cut the CDBG funding, but some shelters and advocates believe otherwise. The board is also taking over management of the ESG grant this year, which has further worried some homeless providers.
Ms. Conklin expressed outrage at accusations that she is unduly influencing funding decisions or shutting people out of the planning process. The director explained she and the board are merely trying to bring Toledo into line with the goals of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. HUD is encouraging communities to put more emphasis on getting homeless people quickly into permanent housing. The hope is this approach will eventually decrease or even end the need for homeless shelters.
Continuum of Care
"This is not me. This is the paradigm shift that HUD put into place," Ms. Conklin said. "Our role as a board is to do the best that we can to meet the funder's objectives, and that is going to mean change."
Ms. Conklin said shelters have been involved in planning how to make HUD's vision happen. She pointed to two seats on the 13-member board held by homeless providers, and said she has also held meetings that included representatives from shelters. Other community stakeholders such as schools, businesses, and health-care agencies are also involved in the planning process, officially termed Continuum of Care, she emphasized.
"The providers do not drive the Continuum of Care," Ms. Conklin said. "They do not bear the responsibility of ending homelessness. That is the community's responsibility. And if the community rises up to the challenge, the [shelters] will not be needed, and that is the goal."
That kind of talk terrifies people like Denise Fox, executive director of the Aurora House, a shelter for women and children. Organizations like hers that depend on HUD funding feel threatened by Ms. Conklin's focus on ending the need for shelters, she said.
"It's not feeling like a partnership. It's feeling more like we're being threatened," Ms. Fox said. "I have been told [by Ms. Conklin] that … we are expected to embrace the direction of this [board], that we should not be questioning the direction the [board] is taking. It's difficult as an executive director to operate under that kind of pressure."
Renee Palacios, who runs Family House, said she also feels the Homelessness Board doesn't understand the needs of the people her shelter serves. She said Ms. Conklin has emphasized reducing shelter stays to 30 days, and that has really concerned her. Families who come to her organization usually stay 90 days. Some of them are suffering from drug addiction or mental trauma, and it's not fair to push them into a home of their own too quickly, Ms. Palacios said.
"We have families here who will cry for days before they'll even open up to us and tell us what happened," the director said. "A lot of people have to understand and accept what's happened to them, and if we're automatically kicking them out and putting them in a house without allowing them to emotionally adapt, is that a good thing?"
HUD spokesman Brian Sullivan said the agency supports getting people into housing more quickly, but does not dictate how long shelter stays should be.
While HUD provides guidelines on the direction communities should be headed, how those guidelines are implemented is left mainly for communities to decide. In Toledo, the Homelessness Board is charged with coordinating that decision-making process and communicating the results to the city to help it prioritize the distribution of HUD homelessness funds.
But the turmoil among Toledo's homelessness agencies is evidence that some people's voices are being left out of the board's decision-making process, said Bill Faith, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio, a statewide advocacy group. Mr. Faith said he's received four or five calls from panicked shelters and advocates from Toledo in the past month concerning the funding decisions under consideration by the city.
"I've heard from enough other people who should be a part of the Continuum of Care, who feel entirely left out. If the Continuum of Care is functioning properly, not that many people should feel that way," he said. "It only works well if they're doing a thorough job of it, and that doesn't seem to be the case right now in Toledo."
Money, money, money
Dan Rogers, president and CEO of Cherry Street Mission Ministries, said his experience as a member of the Homelessness Board two years ago reflects the complaints now surfacing from some local groups. He said the leadership of the board is too focused on federal money and not enough on homeless people themselves and the agencies that serve them.
"The culture of leadership doesn't lend itself to good collaboration, a collaboration that starts first and ends with people, and I mean people on the street," Mr. Rogers said. "The conversation usually starts with money and ends with money. …"
But City Neighborhoods Director Lourdes Santiago echoed Ms. Conklin's statement that people are not being left out. She said the shelters have long known that HUD is emphasizing rapid rehousing and shortening shelter stays and should be prepared of it. By pushing these organizations to use the ESG dollars instead of block grant funds they will have to start complying with the objective of getting people into housing more quickly, she added.
"We will always need shelters and we will always have shelters, but we have to work with those shelters to get those folks that are there into a more permanent, stable environment," Ms. Santiago said. "I don't know why anybody would want a family and children in a shelter. Children need to be in homes."
Also, if the shelters can't recover through ESG all of the money they lose in block grant dollars, they can look for funding elsewhere, she said.
"No organization can count on any funding source for the rest of their lives," Ms. Santiago said.
Contact Claudia Boyd-Barrett at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6272.