Thursday, February 04, 2010

Left Out in the Cold

Last week, I had an experience I knew I'd write about. I wanted to gather my thoughts, first, though. I also was pondering the right venue for my tale; I wasn't sure whether I should write here, or submit an essay for print publication elsewhere. Yesterday's story by WLWT on the "misunderstanding" at the OTR cold shelter has made me dBoldecide to write now. The following is a bit longer than the typical Cincinnati Blog post, and for those of you who read it, I offer my thanks.

My criminal defense practice includes representation of the indigent. This past Friday, I met with a client we'll call Mary to discuss an upcoming case. She's charged with a relatively minor offense. As we neared the end of our meeting, I sought to confirm the address in my file, so that I could send her notification of new court dates. She confided that she was presently homeless. I asked where she'd been sleeping, assuming that the answer would be the Drop-Inn Center. (Residents of the Drop-Inn Center can receive mail there.) She told me that she'd spent the last two nights sleeping in doorways or on park benches, because she'd not gotten to the DIC in time to get a bed.

As Mary, obviously exhausted, began to cry, I thought back to that morning. I remembered leaving my apartment at 7:00 that morning and how cold it was. I remembered that I'd parked my car near my residence the night before (I usually leave the car at my office, about six blocks away, and walk) because I'd decided it would be too cold to walk all the way to the Justice Center, where that day would begin for me. I also remembered grumbling because my car never warmed up on its 11-block, cross-downtown trip. The low temperature Friday was 12 degrees. I couldn't imagine having spent a night on the street in those conditions, much less two.

So I asked Mary to wait while I went to another room to see if I could figure out how to get her off the streets, at least for the night. I started out by calling the two women's shelters I know of in Cincinnati. The Anna Louise Inn is a terrific place but, as the woman who answered the phone explained, emergency shelter--particularly for women who don't have children in tow or a history of prostitution offenses--isn't really its mission. My next call was to Bethany House, another great organization. But it only has a few beds, none of which were available that night.

I was starting to get frustrated. I had really thought that I could pick up the phone, make a couple calls, and solve a problem. So I tried to reach out to a couple of social-worker type folks who have been helpful in the past. Unfortunately, neither of them were at their desks that afternoon. Someone else I talked to gave me the name of someone else who should have plenty of contact information at his fingertips. Unfortunately, his suggestion was Bethany House, with whom I'd already struck out.

Then I decided to call the Drop-Inn Center. I knew before calling that I wouldn't be able to "reserve" a bed for Mary, but I thought they might have other suggestions, or at least a tip on how Mary could assure herself of a bed. The woman who answered the phone explained that the DIC opens its doors at 8:00 pm and takes residents on a first-come, first-serve basis. She recommended that my client get to the DIC by 6:00. As we were talking, I realized that the "city cold shelters" I'd vaguely heard about must be open. I asked the woman if she knew whether they were. She didn't. I asked her if she knew where the Downtown/Over-the-Rhine cold shelter was. She didn't. She referred me to a website that didn't contain this information, either.

At that time, I had no idea where the "cold shelters" where. The only times I'd heard of them had been when a newscast would announce that the city had opened them. Nonetheless, at least that gave me a starting point. My next call was to the City Manager's office. I assumed someone there could give me the information I needed. Wrong again. The cold shelters aren't a function of the City Manager, I was told. Instead, they're run by the City Health Department. The woman gave me the department's number and transferred my call. After hearing the phone ring a few times, I got the voicemail of the Health Department's Public Information Officer. I hung up and dialed the number I'd been given, which of course was answered by the PIO's voicemail.

My frustration had moved towards seething anger. I'm a lawyer. Sometimes, accomplishing goals for clients requires that I work the phone. So I've gotten pretty good at that task over the last few years. But I was hitting roadblock after roadblock. No one, it seemed, had the information I needed. Or if they did have the information, they weren't answering their phones. I was particularly upset with the Drop-Inn Center. Why wouldn't they have information on the cold shelters readily available given that they know that (a) the DIC is over-capacity, and (b) it's really, really cold? Besides having the information near the phone, shouldn't they have that information posted at the front door, for anyone who was turned away?

If I were having so much trouble, how must it be for someone who actually needed the information for him- or herself? Someone with limited education, without regular access to a phone, and who was sleep-deprived? Would they have any chance of doing better than a park bench if there were no room at the Drop Inn?

Turning back to the web, I checked to see if the number I had was the main number for the Health Department. It was. I tried another number that should have been useful. Voicemail again. (It was not, by the way, past 3:00 yet.) I finally tried a randomly selected extension, and got a human being. She was kind enough to check whether the shelters were open (they were supposed to be), and where the nearest one was located (the recreation center on Republic, just north of Liberty). She told me when the shelters open (10:00 at night).

I went back to Mary and apologized for keeping her waiting so long. We worked out a plan: she would get to the Drop-Inn Center by 6:00 and wait there. If she didn't get a bed, then she'd walk the few blocks to the cold shelter on Republic. I wished her luck.

Mary's court date isn't for a few more weeks, and I don't have a way to contact her in the meantime. So I don't know whether she got off the street that night or the next. Now I know that on Saturday night, the City closed the cold shelter, apparently because it was too warm. (The city's standard for opening the shelters is single-digit wind-chills. The low temperature Saturday was 16 degrees. The low temperature Sunday was 9 degrees. The city was really so confident that from Saturday night to Sunday morning, the windchill would remain above 10 degrees?) I hope that next time I see Mary, I'll learn out she found shelter through the weekend, and has found a stable housing solution. But until then, I'll wonder.

There were lots of failures last week. There's clearly a dearth of options for homeless, single women in Cincinnati right now. There's seemingly no good clearinghouse of information for people who need emergency shelter. The Drop-Inn Center, which should have a lot of knowledge about places to which the homeless can turn, either doesn't have it or isn't sharing it. And the City isn't doing a good enough job of publicizing, on a daily basis, whether the cold shelters are open and where they are.

WLWT quotes Pat Clifford, Drop-Inn's manager:

Clifford stressed that while most people hear about them on the cold days, the
Drop Inn Center is serving and acting as the community's open door all year

As far as I could tell, the door wasn't all that open last week. And no one else seemed terribly interested in answering other doors, either.

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