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Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Clevelanders Rally at City Council Meeting to Demand Dignity for Homeless Population

Posted By on Tue, Jan 7, 2020 at 11:16 AM

click to enlarge Rally for Metanoia/Denison UCC, 1/6/2020 - SAM ALLARD / SCENE
  • Sam Allard / Scene
  • Rally for Metanoia/Denison UCC, 1/6/2020

As Cleveland City Council clerk Patricia Britt called the roll on passage of new legislation at last night's council meeting, longtime advocate, minister and social justice champion George Hrbek stood up to interrupt the proceedings.

His voiced carried over the back and forth of Britt and Council President Kevin Kelley, who were tabulating the unanimous votes for new tax increment financing agreements and the legislation that will put the size and compensation of city council before voters in March.

Hrbek told the story of Lorraine Van De Venter, a woman who froze to death on Cleveland's east side in 2017.

"She was our neighbor and a member of our community," Hrbek said. 

click to enlarge George Hrbek tells the story of Lorraine Van de Venter; Rally for Metanoia/Denison UCC, 1/6/2020 - SAM ALLARD / SCENE
  • Sam Allard / Scene
  • George Hrbek tells the story of Lorraine Van de Venter; Rally for Metanoia/Denison UCC, 1/6/2020
Police had been walking up and down the aisles of the council chambers, confiscating signs from attendees who'd shown up to support Denison Avenue United Church of Christ, which has been sheltering those experiencing homelessness since November in partnership with the Metanoia Project. 

That partnership, which pastor Nozomi Ukuta has called a "protected and essential expression of our faith," has met with disapprobation from the local (Ward 11) councilwoman, Dona Brady. 

A "cease use" order was taped to the door of Denison UCC on Christmas Eve, and since then, supporters have rallied on the church's behalf, calling on city leaders to work with the church, to establish a sustainable cold-weather plan, and to show compassion for the city's most vulnerable populations.

Before last night's meeting, council's first of the year after a holiday recess, nearly 100 people gathered on the first floor of City Hall. The crowd size was amplified by those gathered to show support for local EMS workers, who were calling on the city administration to honor their request for mental health services in a new contract.

Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless (NEOCH) Executive Director Chris Knestrick said that the issues of homelessness and mental health intersected and that he hoped supporters of both would show solidarity with each other. (Indeed, during the meeting, when councilman Matt Zone acknowledged the EMS workers in attendance, those there to support Denison UCC rose in a standing ovation.)

Knestrick said that both racism and NIMBYism had led to the strict code-enforcement at Denison UCC in Ward 11.

"We know that racist policies have stolen wealth from the black community, and therefore homeless disproportionately affects that community," he said. "We're here to say: Keep Metanoia open, support Denison UCC, build a cold-weather plan, and take a stand against NIMBYism and racism in our community."

Nozomi Ikuta, pastor of Denison UCC, noted that Monday was the Feast of the Epiphany, the Christian holiday that commemorates the three kings' visit to the baby Jesus.

"We know that the wise men followed the star," Ikuta said. "We believe that that is the star of love and dignity. We believe in the dignity of every person, whether they have a house or not."

Area activist Yvonka Hall stressed that the City Hall demonstration was not to protest a single councilperson.

"This isn't just Dona Brady," she said. "This isn't a west side issue or an east side issue. This is something that impacts all of us. We have to make sure that people who are marginalized are not marginalized in places that were built for God."   
click to enlarge Pastor Nozomi Ikuta, flanked by Chris Knestrick and Yvonka Hall, speaks before the meeting; Rally for Metanoia/Denison UCC, 1/6/2020 - SAM ALLARD / SCENE
  • Sam Allard / Scene
  • Pastor Nozomi Ikuta, flanked by Chris Knestrick and Yvonka Hall, speaks before the meeting; Rally for Metanoia/Denison UCC, 1/6/2020

During the meeting, councilmen Matt Zone, Kerry McCormack and Basheer Jones all recognized the attendees present on behalf of Denison UCC and Metanoia. Zone said that there had already been a meeting to discuss a cold-weather plan and that a further meeting was scheduled for Thursday. He asked attendees to remember that significant progress had already been made on housing the city's homeless population.

Jones said when he moved to Cleveland from Brooklyn, NY, as a boy, he and his family stayed at the city's Salvation Army shelter. He said that those experiences, and the wisdom of his mother, taught him that "no matter how bad you have it, someone else has it worse." He called on his council colleagues to have courage and to be a "body of action," not just a body of words.

After the meeting officially adjourned, attendees pulled out signs that they'd managed to conceal from the police and began chanting "KEEP THE SHELTER OPEN! KEEP THE SHELTER OPEN! KEEP THE SHELTER OPEN!" 

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