At the same time that everyone was learning about the COVID-19 pandemic last spring, Brandon Stadler was also finding out what it’s like to become homeless.
Like so many others, Stadler, who worked in litigation support for 12 years, lost his job. But a series of bad decisions, including using drugs and alcohol and a lack of savings, led him to not only lose his new apartment, but quickly go from crashing on a friend’s couch, to seeking help from local churches and the Lutheran Men’s Shelter at 2100 Lakeside Ave.
In the midst of concerns about safe social distancing practices, Stadler preferred to take his chances braving the cold, sleeping on the streets of Cleveland.
To combat the choices many like Stadler faced, Cuyahoga County social service agencies and homeless advocates sought to find temporary shelters including hotels in order to deconcentrate large congregate shelters and reduce the spread of COVID-19 for some of the most vulnerable homeless population.
“Between being at the hotel and staying at [Cleveland] Catholic Workers center where people gave me information about steps to move forward, it meant so much to have guidance in learning about work and shelter programs,” Stadler says.
About 6,000 people in Cuyahoga County identify as homeless, according to data from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. In the past, Cuyahoga County’s approach to helping homeless individuals involved finding permanent housing to those in crowded shelters with minimal steps in between, a model known as Housing First. The idea is to first solve an individual’s housing situation before approaching challenges such as alcohol, drug addiction, and mental health issues.
But within the last year, a decongregating emergency shelter model, which is meant to bridge the gap from homelessness to a permanent housing solution, started to gain traction and receive support.
Due to the pandemic, for the first time, government funding went to five hotels to operate as decongregating emergency shelters. Anyone who tested positive for the virus was isolated in a separate hotel.
“We’re seeing that mass warehousing of people experiencing homelessness is not a safe nor dignified way to practice emergency shelter,” says Chris Knestrick, executive director of the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless. “What COVID has shown us is that having small hotel-like emergency shelter options leads to more trauma informed shelters, better client center approaches and often better outcomes in permanent housing.”
Since last spring, both the men’s and women’s congregate shelters in Cleveland have maintained census consistently under 60% and homeless advocates say that they’re optimistic that some of these changes might continue after the pandemic ends, as long as more government funding is allocated to homeless resources.
Michael Sering, vice president of housing and shelter at Lutheran Metropolitan Ministries, says that until the pandemic hit, on any given night, about 400 people stayed at the men’s shelter. Now the shelter at 2100 Lakeside houses about 180 people, while at least 200 others are at hotels.
“Congregate shelter is not a fantastic idea,” he says. “It’s cost-effective and helps ensure everyone gets a bed. But it’s not conducive for privacy and working full-time.”
Over the next four years, fallout from the pandemic is expected to cause chronic homelessness to climb 49% nationwide, according to a new study by the Economic Roundtable, a California-based nonprofit urban research organization. The homelessness crisis is expected to peak in 2023, with an additional 603,000 American adults without a permanent roof over their heads.
Knestrick says his group estimates that there was a roughly 35% decrease in the number of “unsheltered” people experiencing homelessness in Cleveland in the second half of 2020, a drop from an average of 96 people to 57. “Unsheltered” means people living outside, in tents or on the street, and not in homeless shelters.
“I think it speaks to the strategy to deconcentrate the homeless shelters, offering multiple options in a way that was never possible before,” he says. “We found that when people have multiple options, they are more willing to stay at places that are less crowded and a little more private.”
While there hasn’t been any permanent increase in funding for alternative ways to shelter homeless individuals, Melissa Sirak, director of Cuyahoga County’s Office of Homeless Services, says she is encouraged by the progress made in the last year.
“During the pandemic, local funders have collaborated to provide resources in a more strategized manner. This has resulted in stronger relationships and partners working together in new ways,” Sirak says. “Shelters will continue to access alternative ways of providing shelter beyond the pandemic.”
Homeless advocates who want change say that more funding is a big part of the solution, but it’s far from the only challenge. Policy changes are needed for impoverished families facing eviction.
Margaret Mitchell, president and CEO of the Cleveland YWCA, says she believes homelessness can be reduced with solid safety nets and better support, including a livable minimum wage, affordable housing and childcare.
Women of color and women with mental illnesses are overrepresented in shelters and often have additional challenges as it relates to permanent housing. “While we’ve shifted in the short term, we have not created long-term public policies that can make some real changes,” she says.
But the last year has provided a lot of lessons that advocates and government agencies hope to carry forward. Sering says that one of the most positive outcomes of exploring more temporary options, is the opportunity to consider possible permanent changes.
“Could some of these options be sustained after COVID?” he says. “Well, you don’t want to live in a hotel forever, but we might consider buying a hotel to mimic that experience.”
Meanwhile, Stadler says it’s been a whirlwind of a year, going from becoming homeless to couch surfing, braving the streets to a hotel, and then living in smaller group homes. Now that he’s employed at PCs for People, thanks to using the programs offered to him, he plans to move to a nearby apartment soon.
“I was dumbfounded at how I let myself get into this situation,” Stadler says. “And I was shocked at the resources that Cleveland has to offer. We are all human and subject to problems so I’m grateful for the support. Having a community gives me the strength to not make bad decisions like I did before.”