Helping the city’s homeless population, in good weather and bad

Amanda McKinstry walks the streets of downtown Cleveland every workday, no matter the weather, helping the homeless by passing out blankets and sandwiches and connecting them to services ranging from food and shelter to health care.

Amanda McKinstry of Downtown Cleveland Alliance’s Clean and Safe program.

Amanda McKinstry of Downtown Cleveland Alliance’s Clean and Safe program.

Amanda McKinstry walks the streets of downtown Cleveland every workday, no matter the weather, helping the homeless by passing out blankets and sandwiches and connecting them to services ranging from food and shelter to health care.

“I’m kind of used to it,” said the outreach specialist with Downtown Cleveland Alliance’s Clean and Safe program. “I’m an outside person, so it doesn’t really bother me. There are times when it can be tough, especially if it’s raining really hard. You just have to prepare for the weather, I guess.”

While walking her regular route by Tower City and along East 4th Street, she said, “I try to hit the most vulnerable first. The ones that are out and don’t want housing. Our first priority is making sure basic needs are being met.”

McKinstry’s experiences have made her empathize with the homeless population and see them as people. “I take the time to learn their names. On a professional level, I try to make them laugh so you can break the ice and they don’t have to feel so nervous around you that they can’t talk to you about anything. I’ll try to still be professional, but I try to have a sense of humor so they know I’m not uptight. It’s definitely not easy.”

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit Ohio, many homeless shelters had to cut their capacity in half to ensure room for social distancing. Additionally, many services and day drop-in centers closed, including the Bishop William M. Cosgrove Center at E. 17th and Superior, which previously offered hot meals and showers for the hungry and homeless. As a result, although downtown emptied out of workers, people experiencing homelessness were more visible than ever.

For the past six months, McKinstry has helped to connect them to services while also resolving conflicts with business owners. “I try the best I can,” she said of the reduced services available. “If they know their case worker’s name and phone number, I’ll try to contact them personally using my phone. I encourage them and tell them, ‘It’s OK, we’ll get through this, your case worker will come out and check on you.’ So, they’re not feeling like they’re not being listened to.”

Chris Knestrick, executive director of the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless (NEOCH), said that while the homeless are always vulnerable, the spring shutdown hit them hard. “It deeply impacted people experiencing homelessness because they had nowhere to go,” he said. “A lot of people were forced to be in public more often, and for a lot of our folks, being in public can be dangerous because you have more interactions and less control over your environment. People call the police more.”

For the past six months, homeless advocates and service providers have worked with Cuyahoga County’s Office of Homeless Services and other partners to convert hotels into temporary housing. Recently, the Ohio City Hostel was converted into additional winter housing for people experiencing homelessness. As a result, the number of unsheltered people downtown has actually gone down this winter, but it’s still a challenge.

In the wake of the spring shutdown, McKinstry said her office received more complaints from business owners about panhandling because it was more visible. She explained that reasoning with business owners can sometimes be a challenge. “It gets frustrating when they are calling homeless people bums, or acting like they’re not human, and just want them out from in front of their business. I have to try to explain to them it’s not illegal to be sleeping on the sidewalk.”

McKinstry said that she also received more complaints about homeless people trespassing on private property, but instead of calling the police, she tried to cajole them to move on. “Sometimes all they want is a cup of coffee,” she said.

Educating business owners can help to deescalate a situation and improve relationships. “I think when people get educated, they have a better understanding, and some will have more empathy for helping individuals,” she said. “It doesn’t happen overnight, but eventually we’ll get there.”

Although Knestrick said that NEOCH has in the past disagreed with DCA’s approach to panhandling – “Why are we asking people not to do something that they have every right to do? People have the right to ask other people for help,” he said – the organization’s outreach and education efforts are helpful. He stressed that NEOCH and other agencies also have outreach workers, and that the groups try to work together.

There have been issues with aggressive panhandling, McKinstry said, and part of her job is assessing whether or not these people are experiencing homelessness and need help. “Some folks have housing, but they’ve gotten used to panhandling because that’s their lifestyle,” she said. “So, we assess if they’re truly homeless or if they’ve come downtown to panhandle.”

McKinstry graduated from Cleveland State University in 2019 with a bachelor’s degree in social work, but she was originally a sports management major. “Something clicked that I was in the wrong field,” she said. “I switched to social work and haven’t been happier since.” She has worked for DCA for the past four years, and was originally hired as an ambassador with the Clean and Safe program.

With the year coming to an end and eviction moratoriums expiring, McKinstry worries homeless rates will increase. “I’m afraid a lot of people will get evicted when this is all over,” she said. “I want to be wrong about this, but I’m worried the homeless rate will go up. People get will so far behind, they won’t be able to get caught up and will get evicted. I’m hoping there’s a relief program, so people don’t end up homeless.”  

Since becoming an outreach worker, McKinstry said the relationships she has developed have not only made it easier to gain trust and help people experiencing homelessness, but have also been personally enriching. “At the end of the day, even if I’m just giving them food, a lot of them are thanking me. I’m the only person that shows them I care. That makes me feel good.”

Downtown Cleveland Alliance is an underwriter of The Land, helping to support stories like this one about Cleveland’s downtown neighborhood.

Interested in helping or learning more? Visit NEOCH’s website here.

Asha Fairley is a junior at Cleveland State University majoring in English and an intern with The Land. Lee Chilcote is editor of The Land.

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