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Silk Makes it Off the Streets and Gives Back at the Homeless Congress

By Sarah Novak 

Robert “Silk” Robinson is a man who truly beat the odds by getting out of the cycle of homelessness. He found himself homeless after losing his manufacturing job. Robinson began staying at 2100 Lakeside Shelter and ended up staying there for over a year and a half. During his stay at 2100, Robinson became very frustrated with the fact that the shelter did not give him any information or help to get him out of the shelter and into a home. Robinson claimed that they only tried to help those who have been in jail or who are drug addicts and there was no help for people who are simply down on their luck. 

He also made the claim that another reason that he did not receive much help is because if you help everyone get out of the shelter then the people who run the shelter would lose their jobs. Also, Robinson felt that the staff was unprepared for the type of people that came into 2100. During his stay at 2100, Robinson began to go to the Homeless Congress meetings at the Bishop William Cosgrove Center. There he came into contact with Jim Schlecht of Care Alliance which is the local health care for the homeless. Even though Schlecht does not work with a specific shelter, according to Robinson, “He is a God send and a good dude.” 

Schlecht was able to find Robinson housing and get him out of his situation. Robinson continues to attend the Homeless Congress meetings where he still advocates for homeless people and gets them in contact with Jim Schlecht. He offers advice to those who are experiencing homelessness, because Robinson believes that the shelters are not giving them information to get out of there situation. Robinson also advocates against many of the actions that the shelters are partaking in. He finds the rule that kicking people out of the shelter for causing disturbance is wrong. They do not give the residents of the shelter a way to work out their situation. They just kick them out. 

Robinson believes the best way to resolve conflict is to sit down and mediate the conflict with a staff member. Many of these conflicts could be resolved if someone took the time to sit down and talk with them. He also has a problem with how the shelters are all politics. As soon as you get out of the shelter, the shelter wants to take credit for getting you out. Robinson said “You didn’t get me out! I got me out! Jim Schlecht got me out.” He believes if you can get rid of the politics of the shelter it would help a lot. 

Also another problem he sees with the how the county is spending all this money on Playhouse Square renovations, but not on improving the lives of homeless people. Robinson claims you could have built three or four shelters with the amount of money you put into that chandelier for Playhouse Square. He believes if they would use this money in a more productive manner it would help homeless people tremendously. 

Robinson did learn two very important life lessons though during his stay at the shelter: compassion and patience. Robinson was never a patient guy growing up. He wanted everything right away. Being in the shelter taught him how to be patient and wait for the things he wanted. Also it taught him compassion towards people struggling with housing. It taught him to view homeless people in a new light. Robert “Silk” Robinson is truly an inspiration by showing us that people need to advocate for themselves as well as advocating for better conditions within the shelters. He always speaks up for what he believes is right, and he shows us that this can change lives.

Copyright Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless Street Chronicle, October 2014 Cleveland, Ohi


Simona’s Homeless Experience

by Simona Lynch

In 2012- 2013, I experienced homelessness in Atlanta, GA. I then relocated back to Cleveland and found myself living with family members and friends. After 6 months of unemployment, I finally found a position as an Adjunct Medical Assistant Instructor. Unfortunately, it was only temporary employment and the assignment ended in December 2013.

In February 2014, I considered moving into a shelter because I could not find work, and I was tired of living with friends and family members. However, my cousin told me there was no need for that. He was moving to Atlanta so we could go to the management office and see what would need to be done to take over the leases. The next day I met him at the apartment’s management office and spoke to the office manager. This property was a CMHA property on the Westside of Cleveland. The manager asked me a series of questions and told me a criminal background check and income verification were required. The managers then contacted me once my application was verified.  Everything went smoothly so my daughter and I moved in sometime in February 2014. Fortunately, this was during income tax return season, and therefore, I was able to buy furniture, household necessitates, and electronics.

I felt relieved that the heavy load had finally been lifted off of me. We now have our own bedrooms and personal space, and we don’t have to rely on others or use public transportation; we don’t have to worry about being locked out of anyone’s house, sleeping in cars, and waiting to bathe. It feels good that we can sleep comfortably in our own beds (with no mat on the floor) and not on someone else’s sofa. Also, I eventually gained employment in May 2014 as a health care worker. I am slowly gaining self –sufficiency and plan on keeping it.

Homelessness is not an experience that anyone wants to experience. I must say it is a dreadful, shameful, scary, uncomfortable and embarrassing feeling. However and on the other hand, I have learned how to humble myself and never take life for granted. I keep my financial account personal (no one can empty my accounts), refuse to date or marry addicts who steal from their family, and stay educated on social issues. My daughter is also aware of homelessness causes and preventions. Finally and most of all, I have learned my strengths, my motivations, and my drives in regaining self-sufficiency. Homelessness can happen to anyone at any time and by any cause.

I want to inform the community that not everyone who experiences homelessness is mentally ill, lives in poverty or has a drug or alcohol addiction. Before I became homeless I was a middle class individual. In both Atlanta and Cleveland I lived in suburban areas. The community must educate themselves about the stigma that is homelessness. Thus, I encourage the community to get involved with the fight to help end homelessness in Northeast Ohio.


Jack Quietly Becomes an Expert on Homelessness

by Christopher Butler

     The temperature on the day when I meet Jack Taylor is 17 degrees with wind chills gusting to single digits depending on where you stand. In the buildings and store porticos, where many people stand huddled together sharing a cigarette and small talk, you can avoid the wind. But on the sidewalks outside the Grapevine offices—as Jack and I make a quick walk to a nearby coffee shop—the wind blows right through you and you imagine the wind chill to be around zero.

     Jack admits that he’s been reluctant to speak with me since I tried to make contact nearly two weeks ago. He doesn’t know why, but he assures me that he gives only straight answers, even if his responses aren’t popular. And quickly he backs up his assertion. He tells me a story about confronting a police officer that had stopped to harass two homeless people sitting on a park bench. “These same guys drive by 15 drug dealers standing on Detroit Avenue and then they stop to pick on a couple homeless people who aren’t bothering anybody. I don’t get it.”

     As we walk along, the wind seeps through my clothes and I cringe until the gust passes. I’m dressed like Jack—a long-sleeve shirt, a sweatshirt and a medium-thick jacket—but he doesn’t appear to mind the cold like I do. In fact, he doesn’t think it’s cold at all when I ask him. Its just part of the life he’s grown accustomed to. When we’re finally inside, he says he’s been outside in much colder weather, like the time when he and three other homeless friends built a camp in the woods near West 14th and the highway. Out there, having built shelter with stray wood and boxes, they survived nights with sub-zero temperatures and wind chills falling to depths that sound unreal, except for knowing that they did occur when you read about it in the newspaper, most likely while you were cozily nestled in a firm, reliable structure of your own.

     We sit down and Jack moves his chair back away from the table far enough to stretch out his left leg. He rubs his knee thoughtfully as we start to talk. Many of Jack’s troubles (although he’d never call them that) could be traced back to his left leg.

     Twenty-five years ago, Jack smashed the lower part of his left leg in a car accident—he was driving—when he hit a phone pole near the intersection of West 130th and State Route 82 in North Royalton. He crushed the ankle, 13 breaks and fractures that rendered the joint nearly unreadable through x-rays. When Jack visited a doctor three years ago, the doctor was incredulous. “How in the world do you walk on that thing?” he asked. Now 40 years old, the leg suffers from osteoporosis (due to inadequate diet) and arthritis, and the pain in the ankle has moved up Jack’s leg to his lower back. He says its just part of the life he’s grown accustomed to. Next month, Jack’s having a third operation on the ankle, a total fusion that will prevent any kind of flex in the joint.

     The life that Jack’s “grown accustomed to” has taken him to some unique locales, spending part of his youth on Catalina Island off the coast of Los Angeles where his father operated the island’s only radio station, KBIG. In those days, residence on the island was exclusive and his family had neighbors such as the Wrigleys (of chewing gum fame) and the Lamases (Fernando and son Lorenzo). The island was tight-knit, and Jack remembers it fondly. Cruise ships would often stop for day tours and the passengers threw coins off the bow and watched as the children dived into the cool water looking for spending money. “We would come home with cans full of coins,” Jack explains.

     Through the years, living in Arizona and Ohio, he married and had three children (but is now divorced). Jack stayed busy and employed, brandishing skills in concrete, sewer construction, truck driving and heavy equipment operation. The money was good and he loved the hard work, but all the trappings of domestic life were difficult—the emphasis on things and the accumulation of more and more things—it was stressful, too stressful. So eight years ago he left home without notice.

     He went to a place beneath a bridge near Train Avenue where other homeless folk had built a small community, pooling resources to make ends meet. When Jack saw police, they would tell him there was a missing person’s report filed in his name. Jack ignored them. He was embarrassed about his situation and yet did know how to fix it. Or know if he wanted to fix it. He stayed near Train Avenue for nearly two years until an assault in a nearby neighborhood enraged residents there. They blamed homeless people and police flushed the area, pushing Jack and his friends out into the cold again.

     That’s when Jack and his friends formed a camp near West 14th and the interstate. In this area they were far away from homes. Jack made ends meet by walking the neighborhood looking for work, shoveling snow, raking leaves, all while standing on a deteriorating ankle. After five years, a neighbor started harassing Jack and his friends. He was trying to sell his house and claimed their camp was hurting his real estate value. “You couldn’t even see us from his house. No one would even know we were there,” Jack explained. The neighbor took matters into his own hands, throwing Molotov cocktails at their shelter and making false complaints to police. After a while, Jack and his friends gave up and moved away again.

     As the conversation moves along, I keep asking Jack about times and dates and he has trouble remembering. To me it’s confusing but to Jack it’s another symptom of homelessness—the lack of structure and calendar to guide your activity. “You lose all concept of time when you’re on the streets because you don’t have any days to look forward to. You don’t pay this bill on this day. Just another day goes by.”

     Jack values the services provided by agencies in Cleveland, but he thinks some of the work is misdirected or too often beset by poor supervision. He says affordable housing would be the best cure for homelessness, but any attempt to do this should also have adequate services nearby to insure that people get the treatment they need, whether its substance abuse or mental training. While Jack appreciates these agencies, he also carries a healthy sense of skepticism of the how these groups are run. “If we’re paying some guy 75-thousand to run a non-profit... well, that sounds like a lot of profit to me. I don’t think that’s right.” And it’s not just on the home front that we misuse money, according to Jack. “We spend a billion dollars to drop peanut butter half way around the world and we can’t even provide someone here with money for a bus ticket.” It’s tough to argue with Jack.

     Today, Jack has a small apartment which he funds through odd jobs and subsidy checks. He sells the Grapevine, but typically gives his profits to other vendors. Jack says he doesn’t need to money but he likes to be out there with his friends. He takes pride in being someone who can be relied on for help. He likes the fellowship it brings. He says Grapevine is a helpful project, but the way the vendors are treated makes him angry. Jack says you can tell when someone in the street doesn’t even regard you as a normal person. “You can just tell. They think were all drug addicts or lazy. The worst is when they act like they don’t even see you.” As upsetting as it might be, it doesn’t deter Jack. As we part ways, he goes in search of his friend Tony who’s getting ready to hit the streets with a stack of Grapevines in hand.

Copyright The Homeless Grapevine Issue 59, February-March 2003, Cleveland, Ohio


Cathy the Vendor Helped by Grapevine

Not Cathy because she wants to remain anonymous. Photo by Karen St. John Vincentby Tim Schwab

     Cathy Brown meets me in the Grapevine office. She’s dressed well in business casual with bright tawny hair and sufficient makeup, all of which give her a professional demeanor. Later I find out that her entire outfit is from the thrift store.

     Before the questions had started, Cathy had already begun telling her life story. She was chatting with another Grapevine vendor about their experiences living on the street, and the circumstances which pushed each of them to homelessness at an early age.

     As I talk with Cathy I’m impressed with her openness, and with her self-honesty. She speaks candidly about the mistakes she’s made in life—leaving her parents’ home at too early of an age and getting involved in difficult romantic relationships.

    But Cathy draws on her experiences on the streets to make suggestions about solving the problem of homelessness. Cathy believes that certain social experiences as a youth have contributed to her becoming homelessness. For this reason, she emphasizes preventative measures, such as counseling for junior high and high school students, teaching them the reality of living on the streets, and the reality of trying to make it on your own. "Kids given community service to do shouldn’t be picking up trash on the side of the road. They should be learning about homelessness and AIDS," Cathy said.

     Growing up in a small town outside of Seattle, Cathy first became homeless after she left home at 18 and lost the job she had. Unaccustomed to the bright lights of Seattle, Cathy made mistakes living on the streets. She’s experienced the benefits of communal living in the Seattle homeless camps in the 1980’s, but also has dealt with the seedier, more harrowing living situations that homelessness can force on you. She talks about the difficulties of being a woman on the street: "It’s harder for a woman. A woman has more needs…It’s not like being a man. He can lay his head down anywhere. A woman’s got to be more careful."

     Cathy’s been in and out of homeless shelters and camps throughout her adult life. Just three years ago she was staying in a shelter in Columbus. The last five months, however, Cathy has found some respite from life on the streets. She’s found an apartment in Cleveland and a steady, supplemental income to her disability check by selling the Grapevine.

     Cathy tells me she takes her job selling the Grapevine seriously. Four times a week she sells the paper, always attired in her blue-jeans and her Grapevine t-shirt. "It’s like a uniform for me, it’s what I always work in."

     Judging the homeless as being lazy or inferior is a frequent, fallacious perception among non-homelesss people, according to Cathy, and she hopes the Grapevine will help change the public’s beliefs on this matter.

     Cathy warns people who have never been homeless to try to understand the complexity of homelessness. "Don’t judge people out there on the streets. You don’t know why they’re homeless. It could be your brother, mother, sister, or aunt."

     Cathy enumerates the reasons why people are on the streets. Problems with drugs, alcohol, mental illness are very common causes that she’s seen. She herself has battled with alcohol problems and with depression. Another contributing factor to homelessness is budgeting an income. According to Cathy, "Everybody’s trying to keep up with the Jones’, and the Jones’ are in debt."

     Although no longer homeless, Cathy keeps in the touch with the homeless through her work with the Grapevine and her friends at the West Side Catholic Center. When asked about the resources available to the homeless here in Cleveland, she speaks highly of the Cleveland Street Card, a card available to homeless people and published by the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, which lists free health and social services for the lowest income members of Cleveland.

     There are drawbacks in accessing the resources, however, because the locations of clinics and shelters are so spread out. "If you don’t have money for rent or food, how are you going to afford $1.25 for the bus every time you need to go somewhere?"

     Cathy would like to see a single resource center for homeless people, which would provide all services and a shelter in the same building. Another of her recommendations is to have a separate shelter for the working homeless. Many shelters enforce early evening curfews, which prevent many homeless people from employment that requires working nights.

     Today, Cathy rents out an apartment, which she shares with her cats. The Public Housing Authority previously turned down Cathy because of her pets. According to Cathy, resources for the homeless are unsympathetic to folks with pets. Cathy believes that pets provide people with important social benefits and security. She’d like to see medicare available to homeless people and their pets.

     Cathy’s final suggestions on helping homelessness are preventative. She believes in helping families and children with food resources and counseling before they become homeless. Provided with good models and adequate homes, Cathy believes, young people today can break the cycle of homelessness and succeed in life.

Copyright NEOCH published in March 2002 Issue 53


Rich, the Veteran, Tries to Turn His Life Around

by San Seviera Marshall

     Many of us believe the homeless epidemic that plagues the nation is spearheaded by the homeless themselves. Individuals who are believed to be derelicts of society, with little to no work ethic, who have contributed very little to society at large. In short, they are considered opportunists looking for a hand out. But as Rich would say the Homeless Grapevine vendors "aren’t looking for a hand out they are looking for a hand up." This is the very premise that this country was built upon.

     Rich is a 46-year old Polish immigrant who came to the United States in 1964 at the age of 8. And virtually since his arrival to this country he has demonstrated high self-motivation, a very good work ethic and contributed to society at various stages of his life prior to becoming homeless and even during the past 20 months that he has been homeless.

     Rich began life here in the U.S. in Chicago, IL and as the oldest boy and the second oldest of 10 children he felt compelled to be a role model for his siblings and to help alleviate the financial pressures his parents were under. As such, Rich was an honor roll student and a child athlete who excelled in football and baseball, all while maintaining a part time job after school and on the weekends. Rich gave most of the money he earned to his parents to contribute to the household and help his family financially.

     When Rich advanced to high school he added the ROTC to his already busy schedule and managed to maintain his honor roll status and continued to excel at sports. Rich believes that the discipline and focus he learned in ROTC prepared him for his tour of duty in the Airforce. When Rich was drafted, as an alien with permanent green card status, he was glad to serve his "country." Rich used his time in the military wisely, earning an associate’s degree in child psychology and a bachelor’s degree in business.

     When his tour of duty was up, Rich found himself in Texas and decided to make Houston his home, where he put his business degree to work and established a very successful floor laying business for single family homes. Rich is a very savvy businessman, he very eloquently explained how he subcontracted his workers and leased his equipment, and was able to generate a gross profit of $80K, and bought a home for approximately $65,000, all at he age of 24. The structure of his business also enabled him to unwind his operation rather quickly when the ‘80s Oil Crisis hit Texas and the housing market dried up.

     When this happened, Rich went back to Chicago for several years to regroup. After several different managerial and sales jobs, Rich landed a position as a retail manager for new and used Lexus vehicles. It was here that he was approached with a business opportunity that he couldn’t pass up. Rich became an independent franchisee selling upscale men’s clothing. For all practical purposes, Rich became a traveling salesman on the road for months at a time selling imported Italian suits, silk ties and dress shirts to lawyers, car salesmen, insurance agents and time share reps in states east of the Mississippi. Again, Rich became very successful at this business and netted over $100K annually. Rich ran this business from ’92 up until the time he became homeless in June of 2000.

     Rich became very ill and was admitted to a local hospital here in Cleveland, where he had been living at the time, on June 15, 2000 for about 10 days. Despite having paid his rent through the end of June, Rich returned to his apartment only to find that his landlord had discarded his belongings and leased his apartment to someone else. And like most Americans who live outside of their means and are one paycheck away from being homeless (keeping up with the Jones’); with no income for the second half of June, Rich found himself homeless inside of 30 days.

     Being homeless to Rich has been both a curse and a blessing. The loss of his material possessions and social status coupled with the hardship of trying to make it on his own living on the streets has been a very humbling experience. Rich has slept in almost every local shelter at one time or another, lived in various camps in the forest and has been robbed and/or beaten at least six times since he became homeless. We often times take for granted having food and shelter, but being able to get a hot meal, a shower and a place to sleep are always at the forefront of Rich’s mind. As a Grapevine vendor in Ohio City, Rich has come face to face with the true character of a man and often times it has been unpleasant. Most people understand that "you can’t judge people on your [own] circumstance, because [most] people aren’t homeless by their own choice but by life circumstances."

     Despite the negative people Rich has encountered and the bad experiences, Rich has been blessed to feel the loving and supportive side of mankind through the people at the Grapevine and the philanthropy of the local shop owners in Ohio City (like Talkies and the Great Brewery). The local shop owners are very kind to Rich, sometimes offering him food and coffee and allowing him to come into their establishments to sit down and watch TV, even if he doesn’t buy anything. Rich is very pleased that through very engaging conversations, these individuals have taken time to really get to know him as a person and not just the homeless guy on the corner selling newspapers. Rich recounted a very special moment last June 1st on his birthday when he had fallen asleep near a shop entrance and awoke to find a warm Whopper sitting in his lap with a $5 bill inside. He treasures this memory, because it is moments like that one that renews his faith in the goodness of human kind.

     Prior to becoming homeless, Rich was on top of the world. He thought he was "invincible" and immune to such hardship, disappointment and failure. Although Rich is not embarrassed by his situation, he is very disappointed in himself and feels like he failed himself. As a Roman Catholic, Rich believes that his homelessness is a test from God, a test of his faith, his strength, his resolve and his resilience. Rich believes that everyone at some point in their lives should experience homelessness for a few months for their own personal growth. Rich has experienced minor set backs prior to be becoming homeless, but has always managed to regroup and use his intellect and his instinct to redirect his efforts and become successful at a new project in a very short period of time.

     Being a Grapevine vendor allows Rich to do what he does best and what comes natural to him, be an entrepreneur and interact with people. Selling the Grapevine is a stepping-stone for Rich to re-establish himself and rebuild his men’s clothing business which he hopes to have reopened by the summer. I don’t doubt for one second that this very intelligent, insightful, articulate, hardworking man will again one day soon, pursue the American Dream, reopen his business and prosper and prosper and flourish once again. If Rich has learned nothing else from this experience, he now knows that life can change in an instant. Rich’s life has been forever changed.

Copyright NEOCH published in May 2002 in Cleveland Ohio Issue 54