Cleveland City Council devotes up to 30 minutes at its Monday night meetings to hear directly from residents. Some residents come to give public comments about issues that directly affect them and their communities, while others come as part of an organization or for their job. In Beyond the Comment, we catch up with some of the people who stepped up to the microphone.
Loh – who goes by 小陸 or “just ‘Loh’ – imagine Madonna, Prince, Cher” – is a familiar face at public meetings. Loh spoke to Cleveland City Council on Dec. 5, 2022 about participatory budgeting, an idea Council disputed. The issue has since been renamed as The People’s Budget Cleveland, and Loh continues to advocate for the measure.
Becoming homeless motivated Loh to begin learning and speaking about the political system. Loh recently sat down with Signal Cleveland to talk about the activist’s work. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
You told council members, “We were a top 10 city, one of the top 10 cities back in the ’70s….Look at where we are now. … We have to race with the time, patch everything together, fill up the gap, get rid of that mistrust.”
What specifically do you think council members should be doing about that?
In Cleveland at this moment, there is a divide. You can tell the newer council members – they are more willing to open up their mind, their door to accept new ideas. But the existing members – yes, they have learned lots of things, so they know they have to be careful because not all new ideas will work. I believe that when they first got elected, they also tried something new. However, we cannot let this situation stop us.
The longtime distrust, mistrust between people in the community and the people getting the elected positions, this is really a bad thing to have. But the problem is [people] do not see that sometimes in order to get things done. [Politicians] compromise certain things in order to trade for other things, which is the politics ordinary residents cannot understand. So this particular thing called participatory budgeting or people’s budget is actually to ease up the tension to let people understand. We use indirect representative democracy. But we can still apply certain good principles of direct democracy to make democracy a real thing for people.
Currently lots of council members think, ‘We are already elected officials, we represent the voices of the people.’ But you forgot one thing. In your ward, you have different groups of people. The people you listen to most are the ones who have the means to come to you. But how about the people who do not have means to contact you constantly, to keep you updated?
Your job or your life duties, how would you describe that?
It’s not exactly a job people have in mind, but it’s something I believe I should be doing… Being homeless is more than a full-time job… And you get blamed for everybody else’s faults in addition to your own. Systematic problems, structural issues, that’s what I mean by everybody else’s fault. Homeless people and extreme low-income people have nowhere to decide anything for ourselves on our own. Everybody else says things like, ‘You should do this, you should do that, you make mistakes, you don’t know any better.’ Is that really true? If that’s really true, then you will not see somebody like me in a City Council meeting.
Our homeless shelter system is horrible. But unfortunately, even when I got in there, I still had to wait till something really bad happened to me to make that legitimate, that it’s a time for me to actually do something about it. Not just for myself, actually. Because before whatever bad really happened to me, I would be a witness. The bad things happen to other people — wrongly, completely, wrongly. So that was the turning point that I realized, OK, now you give me the excuse for me to be lazy. I can start going to do things, to start checking out every good point, every bad point, to start making decisions on my own, to deal with all the things wrongly impacting the homeless, the extremely low-income.
You’re currently doing a lot of traveling with activist groups, taking regular bus trips to the Statehouse in Columbus to protest various pieces of legislation.
Yep. That’s why I have been busy also, this year particularly is the time again for the state to work on the state budget. So I’ve been busy going back and forth between Cleveland and Columbus since March with [Northern Ohioans for Budget Legislation Equality]. I have no reason to do that myself. We go to protest the joint resolution. We have gone down there to testify, protest, you know, we do whatever because the state version of the budget is ridiculous.
Do you feel that giving public comment at Cleveland City Council meetings is helpful? Do you feel heard by City Council?
Lots of times we hear the term called public hearing. It’s not called public listening, so that doesn’t mean they will listen to us. So the remedy will be you have to be like a homeless person like me, [using] all your time to put yourself in front of them again and again to let them know you do exist. You do matter. They should not ignore you.