It's dim and the streetlights are on at 6 p.m. in late October. The first stop on the Volunteers of America homeless outreach tour is in East Cleveland. The neighborhood doesn't have the look of the city at night, with lights in the windows showing that people are home from work and getting ready for dinner. The buildings are there, but the lights are not. The brightest light in the neighborhood is a green sign that reads, "Checks Cashed/Short Term Loans."
As their white van rolls up to a corner on St. Clair in the East 130s, about 50 people stand waiting, as if for a bus. Word is out on the street that the VOA comes by here with food, blankets and "hygiene kits" with soap and other supplies. The door slides open and the people swarm. The VOA guys give stuff away as fast as they can move their hands. They give away "street cards" too - sheets of paper with information about how to get just about any kind of basic help: hot meals, medical care, shelter. But most people don't want those. As the supplies as handed out, the crowd begins to vanish.
"It's hard to count the people," says Derek Paxton, who drives the VOA van. "You turn your head and they're gone. Where they go, we don't know. When we started this we tried to follow them, but they'd just dip into an alley or between two houses, and they'd be gone."
In this neighborhood, some of the better-attended houses are boarded up, and hundreds of others sit with their windows knocked out, doors swinging, birds, cats, and anything else coming and going as they please. The VOA guys assume that many of the people who wait on the corner for the van are living in nearby abandoned properties.
The volunteers explain, and the people on the street confirm, that there are various reasons that homeless people avoid shelters. They don't want to deal with the crowded conditions. Or they don't want to be split up from their families, as separate shelters for men, women and children do. Or because theft and violence are commonplace. Or because they just don't want to follow someone else's rules; like all of us, they want a place of their own.
When the crowd has almost completely disappeared, Derek talks to a guy he knew in high school. Derek grew up in East Cleveland and he often sees people from his past who are now living on the streets. The guy is too late to get a sandwich or a blanket, but the VOA can offer him a hygiene kit. He takes it gratefully.
The crew gets back in the white van to drive to the next stop.
Some of the non-shelter-dwelling homeless live in outdoor encampments. The VOA guys find Mark and his girlfriend Marie under a bridge with only blue plastic tarps to block out the elements. Two cats, Oreo and Morris, come when Mark calls them by name. He says they sleep right on top of him. Mark has been under that bridge for three years, winters and all. He says the snow piled up so high last winter, they had to dig their way out; he holds his hand about 4 feet off the ground to show how high the snow was. He says he doesn't like the shelters, so he stays outdoors because he doesn't want to commit the crime and subject himself to the punishment that would come with making his home in one of the city's thousands of abandoned houses.
"That would be breaking and entering," he says.
But if you're willing to break and enter, Cleveland and other cities offer thousands of options.
It's hard to blame squatters for taking advantage of the properties that others have left behind like any other kind of litter. After the cost of back taxes and rehabbing, many of the sites are worth less than zero. Just like a person living in the wilderness might scavenge for firewood, a person living off the urban land might see an abandoned house as raw material - an unnatural resource.
Derek won't guess how many, but he assumes that a significant number of homeless people - including some they see making the outreach rounds - are staying in the thousands of abandoned houses that dot the city. There's evidence if you look for it: tracks in the snow ending at a broken back door, the glow of candlelight in the second-floor window of a house whose first story is boarded up.
"When we find someone living in a house like that," says VOA worker David Cottingham, "we tell them, 'You have to move out by a certain time, or you will be put out.'"
There are no reliable estimates of how many people are living this way, but two numbers, both well documented (if imprecise), reveal a startling paradox of American life. By most estimates, Cleveland has 12,000 to 15,000 abandoned houses. The Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless believes there are about 4,000 homeless people in the city. That means there are roughly three empty structures for every person with no place to live.
The superfluity of neglected housing comes after decades of seeing all new construction in the county as a good thing. Cleveland added new houses faster than abandoned ones were demolished, even as the population slipped. According to statistics from the City of Cleveland Planning Commission and the 2007 U.S. Census, Cleveland added 9,914 new housing units from 1990 to 2007. During the same time period, the city lost more than 26,000 people, or about 10,000 households. Those two numbers alone account for almost 20,000 vacant units.
Only in the past two years, with the rate of demolition increased by a factor of four, have demolitions begun to keep pace with new construction. Still, interim census numbers, based on small samples, indicate that there are 50,000 vacant housing units in the city. With numbers like that, substantial long-term vacancy, foreclosure and abandonment were practically guaranteed, even without predatory lenders.
The people taking advantage of the situation choose their digs carefully and do a good job keeping their secret. Safeguard Properties, a Brooklyn Heights company in the business of securing vacant homes, finds squatters living in them, but only on rare occasion, and they don't keep track.
Spokesperson Diane Fusco says the company's contractors avoid confrontation as a policy. "The first time we go in to secure a vacant home, if we find someone, we just leave. We then contact the mortgage company and tell them. Most of the time it's the homeowner, but we have no way of knowing. If we go back and find someone, we then ask them to leave. We don't take any other action. Our goal isn't to get anyone in trouble. But it doesn't happen as often as you'd think."
She acknowledges, however, "These are not abandoned properties. They are being maintained."
Evidence that homeless people have been taking advantage of the glut of abandoned houses, especially in Cleveland and East Cleveland, has been growing for several years. During his first weeks in office, East Cleveland Mayor Eric Brewer invited a reporter into a meeting with the director of the city's water department. The subject was "straight piping," or bypassing a water meter by running new pipe around it. The meter - which is read by the city and generates both a bill and a signal that someone is living in the house - then sends no information at all; the house is off the city's radar. Successful straight piping means the squatter gets free water and the city is none the wiser.
At the time, Brewer figured this might have happened in "30 or 40" houses in his city. The Census Bureau says that Cleveland had 13,491 housing units for its 11,210 households in the year 2000 - or at least 2281 vacant units - and that the city's population has steadily declined since then, which would indicate an even higher rate of vacancy now. Contacted recently, however, Brewer says simply, "We don't have that problem anymore."
Brian Davis, executive director of the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, believes the glut of abandoned properties is one reason he and his staff saw a dramatic drop in the number of people sleeping outside in downtown Cleveland last year.
Each Thanksgiving, NEOCH counts the homeless between West 6th Street and East 20th streets, between Lake and Carnegie avenues - not as a true count, but an indicator of trends. Between 2006 and 2007, the number dropped from 40 down to 17. Davis calls that a "huge decline." They double-checked the next day, getting the same result. He sees several contributing factors, including the Downtown Cleveland Alliance's Clean/Safe Ambassadors program making it less comfortable for homeless people to sleep downtown, the displacement of a tent city near Browns Stadium and the Public Square curfew. But prominent among possible factors, he says, is the increased number of abandoned homes to levels the city simply can't monitor.
"The foreclosure crisis has made available an incredible number of vacant properties in neighborhoods," Davis wrote in a memo on the subject. "Often these properties are abandoned, some still have furniture and many have heat. Many homeless people see the foreclosure crisis as an opportunity to find low cost housing (FREE!) with some privacy."
Davis recently discussed the situation over coffee. "In July 2007 we got a grant to organize outreach workers, and so we distributed flyers to police and others to coordinate response, so people knew who to call. We started getting calls from people living in houses next to abandoned houses where homeless people were sleeping." A few calls came in from Tremont and Ohio City, but most were from the East Side. He tells a story about one heartbreaking report from a year ago. "A community development worker had gone into a building in East Cleveland to approve it for demolition and found a woman with a newborn staying there. They had one of our flyers, so they called us to send an outreach worker at about 1 p.m. We had someone there by 3 p.m., but the woman was gone."
She may have known that the shelter system would likely have separated her from her child. NEOCH's monthly Homeless Congress meeting is held in a big cinderblock room on the second floor of the Bishop Cosgrove Center, a place that fits the elementary school architectural definition of the "cafetorium." Folding tables are placed in a big square, with a couple dozen folding chairs around the outside, where representatives from the city's shelters and other homeless outreach programs meet to share ideas.
Davis says that last year, the subject of abandoned houses started to come up every time the congress met. "People living outside would say it's depressing to see all these abandoned buildings and have the only option be sleeping outside or in the shelter."
Over the course of months, the conversation gelled into a proposal to try to bring the supply of abandoned houses in contact with the demand for very low-cost housing: to mine the unnatural resource. Discussion of the idea at last May's meeting was full of both optimism and caution. One guy said, "I'm an HVAC man who made bad investments. That's why I'm living at 2100. I know there are people with plumbing, electric and masonry skills living there." Another guy offered, "My opinion is that if people work on a house and sell it, they're going to end up right back homeless. They need to take pride."
"The plan" now, says Davis, "is to take a few of these houses and see if we can match them with people who have skills, and apply their sweat equity toward ownership."
The hurdles are myriad. There's the fact that people living in shelters don't generally have power tools. There's the need to get the city to bend its rules; even the finest of foreclosed properties likely will have some code violations. Unless the city would allow legal occupancy before the properties were up to code, houses undergoing rehab would be susceptible at night to thieves looking for copper pipes, tools or anything of value. It takes a resident to secure the place.
Even if the project were successful to the point of transferring ownership - if a team of five men with different trade skills were able to rehab five houses and take ownership outright - the new owners, probably unemployed, would then become responsible for paying taxes. Otherwise they'd face the prospect of losing the houses all over again.
In October, after months of discussion, Davis submitted a proposal to the city and the county, hoping to get less than 1 percent of roughly $28 million coming to the city and county through the $3.9 billion federal Housing and Economic Recovery Act - money targeted at cleaning up after the foreclosure crisis. The proposal seeks just $150,000 to launch a pilot program in which NEOCH would acquire five to 10 houses with the goal of putting them back into legal use in nine to 18 months. The agency would identify skilled workers from the homeless population and screen them to identify those who are serious and capable. The team of workers would cooperate to bring all the houses up to code, and once the work was completed, their sweat equity would translate into ownership.
The idea was floated as a trial balloon before either government was officially accepting proposals, but the responses were not encouraging. An e-mail from an official in the city's department of development begins, "I am less convinced at this time about the viability of the housing rehab proposal. Once you get past the hype, I haven't seen urban homesteading projects that work very well, unless they involve yuppies that can hire contractors to do all the work."
The response from the county wasn't so outwardly skeptical, but it was cool nonetheless. The county will offer the money first to its communities that don't get their own federal dollars, which means about 50 other cities are in line first. If there's foreclosure cleanup money left after that, they could consider a proposal from a Cleveland nonprofit.
So now Davis plans to broaden the appeal, sending the same proposal to the council members whose wards are most affected, in the hope of landing some of their discretionary money. He's also planning to approach state representatives, hoping to get a slice of the state's $116.8 million in federal foreclosure-cleanup aid. Davis knows the vast majority of that will go toward demolition, but the mathematical reality is undeniable: If the authority existed to do so, you could give every homeless person in Cleveland a free house and still have 8,000 to 10,000 empty ones left. The worst that could happen is that a person who was homeless ends up homeless again, and a once-abandoned property is abandoned once again. For $150,000, the stakes are not very high.
"Maybe elected officials might be more likely than bureaucrats to be willing to take a risk," he says.
Even men living in the shelter know it's a challenging idea that on the one hand could legitimize and legalize something already going on, and on the other, could be doomed to failure, depending on the individuals involved. Lynn Anderson II, who lives at 2100 Lakeside, knows lots of homeless people have moved into "abandominiums."
"I can't pretend something doesn't exist," he says. "It's going on right now, at this very moment in our society. Once you get in, you can turn on the gas and electric. I knew a guy who got the gas and electric turned on and stayed in that house for a year. People just walk right by it." As far as turning the supply and demand into a legal, formalized program, he knows it's a risk. "I don't know if it's a good idea or not," he says. "You have to have the right man doing it."
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