Kazol Wants to Find a Home for Everyone

By Allison Lipinski

Dignity, choice and acceptance – not the typical words that come to mind when one thinks of homelessness, but for Kathryn Kazol, founding executive director of Emerald Development and Economic Network, Inc. (EDEN), these are precisely the things she seeks to bring to the table for Cuyahoga County’s most marginalized populations. EDEN operates and advocates for safe, decent, affordable permanent housing options and support services for persons living with disabilities or special needs who may have low incomes and may be experiencing homelessness.

Kazol, who was honored this past month as a 2012 winner of the Medical Mutual Pillar Award for Nonprofit Executive Director of the Year, identified early on that EDEN would design programs and offer support services for those people who have the greatest barriers to success. Fresh out of grad school and working her first job with Mental Health Services, Kathryn recalls seeing the impact of institutionalization and the stigma attached to those in society who were different, or who had signs and symptoms of mental illness, as “heart wrenching,” citing the unjust treatment of people who are different as one of her biggest motivators.

“I can never forget the injustice in our society with regards to the way we treat people who are different. I just have this huge motivation to change the way people who are different are treated and let them know that they are valued and that people care about them because so many people with disabilities are very lonely and don’t feel very needed, or that they have something to contribute because no one has ever recognized their skills or what they can bring to the table,” commented Kazol.

From its humble beginnings in 1991, Kazol recognized that there was a genuine need to maximize the available resources afforded to the people within the community. Starting with only one residential care facility in Cleveland Heights, EDEN began its work administering rental subsidy vouchers within the special needs population and sought to develop 50-75 units of housing a year, a goal that Kazol admits was very meager when compared with the actual need.

Since then, Kazol has rapidly grown EDEN into an organization of impact, owning and operating nearly 90 properties throughout Cuyahoga County today, including six permanent housing projects.  EDEN proudly serves over 3,500 low-income individuals and families monthly.  Additionally, EDEN administers over 20 affordable housing programs throughout Cuyahoga County, which includes one of the largest permanent housing programs in the country.  EDEN’s staff also experienced quite the surge in numbers.  Starting with just three employees back in the early 90s, today EDEN employs a staff of over 100.   

Such growth certainly didn’t come without taking significant risks along the way.  Like any fearless leader, Kazol’s commitment to fulfilling EDEN’s mission resulted in welcoming the risks that would eventually contribute to organizational growth and an increased number of housing options and support services. 

One such risk was volunteering to be the administrator for the county’s Shelter Plus Care Program, which provides rental assistance for hard-to-serve homeless persons with disabilities in connection with supportive services.  Shelter Plus Care (S+C) is designed to provide housing through private landlords and on-site supportive services on a long-term basis for homeless persons with disabilities

“There used to be a lot of skepticism whether landlords in the community would agree to participate”, said Kazol. “Believing we could convince enough landlords to participate, all the while not really knowing if it was going to work out or not, was a very big risk because the program depends on community landlords agreeing to rent.”

Seeing the success of the Shelter Plus Care Program inspired Kazol to continue to take risks, including getting involved with low income tax credit funding, providing funds for the construction of large permanent housing structures. Administering housing programs within this model eventually brought EDEN to its current mission, which provides a way of meeting people where they are and then helping them get to where they want to be. EDEN made history in 2003 by breaking ground for the development of Emerald Commons, a 52-unit permanent housing project, located next to EDEN’s headquarters. This project was the first of its kind in Cuyahoga County.  Currently, EDEN owns six supportive housing projects.

Why is it so important to find permanent housing first?  Without a permanent place to call home, people get stuck in a cycle that consists of filtering in and out of programs for various reasons, ultimately ending up back in the shelters.  Kazol explains, “People need a safe and secure place to live FIRST, then they can work on pursuing goals and dreams and working toward improving other areas of their lives that may need work. But without a home it’s pretty difficult to get started.”

An interesting item of note is that nearly all of EDEN’s permanent housing tenants engage in onsite support services, and over half participate in volunteer, educational or employment activities.  These support services are voluntary in nature, giving people the choice to seek support as they see fit.  Taking this kind of ownership for one’s future provides meaning and helps develop a sense of pride.  Kazol is quick to attribute much of EDEN’s success to “partnerships with over 60 social service partners and governmental agencies”.  In fact, these services contribute to one of EDEN’s greatest victories: less than two percent of EDEN’s permanent housing tenants return to homelessness. 

After serving as the founding executive director of EDEN for the past 21 years, Kathy Kazol will be retiring this coming July, leaving behind an organization poised to thrive and grow as they continue to fulfill their mission. 

“Founding directors are hard to get rid of sometimes”, said Kazol, “but after 20 years, our organization is very stable and in sound financial shape with a strategic plan for the future.” 

Kazol admits that there never seems to be that perfect time for an organization to go through a transition, but she is confident in the future of EDEN, crediting “great internal leadership and an experienced management team that is prepared to run the organization and take care of business”.  She also stresses the importance of maintaining a very mission-driven focus that keeps serving the needs of the community at its core.  Keeping consistent with EDEN’s proven track record of adapting to the changing needs of the community, Kazol encourages nonprofits to do only what the community needs them to do.

“Non profits should be in the business to serve the community.  If the community identifies a need, and it is consistent with your mission, the nonprofit is obligated to step forward and provide solutions.  This is what should drive nonprofits, rather than deciding what they want to do, regardless of whether the community needs it or not.”

As Kazol prepares to retire, the legacy she leaves behind at EDEN is built upon the founding principles of treating people with dignity and respect.  Her commitment to these principles will help navigate this transition and prepare EDEN to continue as the premier agency for developing and providing housing, and related programs to enable persons with disabilities or special needs maximize their full potential.   

And as for Kazol’s next chapter in life, she is greatly looking forward to enjoying retirement and has plans to do some modest traveling with her partner in their camper.

Copyright Cleveland Street Chronicle Cleveland, Ohio January 2013