Profiles of Leonard and Homelessness

Profiles: Leonard Homelessness in Cleveland

By: Holly Lyon

 It is early December in Cleveland. A few snowflakes are falling but the ground is still bare, it is quite cold. I am in great discomfort as I walk the brief distance from my office to my car.  I think about this as I speak to a middle aged man who has been experiencing homelessness for over a year. He tells me his homelessness is “purely economic.”  Although “Leonard” has experienced homelessness before, it has been brief episodes.  He has struggled with addiction in the past but he has been sober for over five years.  He commends himself for remaining sober through the loss of his job, housing and his current state of homelessness.

September 4, 2008 was the last time he received a paycheck.  Prior to this two year period of unemployment, his longest stretch of unemployment was six months.  His current unemployment was the result of a merger between two companies in Florida.  “I’m like everybody else, one of the many that lost their job through no fault of my own.”   He speaks with obvious fondness of his job at a logistics company in Jacksonville.  His face warms and his hands become animated, his head turns towards the window next to us.  He describes his 8x8 office with the view of a river and the stevedores working on ships.  He smiles as he stares out of the restaurant window, and I can tell he is not seeing Superior Avenue, in the grey beginnings of winter.

I ask what his childhood was like. “Leonard” grew up in the Baltimore, Maryland area. His father was a doctor, his mother a minister, and he has one sister.  His mother was originally from Cleveland, but now both parents are deceased. He glances to the corner of the room and shakes his head a little as he tells me how much he misses his parents, even though they passed away years ago.  He has one daughter, 20, whom he speaks of with great warmth; she is a college student at Vassar College in upstate New York. 

What was your fist experience with shelter like, I ask.  “Leonard” said it was “scary,” that level of communal space sharing.  He had never been in the military or in jail, so sleeping in an open room with strangers was an adjustment.

A previous resident of Cleveland, he took classes at both Cleveland State and Kent State.  “Leonard” wanted to study architecture.  He worked several years in Cleveland with the developmentally disabled.  He returned to Cleveland shortly after the loss of his job in Jacksonville, with the hope of getting involved with a friend’s business.  He has not found work since he moved.  He has stayed with both friends and family until a little over six months ago when he entered the shelter system. “Leonard” came to the realization that he has no other place to go right now and that he is thankful he has a place to stay, but at the same times he talks about how hard it is to be homeless.

“Leonard” explains “people think if you’re homeless you’re stupid or an addict, that you did something you should not have done, and that’s why you’re homeless--you deserve it.”  He holds back emotion as he tells me that it is hard to know that prejudice exists, but worse to see homeless people believe that they do deserve to be homeless.

The transitional shelter he lives at houses residents for up to six months.  His six months are almost up and he is hoping for a three month extension.  If that does not happen, he will have to go back to the entry shelter and start the process of finding housing all over again.  On the job front he is optimistic about an upcoming opportunity, but admits his mind is preoccupied with the pending three month extension.  “Leonard” has a great deal of work and life experience to offer and he holds out hope to use these skills with an upcoming opportunity in a green job project.

Copyright Cleveland Street Chronicle and the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless published in December 2010.

Profile of a Woman Struggling with Immigration Issues

Huge Immigration Barriers to Establish Housing Stability

By:  Holly Lyon

On top of struggling with poverty, finding a job, maintaining a shelter, Collen is struggling with bureaucratic nightmare of becoming a U.S. citizen.  Collen lives in a downtown shelter in Cleveland, and has become active with a number of advocacy efforts locally.   I pick her up and as she settles in, I ask her how she has been.  Although she presents a calm demeanor, it is obvious Collen is worried.  She explains that she is trying to obtain a social security number which will enable her to gain citizenship.  Obtaining permission to become a US citizen is her biggest obstacle now, as it is preventing her from securing a job and housing for her family.

I ask how her children are.  She tells me that they are well, but that she has her son in counseling to adjust to their current living situation.  Her son, thirteen, lives in a residential school setting.  Collen also has a daughter in college, she then is homeless when her school is on break.  They have all struggled with friends to maintain housing and keep the family together.

Housing is critical for Collen’s family. Collen is not native to the United States, although she has been in the States for over twenty years, renewing her visa but never becoming a citizen.  Now she is facing the reality of having to return to her native country of Trinidad to apply for American citizenship.  This may result in indefinitely separating her from her children, both of whom were born in the United States.

Although her children are not currently living with her that has not always been the case.  In fact, the majority of her children’s childhood was spent living together as a family with the assistance of public housing.  She talks about the neighborhood where she lived in New York City having a lot of drug traffic, and how it was important to create a safe environment within their apartment and building.  She explains how she took them to the library and organized picnics with other families who lived in the building.

As she talks about her children, I comment to her that she has done a lot to make sure her children are educated and well taken care of.  She tells me in a candid but humble tone, “I could not give them everything they needed.”  She explains that it was many people and organizations in the community that assisted her.

It is not surprising that Collen talks at length about navigating the social service system, as it consumes much of her time.  She commented “you only get half of what you need.”  She explains she wants to get back into housing, but is worried that stimulus funding, called Homeless Prevention and Rapid Rehousing funds, only supplies economic support for a short period of time and that once that assistance ends, the income that she receives will not allow her to sustain a household.

She is worried, Collen explains. She has not worked a steady job for 20 years.  When she first came to the States, she lived in New York City and worked as a messenger.  When she became pregnant with her daughter, her self-sufficiency was compromised.  Her boyfriend and the father of her daughter had a heart attack close to the birth of their child.  Initially she retained her job as a messenger, but left due to her daughter needing to be taken out of daycare. An eviction followed. 

She briefly described living in a home with a family member; the home had no electricity or running water.  Shortly after this experience she entered a shelter.  She comments that “there are people in the United States that live like those in third world countries.”  She speaks with both gratitude and vexations about her experiences with social service providers.  She mentions the disparity in the quality of education, living wage and a social service system that sustains people at a level of poverty and leaves people both the client and the social services provider “totally frustrated”. 

The last thing I ask Collen is what she wants for her future.  She says she wants to work, but she also wants to go to go to college, so she can get a job to support her family.  Lastly, she discusses wanting to stay active in the community, beyond her homelessness.  Although she recognizes, she may have to leave the States, she continues to work towards self sufficiency, an education and citizenship. 

Copyright Cleveland Street Chronicle and the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless published in December 2010.