Cleveland’s first Truth Commission held Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend

by Chuck Hoven

(Plain Press, February 2006) “The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. ….The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty.”
-Martin Luther King, Jr., 1963

Over 175 people came to listen or present testimony on local human rights violations before a committee of Truth Commissioners at Trinity Cathedral on January 14th. Truth Commissioners listened to over two hours of testimony about human rights violations impacting Clevelanders. Testimony revolved around violations of Human Rights spelled out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights passed by the General Assembly of the United Nations on December 10, 1948.

Members of the Northeast Ohio Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign (NEOPPEHRC), a local chapter of the National Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign, held the meeting as a prelude to a National Truth Commission meeting to be held in Cleveland this summer. Local groups sponsoring the effort include: Organize Ohio, the Empowerment Center, the May Dugan Center, United Clevelanders Against Poverty, and the Deaf and Deaf-Blind Committee on Human Rights.

A Northeast Ohio Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign statement explains that “historically, Truth Commissions have been an integral part of positive change in South Africa, Peru, Argentina and Chile as well as other countries with a history of economic violence toward the poor by shedding light on suffering and exploitation of poor people.”  Heather West, Director of the Deaf and Deaf-Blind Committee on Human Rights, a member organization, predicted that Cleveland’s Truth Commission would “expose Cleveland’s third world reality.”

The panel of commissioners listening to testimony included: Diana King, Co-Chair, United Clevelanders Against Poverty; Ray Seal, President, Deaf and Deaf-Blind Committee on Human Rights; Cleo Busby, Chair, Alliance of Cleveland HUD Tenants; Karen Sweeney, Director, God’s Agape Ministries for the Homeless; Cheri Honkila, National Director, Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign; Barbara Anderson, Board Member, East Side Organizing Project; Bishop Roger W. Gries, Diocese of Cleveland; and Rev. Marvin McMickle, Pastor, Antioch Church.

After hearing the testimony, Truth Commission spokesperson Bishop Roger W. Gries said “our job is to push the federal, state, county and city governments and hold them collectively responsible” for the many human rights violations described. He said that he believed that people working in the government bureaucracies were good, but they must be reminded, “they have to match the urgency of need to the urgency of response.”

Bishop Gries noted the testimony of people hurting, mothers separated from their children, seniors losing their homes, students with no jobs after completing their education, and members of the deaf and blind community not being given a chance to move forward. He said that he saw in the testimony that most people were asking that “they be respected.” Bishop Gries urged those present to “help me and every commissioner here to understand what we need to do to help you gain the respect you need in your lives.”

The testimony the Truth Commission heard centered on the right to communication, the right to work, the right to an adequate standard of living for one’s family and the right to an education. What follows is some of the community’s testimony to the Truth Commission.
Right to Communication

The first to testify before the Truth Commissioners were members of the Deaf-Blind Committee on Human Rights. Their testimony concerned how violations of their right to communicate (Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) and other human rights violations interfered with their accessing services, obtaining employment, and receiving a quality education. A woman testified that despite the passage of the American Disabilities Act in 1990, her doctor’s office still refuses to provide a sign language translator, and the welfare office has TTY but nobody knows how to use it. She says people brought in from the office to operate the TTY are not certified or qualified to use it.

A young man, age 15, serving as the chair of the Youth Committee of the Deaf-Blind Committee on Human Rights, said in early elementary school he was mainstreamed and fell behind in school. Later when placed in a School for the Deaf he said he thrived, received great grades and participated in sports. However, the public school system he lived in decided to remove him from the School for the Deaf because of the cost. He said he once again is being mainstreamed. Now, for two years he has been without an interpreter, and is again failing classes. The youth said he “felt a terrible violation to my human rights.”

A Russian immigrant testified that because of his difficulty with understanding English, he had a unique need for sign language interpretation in Russian. Because this need was not fulfilled he was shuffled back and forth between Cleveland and New York City as he attempted to get therapy he needed paid for by Workers’ Compensation Bureau.

A woman shared how airlines violated her rights by separating her guide dog from her and putting the dog in cargo. “The guide dog must be with me at all times so I can be free and independent,” she said.

Other testimony noted that Medicaid doesn’t cover the cost of hearing aids in Ohio, although some states do cover the cost. Several people spoke of the large pay downs required by medical insurance, which left them with very little to live on after paying medical bills.
Right to Family Well-being

Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states 1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including food, clothing, housing, and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control. 2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.

A woman in a domestic violence recovery program testified how her depression and lack of employment led to the loss of her children to county custody. She shared the agony of being separated from her children. Under Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights concerning the right to a family, she petitioned the Truth Commission who is physically sick and mentally ill “we as a society must find a way a mother can still be around her children.”

Another woman testified how chronic fatigue syndrome led to the loss of her well-paying job as a lithographer and led to homelessness. In the shelters and on the streets she said she learned that those with mental illness or the homeless are often treated like criminals. Those voicing complaints at shelters may find themselves being taken to jail in handcuffs, said one woman. She also said that homeless people living in shelters had a difficult time getting a job using the shelter address as home because of a perception that the homeless are not willing to work.

A woman who lost her job cleaning at downtown hotels because of illness and became homeless, said she was scared of shelters and used public restrooms to keep clean. “Being homeless doesn’t make you a bad person, “ she said. She asked that she be given the stability she needed to get a job again. “Please give me a chance,” she implored.

A woman raising 12 grandchildren spoke of the difficulty of replacing clothing, furniture and appliances damaged when her basement flooded. She said the Glenville Neighborhood Family Service Center told her she was not eligible for Prevention, Retention and Contingency (PRC) funds for appliances, beds and clothes for the 12 children because her situation was not an emergency. She said, “I would like to plead with anyone who can help make the PRC policy better to consider my situation and take into account that living in poverty is an emergency, not having beds and clothing for my kids is an emergency, and not having electricity is an emergency.”

A young mother described her catch-22 situation. She said she was forced to work her job with no maternity leave. While the job does not provide enough to pay her rent and other bills, she said she can’t get adequate welfare because of the job.

A senior citizen living in a trailer park in Olmsted Township testified how new owners of the park were raising rents and utility payments beyond affordability for the residents on fixed income. He said manufactured housing was no longer a low cost way to live. In 1999 the trailer park had a waiting list to get in. Now there is a waiting list to get out. Citing rising rent and gas prices, he said, “this is no longer a land of plenty. It is a land of just trying to get by.” He said the trailer park now had a food bank distributing food to residents at the end of the month.

Right to work/fair wage

Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights speaks of the right to work and the right to fair compensation for work.

Several people on disability testified that while they would like to work because the amount of money they receive from social security is not enough to live on, but fear of losing medical benefits keeps them out of the job market. “There is not enough opportunities for disabled people to get a job and have a decent life,” said one person.

A member of the United Church of Christ testified about the need to raise the federal and state minimum wage. The federal minimum wage is $5.15 per hour, while the minimum wage in the State of Oho is $4.25 per hour.  She noted a campaign underway to raise the Ohio minimum wage up to $6.85 per hour.

Activist Don Freeman spoke of Cleveland Trade Unions excluding Cleveland Municipal School District (CMSD) students from being admitted to their apprenticeship programs that lead to high paying union jobs. He said while unions were coming to the public trough to get jobs rebuilding the schools in the CMSD’s taxpayer-funded $1.5 billion school repair and rebuilding program, they were denying students of the same school system the opportunity for apprenticeships in the unions.

Right to Education

A community activist involved with school reform noted that Cleveland’s public schools are in trouble again. She noted that the same issues that parents and community members were concerned about over a decade ago are again here today. She urged community members to get involved to assure these issues are addressed.

Call to action

Organizers of the Truth Commission said those wishing to get involved to help make a difference can help to work toward a successful national truth commission meeting in Cleveland this summer where they hope to gain national media attention to the human rights problems. The Northeast Ohio Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign will hold its next planning meeting on Monday February 6th from 6-7:45 PM at the May Dugan Community Center, 4115 Bridge Avenue. Call Melissa McDaniel or Larry Bresler at 431-6070 for more information.


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