Emoh: Backward Home Numbers
By now, thanks to USA today and multiple other news outlets, tens of thousands of people across the country have read that Loren Naji’s “Emoh” is named for the word “home” spelled backwards. And they know Naji’s intent by living for a few weeks in his eight-foot sphere–cobbled together with debris collected from abandoned homes in Cleveland and Detroit– is to call attention to our “backward system” of a housing policy. As I write this, the national newspaper’s attention has Emoh ranked in the top 20 in the popular vote for Grand Rapids $200,000 Art Prize. The live-in sculpture looks like a giant, spherical patchwork quilt.
As USA Today quoted Naji, “I’m sort of making a statement about our backwards system of having all these boarded-up houses in the cities and homeless people sleeping in the streets. It makes no sense to me.”
It’s worth putting some flesh on those ideas. It’s one thing to be aware that we have people living on the streets, and at the same time a landscape littered with vacant, even abandoned properties. And it does seem backward.
It’s another thing to actually know the numbers and see them in human terms. At the peak of the housing crisis, Cleveland had an estimated 15,000 vacant / abandoned houses. That’s a lot of houses, a lot of vanished equity, a lot of lost tax base. A lot of that was in Slavic Village, where Naji participated in Rooms To Let, the weekend art installation event that aims to find a positive use for the neighborhood’s abandoned homes. At the same time, the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless was estimating that about 4,000 people were living on the streets.
If you put those two numbers together, you can see that you could have outright given every homeless person a house in Cleveland, and still had about 11,000 vacant houses left over.
Cleveland and the nation are paying attention to the superfluity of vacancy, with grant money annually dedicated to tearing down abandoned homes that have become a nuisance. And perhaps they have made some progress, at least on the housing supply side. For numbers, Richey Piiparinen (Senior Research Associate at the Center for Population Dynamics at Cleveland State University) steered me to a Thriving Communities study from 2015 that found 12,179 vacant units in the city. That’s a few thousand less vacant homes, even though population has continued to decline, while Cleveland is in the midst of a residential construction boom.
But the other side of the equation is not looking up. Brian Davis, of the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the homeless says that on any given day in 2016, there are about 4,800 people homeless on the streets of Cleveland. That number has gone up in the last few years, in part because the city has lost 440 of its shelter beds. He says all the shelters are overflowing every night.
He adds, in fact, that if the city truly were interested in dealing with homelessness, Cleveland also has 27,000 vacant lots, which could shelter homeless people if they were used as tent cities.
This is the United States of America we are talking about, here. This is the scope of the backwardness Naji means to highlight with Emoh.
Davis is working to rally attention for the homeless cause in Cleveland. With a dinner targeted at community, business, and religious leaders, he’s hoping to launch an effort that will generate ideas and raise money to do something serious about the problem. It’s October 19 at the Breen Center at St Ignatius High School. If you want to get involved or support the effort, go here to RSVP and get information.
In the mean time, go to Grand Rapids and vote for Emoh. Because drawing attention to this failure of so-called market forces is a really good idea.