Tuesday, February 24, 2009

OTRF head calls social service deconcentration 'a critical first step'

In a letter to Cincinnati City Councilmember Roxanne Qualls, Over-the-Rhine Foundation executive director Michael Morgan calls the deconcentration of social services "a critical first step" to move forward to a better, healthier city.

Morgan has volunteered his time and legal education during months of zoning text amendment meetings to help fix what he calls "a broken social service system".

The 24-member Social Service Committee, formed to make zoning text recommendations following a council resolution last June, was largely composed of employees of social service agencies, who sought input from non-committee agencies and toured many of the local facilities.

"Much of the conversation was productive," Morgan says. "The process only became frustrating when ideologies were treated as unquestionable absolutes."

According to Morgan, these "absolutes" included:

  • Social service agencies are good for property values and businesses.
  • There is no concentration of social services in Over-the-Rhine.
  • People are being served where they are located.
  • Concentration of services is good because it is convenient for the homeless.
  • Any concern about business traffic or home values is selfishness and unimportant.
  • That social service facilities should be permitted to locate in any zoning district in the City because their work is more important than any other land use.
Morgan says that these perspectives provide context when weighing the importance of public outcry over possible zoning changes.

"The proposed changes are not 'biased against social service agencies' as has been asserted," he says. "In fact, these agencies were very instrumental in the process of drafting them. The 'outcry' responds to creating sound policy where anarchy and unquestionable ideology have established comfort."

Which came first: The services or the served?

The vast majority of speakers at the February 10 meeting were employees of social service agencies, and many feared that their agencies would be unable to expand in their current locations.

To Morgan, this is one of the strengths of the proposed zoning changes.

"Over-the-Rhine is not 'where the poor people are', it is where we have decided to place them and quarantine them," he says.

Over the course of a year, over 7,000 unduplicated homeless people make their way through the neighborhood's agencies.

"This means that roughly 77 percent of the city's homeless population is being funneled into one neighborhood that only constitutes 1.2 percent of the city's population," Morgan says.

Because of this, social service agencies have become concentrated in Over-the-Rhine and, in some cases, duplicated.

"There is one social worker employed in Over-the-Rhine for every 1.5 resident(s)," Morgan says. "The Freestore Foodbank frequently says that 'most' of its clients are from Over-the-Rhine, but it serves roughly 45,000 people from its Liberty Street location, meaning that if every single man, woman, and child living in OTR sought free foor from this one agency, it would still constitute only about 11 percent of their clientele. Just one of the VOA's multiple OTR properties houses 70 percent of the State of Ohio's recently releases sex offenders."

On classism

Morgan contends that the City's "broken system" for social service delivery lumps all poor people together.

"The single mother living on a housing voucher cannot take her child to play in Washington Park because it is overrun by people who are actively intoxicated," he says. "The man trying to overcome addiction and seek a stable life is housed next to practicing addicts in a neighborhood with one of the highest unemployment rates in the city."

And he rejects the assertion that defining social services by type and imposing location policies is classist.

"The suburbanite who rides his Harley Davidson into the West End to 'feed the poor' is practicing classism," Morgan says. "The person who travels to 'the slum' to 'help the wretched' and feels that it would be judgemental to distinguish between the individual who is struggling with a low-wage job and the individual who has four felony convictions and no desire to seek employment is practicing classism."

To him, those who perpetuate a system of "de facto quarantine of poverty and social problems" are the biggest, most counterproductive classists of all.

Instead of hiding poverty, deconcentration would actually serve to address and reduce it.

"People in Kennedy Heights, College Hill, and Mt. Washington lose their jobs," Morgan says. "And Bond Hill, Roselawn, and Avondale are full of working poor who could benefit from job training and employment assistance."

Reform will take courage

"Refusing to hide our social problems and displaying them for exploitative reasons are different, but one sometimes masquerades the other," Morgan says. "For these reasons, reforming a broken system will take courage."

If this is to be done, Morgan says that the time is now.

"A bad economy is not a justification for expanding bad policy," he says. "The probability of a lengthy recession is why we can no longer wait to fix our social service system, and why we need to start taking economic development much more seriously."

A report is due before city council by March 18.

A lawsuit, filed against the City by the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless and 13 other social service agencies over last June's deconcentration resolution, is pending.

Previous reading on BC:
Cincinnati resolves to deconcentrate social services (6/30/08)
Bortz resolves to de-concentrate social services (4/16/08)
CityLink legislation could lead to zoning changes (1/28/08)
Burke defends CityLink (12/27/07)