Shelter heads discuss ways to smooth relationships

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  • Representatives of Toledo’s homeless shelters and factions that allocate funding, enforce federal regulations, and dictate where people can seek shelter, agreed Thursday they have a “broken relationship” that needs mending before the upcoming funding application process gets under way.

    The United Way of Greater Toledo gathered leaders from homeless shelters and agencies that help abused women, along with city of Toledo officials and the Toledo-Lucas County Homelessness Board, for a three-hour meeting that ranged from conciliatory to vitriolic.

    “It’s always been us, you, them,” said Maricela Alcala, the United Way’s 211 program director, referring to the relationship between the groups.

    “This needs to include the city, the [homelessness board], and the United Way to fix this broken relationship,” Ms. Alcala said.

    Federally funded homeless shelters in Toledo — which include La Posada, St. Paul's Community Center, Beach House, and Family House — have railed the last year against a change ordered by the homelessness board that requires people seeking shelters to call the United Way’s 211 before entering a facility. The United Way also handles “coordinated assessment” of homeless people, a service for which it is authorized to receive nearly $200,000 of public money this fiscal year.

    Rodney Schuster of La Posada, a family shelter run by the Catholic Diocese of Toledo, questioned whether there would be a cost saving without that layer between shelters and people.

    A conflict in early 2012 and 2013 pitted some shelters against the homelessness board and its recommendations for allocating Community Development Block Grant funding, backed by the Bell administration. The funding amounts steadily have decreased that last decade.

    Toledo Mayor D. Michael Collins has promised a different process this year to avoid that conflict and the strife it caused last year between former Mayor Mike Bell and City Council — which at the time included Mr. Collins as a member.

    Marcia Langenderfer, who runs St. Paul’s — a shelter for homeless men with mental illness — said requiring a call to 211 is an extra barrier. Joe Habib, also of St. Paul’s, went a step further and said the United Way was an extra layer of unneeded bureaucracy.

    “We have another layer between us and the client so for us, it hasn't added anything,” Mr. Habib said.

    Some of the shelter operators shared anecdotal stories about the system’s failures and said that the United Way-operated system lacked a more sensitive process.

    Renee Palacios, executive director of Family House, said there have been instances when 211 operators told people the facility was full when it in fact had available beds.

    “Miscommunications have led to problems,” Ms. Palacios said to the group that met at the Girl Scouts Maumee Valley building in the Old West End.

    “We service providers have a mission to serve, not just to move people,” she said after the meeting. “The human element, the human touch is missing in this current system. That is the issue we were trying to get across and is reflective of the examples shared at the meeting.”

    Several of the shelter directors said a 211 operator recently sent two homeless families to Aurora Project, although it is not an emergency shelter. One of the children was showing signs of frostbite, said Denise Fox, Aurora Project executive director.

    Ms. Fox called Toledo Gospel Mission and Family House before personally transporting both families.

    In April, 2012, the Toledo Area Alliance to End Homelessness pushed for a “no-wrong-door” policy rather than the coordinated assessment system through the United Way and mandated use of its 211 system. Ms. Palacios said that group's opinion was disregarded by the homelessness board without consideration.

    Deidra Lashley, executive director of Bethany House — a transitional shelter for domestic violence victims, said Wood County has a “no-wrong-door” process, and she sees that system as much more “user-friendly” to the client than what is used in Lucas County.

    But Lynn Jacquot, director of the Battered Women's Shelter at the YWCA in Toledo, said the system in place now has been beneficial in some ways.

    “Coordinated assessment has improved things for the people we serve,” Ms. Jacquot said after the meeting. “Overall, people are getting into housing sooner … and I think that is critical. We only talked about access to shelters today, but coordinated assessment also gets people into housing.”

    The city of Toledo controls the spigot of federal dollars for the agencies.

    Lisa Ward, the city’s spokesman, said there is “clearly a broken relationship” between all the sides involved.

    “We have to mend some of these broken relationships,” Ms. Ward said. “There is so much angst and mistrust that anything new won’t work.”

    Karen Mathison, chief executive of Toledo’s United Way, said Thursday’s meeting was a “good dialogue.”

    “People had a chance to share their cares and concerns to move people away from shelter and into housing,” Ms. Mathison said. “The [shelters] felt disrespected and their input to the process was ignored so there has been some harm done, so how do we move forward?”

    Ken Leslie, a homeless advocate who founded Tent City and 1Matters, said a hybrid of the current system and the former process could resolve many issues.

    The sides agreed to meet again during the February meeting of the Toledo Area Alliance to End Homelessness.

    Contact Ignazio Messina at: or 419-724-6171 or on Twitter @IgnazioMessina.