As City Braces for Freezing Temps, Advocates Host Vigil for Homeless Clevelanders Who Died This Year

The crowd remembered the 55 who died and advocated for officials to do more

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click to enlarge Bishop Chui, board president of the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, speaks at St. Paul's Community Church in Ohio City Wednesday. - Mark Oprea
Mark Oprea
Bishop Chui, board president of the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, speaks at St. Paul's Community Church in Ohio City Wednesday.

As Cleveland braces for a weekend of sub-zero temperatures, community activists spent yesterday raising awareness for those who are unhoused, unsheltered or homeless.

Some 80 of them gathered Wednesday at St. Paul's Community Church in Ohio City to pay respects to 55 homeless Clevelanders who have died this year, some of whom died from exposure to the elements. With mini candles in hands, the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless used Wednesday's vigil to remind city leaders that more can and should be done.

"Today is the first day of winter, and the longest day of the year," Bishop Chui, a board member of NEOCH, said on Ohio's Homeless Remembrance Day.

click to enlarge Chris Knestrick, NEOCH's executive director, criticized city funds for gearing to sports stadium overalls, not more shelters. "Never simplify what is complicated, or complicate what is simple," he said. - Mark Oprea
Mark Oprea
Chris Knestrick, NEOCH's executive director, criticized city funds for gearing to sports stadium overalls, not more shelters. "Never simplify what is complicated, or complicate what is simple," he said.

It's a day that both haunts and alarms Chris Knestrick, NEOCH's executive director.

Although Knestrick and his team of eight on NEOCH's outreach team orchestrate "more targeted outreach" starting in November, there are longer-term barriers that need to, he said, be addressed by City Hall.

NEOCH does have a "guaranteed access to shelter" policy, which is communicated to known homeless persons via outreach workers, but funding cuts and inflation, Knestrick told Scene, make the link between people on the street and warm shelters more tenuous.

There are other issues. The sometimes crowded atmosphere at shelters like the Lutheran Metropolitan Men's Ministry—which has 360 beds, making it Ohio's largest— can dissuade some from showing up.

Knestrick criticized the city's major stakeholders for their funding priorities, viewing the glittering legacy projects of the Gilberts and Haslams as overly capitalistic, not ethical.

"We could spend the $435 million that is going to renovate our baseball stadium to develop a care response team to support people going through the acute mental health crisis in our community," he said to the crowd. "We could spend the $1 billion, as opposed for the new football stadium,  and end homelessness in this community forever."

He quoted writer Arundhati Roy, "Never simplify what is complicated, or complicate what is simple."

After further calls to action and prayers by Rev. Emily Culp Ashby and Rev. Richard Hinkleman, the two pastors read 55 names of the Cleveland homeless people who died this year, including Kenneth Chatmon, who froze to death recently in Public Square.

click to enlarge Rev. Emily Culp Asby, of St. Paul's Community Church. - Mark Oprea
Mark Oprea
Rev. Emily Culp Asby, of St. Paul's Community Church.

To the tune of "Canon in D," Culp Ashby read, "Larry Jones. Alabama 'Jimbo' Jim. Douglas Young. Anthony 'Tony' Johnson. Damon Hudson."

"We remember you," the crowd recited.

Sitting in the crowd in a jean jacket and push cart was "Ponytail" Steve, a 61-year-old man who walked to St. Paul's to pay respects for his friend Alabama Jim, who died recently in a shooting incident.

Currently living in a seven-by-seven bathroom off of Lorain Ave., Steve said he's been homeless off and on for 20 years. At 60, he had used a federal voucher to secure a $224/month apartment off St. Clair Ave., but left after eight months due to eviction fears and "bullets whizzing past my head."

"The goal is always to have your food and drink," Steve said in the lobby of St. Paul's while remembering time he spent with Jim in "The Walls," a large encampment near Steelyard and I-71. "As for the cold—that's why we're between two walls."

As for his current situation, it's better than a shelter, for him.

"I live by myself," he said. "That's how I prefer it."

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About The Author

Mark Oprea

Mark Oprea is a staff writer at Scene. For the past seven years, he's covered Cleveland as a freelance journalist, and has contributed to TIME, NPR, the Pacific Standard and the Cleveland Magazine. He's the winner of two Press Club awards.
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