By Anna Limontas-Salisbury
When big events come to town, a city needs to clean house, make everything shine. Think Bejing in 2008, as it prepared to host the Olympics. Think Rio De Janiero right now. With the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, I worried about the people who might be displaced from their spot on a corner or their seat at a fast-food joint, their quiet time interrupted in the park by conventiongoers seeking “selfies” and protesters seeking justice.
What happens to the people who have nowhere to go?
Well, if you live Cleveland, you can go to St. Paul’s Community Church on Franklin Avenue. The church is providing food and shelter to Cleveland’s homeless and out-of-towner here to protest. But it is finding its resources stretched.
Franklin Avenue is a street of multifamily dwellings, some of them uninhabited, with large trees in the yards and ivy so thick you can barely see the doors. The sanctuary of St. Paul’s Community Church is on this street, and it has been particularly full of life this week, with a colorful array of dome tents clustered on the grass and rows of tables, including one set up for buffet, from which, on Tuesday, July 19, a young man in a worn T-shirt was dishing up plates of chilli and rice.
People ate, sat, and lay; they talked and played cards. The folks on the grass were mostly young and white; those at the tables, eating, were of various ages and hues. I walked over to a black gentleman, Ty, sitting with a black woman with a welcoming, although sealed, lips smile who declined to give her name.
“About 20 years ago, a lot of homeless people in this area had no voice,” said Ty. “I got a break by coming to this church. The people here helped me come to grips”—with what, he did not say.
“Most churches wouldn’t let this happen,” he said, gesturing around the yard, referring to the church’s hosting of activists this week, who would be sleeping in tents this week, having arrived from out of town to take part in the demonstrations. A man was gathering dishes from the buffet table and two women were cleaning bowls, cups, and silverware. Beyond that was a cluster of metal shelves filled with bags and books. There was a swing set in the yard, a bit worn, but useful to the man swinging gently.
A few years ago, said Ty, the city came down hard on homeless people. He said it was tough because homeless people needed something to do and somewhere to go while the shelters were closed.
“Ya’ll want to hide us,” he said, of city agencies set up to help.
St. Paul’s stepped in to help. The fifty-year old church serves low income, poor, and unsheltered people, including many of Cleveland’s estimated 20,000 homeless. In 2014-2015, 2,498 people relied on St. Paul’s outreach services, which includes 40 beds a night in the gym set up to handle overflow from city shelters.
“Because we see it as important to protest against some of the things with the Republican Convention,” said Reverend Doug Horner, the church extended its daily outreach program, which offers coffee and snacks, from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m., to 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. for the RNC. “But,” clarified church board member Tim Walters, “we also wanted to maintain a degree of normalcy for many of the people who just don’t have any other resources. It’s not a political site, it’s not a rally site. It’s a sanctuary, especially during this week.”
St. Paul’s other outreach efforts include a food pantry, a thrift store, and basic medical services, such as foot examinations, done by a parish nurse. The church offers skilled tutors for GED candidates, computer classes, and job assistance programs. In addition, they disburse emergency funds for rent deposits, utility bills and prescriptions. Horner also provides counseling.
Before the surge in people using their services this week, the church has been handling an uptick in hungry and homeless Clevelanders. “In the last six months, ” Horner says, “we’ve seen a 25 percent increase in the needs of our people,” said Horner. “More people are stretched.” “It’s not a bad place to be homeless,” Horner says of Cleveland. “But the need is overwhelming.
So this week, “everything across the board is just ramped up, because of the tension, anxiety, and stress” that the RNC places on both locals and out-of-towners. Other city agencies worked with St. Paul’s to provide additional services for the RNC, including United Clevelanders Against Poverty, American Friends Service Committee, Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless and Cleveland Peace Action.
It can be hard for low-income people, who organize and work together at St. Paul’s, to keep their community’s voices heard, much less protest at organized demonstrations at the RNC. “They want to raise their voices, but they have to worry about whether their lights are getting turned off, ” Horner explained. “And we get tired of saying the same thing over and over again for 25 years. Who the hell is listening anyway?”
Anna Limontas-Salisbury is a Belt RNC Fellow and a freelance journalist currently “scratching and surviving,” in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. She began her media career as an intern with WBAI Pacifica Radio’s “Under The Learning Tree,” with host and producer Kamau Khalfoni, and with Women’s eNews McCormick New Writers Program. She has also apprenticed with Bric Arts Media (formerly Brooklyn Independent Television), where she learned to produce segments for local television. She’s a proud graduate of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, class of 2008, and a contributing writer to Women’s eNews, where she writes about women and poverty.