Commentary by Katy Carpenter
The overall trend of homelessness has been changing, according to the Director of Advancement at the West Side Catholic Center (WSCC), Jennifer Highfield. She mentions that it is hard work being poor, and that homelessness is far from simple-the services and programs that are offered at WSCC reflect the complexities of the human experience of homelessness, domestic violence and other housing crisis’s that individuals encounter throughout their lives. Five programs, one mission is how the West Side Catholic Center phrased their work in their annual report-all united by the mission to “assist(s) all who come in need of food, clothing, shelter, advocacy and a path to self-sufficiency” for the clients they serve and to do so in a way that is “grounded in faith, hope, love and respect,” according Highfield, was founded in 1977 by a coalition of churches, and although the Center does have Catholic roots, they are a non-denominational charity and provide services to anyone “experiencing life challenges.”
The work WSCC does on a daily basis makes a huge impact in this community. The five programs the Center provides are as follows: the Resource Center, Zacchaeus Housing Solutions, Economic Opportunities, Family Services and the Moriah House shelter.
The Resource Center provides shelter for homeless individuals and those with few economic resources, six days a week. The Resource Center also provides a food pantry program, this program distributes fresh produce on a monthly basis. This center offers meals six days a week, and is open to any individual. The Resource Center also provides household items and clothing to individuals in need. Other services offered under the Resource Center Program are Street Survival Services which offer showers, mailboxes and emergency services to those living on the streets. In 2015, WSCC served just under 6,000 people through their clothing and household distribution program at The Resource Center.
Zacchaeus Housing Solutions is another program at the Center that helps residents and individuals experiencing hardships find secure housing, and helps individuals sustain housing. This program began as a way to rapidly re-house individuals, but has evolved over the years as funding has shifted. In 2015, The Center provided 90 families with rent subsidies through the Zacchaeus Housing Solutions Program. The Economic Opportunities Program helps clients work towards self-sufficiency through financial education, workforce development and other adult education courses. In 2015, the Economic Opportunity Program impacted 92 clients in finding them stable employment, and educated 92 individuals in the Adult Education and Financial Literacy Programs.
Lastly, the Moriah House offers four programs in order to address client’s immediate shelter needs and long term housing challenges (and the components that have resulted in homelessness or housing crisis situations). As of 2015, 11,083 nights of lodging have been provided to families staying at the Moriah House according to Highfield.
I was struck by the environment of warmth, positivity and excitement that surrounded each component of the programs that WSCC offers. They treat homelessness and other challenges at an individual level, recognizing that a one-size-fits-all approach will not solve anything. WSCC uses a holistic approach to address the root causes of homelessness, instead of just a temporary solution-in order to instill and encourage self- sufficiency. It’s easy to see, why women who are staying at Norma Herr Women’s Shelter participate in the programs at West Side Catholic Shelter. The holistic approach that the Center offers is well respected within the community from both advocates and clients-the idea that the work that The Center does on a daily basis continues to promote self-sufficiency, and also helps give the rest of the community a more accurate and less-biased opinion of those experiencing homelessness. This is key to the success and environment of understanding that WSCC offers.
In a phone interview with a current resident at Norma Herr Women’s Shelter, she mentions that WSCC is phenomenal. She takes the van from the women’s shelter over to WSCC, five days a week in order to utilize the programs and services at the drop-in center, when transportation is not available she walks to the center. This reinforces the fact that many of the clients that utilize this center, do face transportation challenges, as Highfield suggested in our interview. When asked what separates this drop-in center from other homeless services offered in this city, she was quick to mention the compassionate and understanding staff. She emphasized the feeling that everyone who is a part of WSCC takes pride in what they do and loves people-which she mentioned is not always the case in some services offered elsewhere.
Her two favorite programs at the center are the yoga classes and the creative writing program. She especially likes the creative writing program, because it allows a space to express her feelings and thoughts in an innovative way. Most important and again very different from other services offered in the city for the homeless and impoverished: is that the staff members are willing to do whatever they can for their clients. They consistently are looking for better ways to offer services to more individuals, in a kinder and more impactful way. They do not turn anybody away from help, and continue to assist residents in taking steps forward as opposed to trapping them in the system, which she mentioned is key for people who have already endured so much. Employees at WSCC work tirelessly to help get individuals what they need, and they do so in a way that makes clients feel comfortable and empowered.
The takeaway from my visit at West Side Catholic is first and foremost, that the population of homeless individuals is changing-these shifting demographics have changed the way the center provides services and have evolved with funding changes. Things we take for granted everyday can make all the difference, and can make the difference between homelessness and being housed. These conversations matter; these services meet clients where they are at, while promoting self-sufficiency and developing tangible skills that will foster sustainability for the rest of their lives. I would argue that this is the provision of services that not only destigmatizes homelessness and poverty, but also creates accountability within the system and in the community. This is finally the provision of services that is more than just a temporary fix, and that addresses the root causes of homelessness, one holistic program at a time. This shifts the conversation from “just making it through the day” to next week, next month, and towards a brighter future according to Highfield.
Copyright Cleveland Street Chronicle September 2016 Issue 23.3 Cleveland Ohio