Crisis for a Homeless Family in Cleveland

By Denise Toth

 Recently I met a couple, “the Jones” family with three children who had just gone through a devastating crisis after they had a terrible crime committed against them that left them suddenly homeless.  It all began when they decided to rent and move into a nicer house for their 3 children.  They had $1,600 to move with.  They had looked at houses and finally viewed one they liked and were ready to pay the first month’s rent and deposit.  They met with the landlord at the house and paid him $1,600 in cash and received the keys to their new place.  They were so excited because it was big enough for their growing family and it was in a neighborhood of choice.  The next day as they were moving the appliances, the father noticed someone sitting in a vehicle on the street watching them unload and move in the appliances.  A little while later as they were attempting to leave and go get another load, the person watching from the road pulled in the drive and blocked the family from leaving. 

A heated conversation ensued.  The man sitting in the driveway watching was the real owner of the house and not the person they had just paid the $1,600 in cash to.  The owner wanted to know what the man was doing moving into his house and how did he get a key?  The new tenant and his wife were completely baffled as they had just paid to move in and were given a key.  In the end, nobody knew who the person was who claimed to be the owner and took the $1,600 from the couple.  The police were called.  The couple were scammed out of their money and had no place to go, no place to store all of their belongings which they were trying to move into their new place.  All they had was a police report which detailed what had happened to them.  In an instant, they were homeless and a victim of a scam artist.  They suffered a loss that would change their lives that day.  The father had one brother who he had a strained relationship with and his brother said no to helping them out.  All of the mother’s relatives were in Florida and were in no position financially to help them. 

They began by getting a storage unit for their belongings and sleeping in their car at night.  Three children, a dog and 2 adults were sleeping in a mid-sized SUV along with their clothing and most valuable belongings.  They were hoping and praying every day for some sort of a breakthrough.  The father was unable to work as he had a very serious foot injury and could barely walk.  The mother had just started a new job and was working 3-11pm Monday – Friday in a local factory. 

They did not know how to attain shelter or what to do.  They were introduced to Coordinated Intake at 1736 Superior Avenue and the shelter system.  They went there and found out that they had to go to separate shelters.  The father could not stay with his family.  He felt helpless that he could not control what was happening and that he could not be there with his family.  Mom and children were directed to Westside Catholic’s Moriah House for a temporary place to sleep and he was still sleeping in the car down the road from his family at the shelter.

She received a voucher from Coordinated Intake for the Rapid Rehousing program.  It was good for 3 months’ worth of rent at $750.00 a month and the security deposit.  All she had to do was find a landlord who would accept it.  Things were finally looking a little better for them.  They even assigned her a case worker through EDEN who was going to help her with finding a place to stay.   Working 2nd shift with 3 children, one still a toddler, she needed the help!  She began calling the case worker to ask for help.   She was looking for a list of places that were available that took the vouchers or names of landlords to call who had places ready to be rented.  She ended up having to leave messages for the case worker as she never answered the phone.  After a week of trying, she began to get frustrated again.  She was getting appointments but couldn’t find a landlord willing to take the voucher.   I told her I would call the person assigned to her and and talk to her on her behalf.  I called and left messages and messages.  It was over 2 weeks and not one returned call from the woman who was to help her find housing.  No returned calls for the mother and no returned calls for me, an employee of NEOCH.  What a disappointment from a woman whose job was to be there to help the homeless find housing.  I shared this mother’s frustration.

The kids had shelter at night, she was working and they had a voucher for rent.    He was getting her to work at 3pm, picking her up at 11pm, taking her and the children back to the shelter late at night and then picking her up sometimes as early as 7am.   Some days they had to leave early due to renovations going on at the shelter.  The mom was not getting enough sleep at night as she was taking care of her 3 children after getting off of work late at night.  They had nowhere to go during the day, they rode around in their vehicle looking for housing and were saving what food they could from one meal to another to make it stretch.  There was no fridge to keep the baby’s milk cold and no place to rest.  I offered them to come to my house during the day.  It would be a welcome respite for her, she could rest some, the kids could be comfortable, watch tv, and there was plenty of food in the fridge for 3 kids to eat and snack on.  She could get ready for work, make calls for rentals from my phone and dad was there, a few hours they could be a family again.  The search for housing intensified.  The voucher was going to expire soon, only one more week left on it.  She had called and left another message about the voucher expiring only to have the recorded voice message as the only time she heard her case worker’s voice.  Neither of us could understand why we were not getting calls returned.  We were leaving nice polite messages and this woman truly needed help in finding housing. 

I took on the role of the caseworker and was getting the family appointments to look at housing.  She was meeting landlords and looking at houses before she went to work.  Most landlords were not familiar with the voucher and would not accept it.   One appointment was a little after she was to be at work, so I was hoping it would be ok for her to be a little late to work so she could meet the landlord and look at the housing.  Looking for housing took on a most important role as they had just been scammed in this same process.  They were so cautious now.  She was late for work and ended up losing her job, the frustration turned into sadness and she wondered what she was going to do to take care of her family.  His leg and foot were still bad and it took him 5 minutes to get out of the car, there was no way he could work in that condition.  She cried in frustration, she was trying so hard, she was overtired, her kids were in need, they going to start school soon and she was counting on that income to get them ready for school and into their new place. 

I made another call to the case worker and realized a couple days later that she was never going to return any of our calls.  She was a “Housing Specialist” and she simply was not returning the calls of a woman with 3 children who was homeless, trying to keep her family together and struggling to find a place.  This mother was devastated.  She did not know who to call, where to go and she was losing what little hope she had.  The voucher expired in 2 days and she was no closer to finding a place than she was the day her $1,600.00 was stolen. 

I really wanted to help her, I saw how hard she was trying.  I could tell she was not used to living like this, she was frustrated and discouraged and she is a mother that cares deeply for her children.  She was about to lose everything that was in storage, her baby pictures, her children’s clothes, her furniture and appliances.  She was getting no help from the one person she was told would help her. 

I made sure there was gas in her car, made sure there was plenty of food for them to eat and I was giving them a place they could stay during the day to be comfortable while they looked for housing.  I was helping her with the kids, and I know she appreciated that.   She began to talk of moving to Florida to stay with her mom till she got on her feet again.  She was not finding stability or much help in the system in Cleveland.  She was in temporary shelter and knew her time there was short too.  I did not know that she should have went back to Coordinated Intake about the voucher and I did not realize she needed to put her name on their list for a shelter where her and her husband could stay together with the children.  I just assumed that was automatic because she was present with her kids at the shelter nightly.  She honestly did not understand that either.   She was told to call this person at EDEN and that is what she did. 

Today, the voucher has expired.  We could not find a landlord that was interested in taking it, the reason is unknown, but without help, it was very difficult to know who would and who would not take a voucher.  We never got that help. 

This mother is very disheartened and she feels so failed by the system that is in place.  Yes, some of it was miscommunication, but she did fall through the cracks.  She honestly tried and put her all into finding housing, she went to work and did everything she knew to do.  Instead of things working for her here, she has given up and decided to go to her mom’s house in Florida.  She plans on getting a job there and working and saving until she can provide for her family and get a place of her own and back on her feet.  She will more than likely lose all of her belongings, (we did get one month of storage and the late fees paid so she can get the padlock off and get access to her kids school clothing and important papers she needs for them to start school in another state).  She was going to sell her furniture and appliances for gas money for the trip to Florida.

This family became homeless because of a scam.  In one day, one incident, they were left without housing and became homeless.  Yes, there was help for her.  I was so thrilled that she was getting a voucher from Rapid Rehousing.   I was thrilled that was available to her.  It’s a shame there is not a way for those that get the vouchers to be informed of “what’s next” in the process, or, where can I go with this voucher to find housing?   What if I don’t find housing?  What if something goes wrong?  What should I do if the voucher expires before I find housing? What if I start working, is there anywhere for my kids to stay while I am at work?”   Maybe even some of this stuff was discussed with her.  Maybe if this mother and father had been allowed to stay together at night, he could have helped with the kids, it would have taken some of this pressure off of her, she would have had someone to discuss this with or help her instead of getting off work at 11 pm and immediately having to get to the shelter after he picked her up with no time to talk and be ready to walk out the door with nowhere to go at 7am. 

Maybe it was too much with the pressure of being suddenly homeless and broke with a family.  Maybe if the caseworker would have answered her calls and provided her with some prospects for housing, maybe if the landlords were more familiar with the vouchers.  The list goes on, but the fact is that the resources in Cleveland were available, but did not work for this family.  They are leaving after having their hopes up and then dashed at the same time.  Two of their kids need to start school and she can’t fathom the thought of facing some of the problems and attitudes she already has within this system designed to help homeless families in Northeast Ohio.

 Copyright Cleveland Street Chronicle September 2016 Issue 23.3 Cleveland Ohio