Bum Deal

Take a housing project for old folks. Add 80 homeless men and a passel of feisty neighbors. Stir.

Cradle 2 the Grave

Carol Bevier is the lone female resident in the elevator as it lumbers down from her eighth-floor apartment to the lobby of Riverview Towers, the massive public housing project on West 25th Street. There's a urine stain on the floor, and the elevator -- notoriously prone to fits and starts -- is beginning to smell.

The old men look at their feet in a show of elevator etiquette. "What do you think about the plan to put homeless men in this building?" someone finally asks.

"I don't mind," says one. His companion also grunts his okay.

"Get an elevator full of women, you get a different answer," says Bevier, who at age 50 suffers from a painful musculoskeletal disorder.

The door opens, and Bevier lowers her voice. About a year ago, she says, a mentally ill resident forced her to kiss him in the elevator. She's against the plan that has everyone talking: "I don't want a lot of cocky young men in here. We've got enough cocky old men already."

With 451 apartments, all reserved for low-income people 50 and older, Riverview is the largest of the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority's high-rises. It's also the emptiest. While other CMHA projects have occupancy rates of 92 percent or higher, Riverview has long hovered near 75 percent, says spokeswoman Dorothy Noga. The north tower features nine floors with entire wings vacant, padlocked to keep out the curious.

Meanwhile, homeless shelters are bursting at the seams. Linda Hudecek, Cleveland's community development director, says the city's Lakeside shelter, designed to hold 400 men, regularly attracts 500 a night. The women's shelter, designed for 70, gets up to 120.

"It's really a reflection of hard economic times," Hudecek says. "And so our question becomes, How do we take the pressure off these facilities?"

Enter Riverview. The "permanent transitional housing" plan, pitched by the county and city's joint Office of Homeless Services, would put 80 shelter residents into Riverview apartments. The men would be handpicked for sobriety and stability; Recovery Resources, a Cleveland agency specializing in mental illness and substance abuse, would provide an on-site staffer 40 hours a week.

HUD is neutral. Local politicians like the plan because it eases the shelters' "cream of the crop" into apartments while creating shelter space for the truly desperate, Hudecek says. Sister Donna Hawk, who chairs the homeless services' advisory board, is also on board. "That whole wing has been empty since they renovated it," she says. "It's a disgrace. People should be outraged -- and not because it's going to be filled, but because it's not filled already."

Residents like Bevier aren't so sure. Riverview already needs more security, they say. There have been 87 arrests there in the last four years, including some for rape and assault. Adding 80 men, all younger -- and probably stronger -- won't help.

Ironically, CMHA's waiting list already has more than 9,000 names, Noga says. Some are ineligible for Riverview's apartments because they're too young. Others are waiting for openings at a specific project.

A good number of them, Noga admits, simply don't want to live in Riverview. Some East Siders don't want to cross the river. Some West Siders find West 25th Street too far east. Still others remember heavy drug dealing at a CMHA project adjacent to Riverview, which has since been razed. "It does take time for perception to catch up with reality," Noga says.

And Riverview is hardly charming. Its cement-block interior is a testament to the ugliness of government architecture, circa 1960. Furniture disappears frequently. What's left is sometimes so soiled by urine that residents cover it with newspapers before sitting down. There's a workout room, but it's open exactly nine hours a week. The library, with its rows of new computers, is open for six. The pool table is ribbed with duct tape.

"There are people with very serious needs there being underserved," says Councilman Joe Cimperman.

Neighbors from Ohio City, who emphatically oppose the plan, use Riverview's malaise to make their point. If it was fixed up, they say, more senior citizens would move in. Vacancies, filled; waiting list, shortened. Problem solved, says neighbor Emily Dennis. "We want it to be an elderly-friendly building, where people feel safe."

"Safety" has become the buzzword of discussions. A meeting at Riverview drew about 20 residents, along with 60 neighbors. CMHA's Scott Pollack told the group that the plan is unlikely to add security personnel beyond the lone guard now on duty; the agency is already facing a 15 percent funding cut from the feds.

Residents weren't happy. "We need more security in this building now," said one man. "If you move 80 more people in, you're going to need even more."

"We're already in a situation where people don't feel safe," added a woman.

The meeting ended with a vote. Seventy-three were opposed, seven in favor.

Proponents of the plan, naturally, point to a different vote -- one from the residents' advisory council, which supports it. Council leader Clara Bell agrees that the building doesn't have enough security, but she's more angered by the empty apartments. She says CMHA has a duty to fill them. "What is it about homeless men that has everyone so frightened?"

Bell is willing to accept new neighbors until they prove her wrong. "If they need help, I'll be the first person to help them," she says. "If they act up, I'll be the first one to call 911."

Each side of the debate also cites neighborhood support. The Ohio City Near West Development Corporation voted in favor of the plan. Meanwhile, a petition circulated by the opposition has close to 600 signatures, says Dennis.

Helen Jones, president of Recovery Resources, claims to be nonplused by the fracas. "Almost any place you go, you're going to hear things like that," she says. "And I don't know that it's that big a group, just that it's very loud."

It is, however, savvy. Many members are veterans of the fight to close the Jay Hotel. They also enlisted John Moss, the Democratic ward leader who led Tremont's successful battle against a battered-women's shelter in December.

The neighbors' plan has been in-your-face -- they picketed a recent ward club meeting, brandishing "Say No Joe" signs addressed to Cimperman, who is officially neutral. They've done their homework, too. A public records request determined that Riverview already averages more than 800 police calls a year. That quickly became a talking point.

So did the HOPE VI project, the gorgeous redevelopment plan for the northern edge of West 25th Street, which would replace sagging storefronts with mixed-income housing and retail more in the mode of Shaker Square than Clark Avenue. Its developers say they are watching Riverview carefully. Some neighbors predict that the project could be scuttled if the homeless men come. (The city disputes that, but Robert Townsend, CMHA's board chairman, admits it's a concern.)

The CMHA board was supposed to vote on the Riverview homeless proposal last Wednesday. But, less than 24 hours before the vote, its backers withdrew the proposal. Hudecek says leaders expected a "demonstration" at the board meeting, and they wanted to regroup. "We need to make sure we have the support, and we want to take a minute and find out what's at the heart of the opposition."

The board knows it will take heat regardless of its decision, Townsend says. He has serious questions -- about younger men mixing with senior residents and about the impact on Ohio City, which is already saturated with social-service programs.

Still, Townsend knows his priority. "Our mission is to house anyone who qualifies for public housing. If you have to choose between all these other concerns and housing people who need it, you know what the answer is going to be."

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