Sunday, January 25, 2004

Sometimes, shelter just isn't enough



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Theologians debate the existence of purgatory, but I know it exists because I saw it the other day. It has pumpkin tile on the floors and bright blue walls that can't lift the gloom that drapes over everything like a damp wool blanket. The air smells like bleach mixed with something it's trying to cover up. Mingled among the Hefty sacks, duffels and street-scuffed sleeping bags, lost men and women are curled up like dry leaves among their pitiful possessions.

They sleep. Or sit on benches. Lost in a drug-daze or listening to voices only they can hear. It looks like a bus station in limbo for lost souls. Heaven is as far away as clean white sheets. Hell is a lot closer.

John White, 41, who is blind, lived in "the Drop" for six years. But he would rather go back to jail than the Drop Inn Center Shelter House at 217 W. 12th in Over-the-Rhine. "It's totally unsafe," he said. "They will rob you in the bathroom. You're guaranteed to catch something."

Michael Robinson, 39, described fistfights, urination and vomiting in the men's dorm. The most helpless homeless are preyed upon, he said. "You feel like a zero in there."

Both men now live at a Justice Watch transitional home.

I asked other homeless men and women in the neighborhood. A few said they like the Drop. Others described thefts, bullying, bad food, unsanitary conditions, violence and fear.

"That's what they're telling me, too," said Ann Taylor, who runs The Lord's Pantry a block from the Drop. "I say, 'Well, you do have a roof and meals, that's better than nothing.' But they say, 'You don't know how they treat us.' "

Next door at The Lord's Gym, Jerry Dubose said, "My main concern is the violence."

Cincinnati Police Capt. James Whalen said the number of police runs to the Drop is "somewhat staggering." In the past 12 months, the Drop is tops in District 1, with 197 disorderly calls and 103 violent-crime calls. "A fair number of people tell us they would rather be on the street than go there," he said.

On the day I dropped in, the staff seemed to be doing their best to cope with the overflow of misery that trickled in to escape the bitter cold.

Director Pat Clifford, who has been running the shelter for 13 years, acknowledged they have theft problems because there aren't enough lockers. And yes, he said, there is occasional violence.

The city contributes $215,000 from a federal grant. Such taxpayer sources make up 70 percent of his $1.8 million budget, Clifford said.

"We serve people no one else does," said supervisor Fanny Johnson. "They all would have frozen or starved by now, because nobody else takes them."

Still, the stories of violence are heartbreaking. The victims are often mentally ill and defenseless. And the Drop has a reputation among police for treating cops as adversaries.

The nearby City Gospel Mission on Elm houses 43 homeless men compared to 300 at the Drop - but has a reputation as a clean, safe shelter in great demand among the homeless. It's easy to dump the homeless at the Drop and forget them. Maybe it's time to review how homeless dollars are spent - and where. There's no debate about this: We can do better for the sad souls in purgatory.

E-mail pbronson@enquirer.com or call 768-8301.




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