Cosgrove Center Marks 20 Years of Providing Nourishment and Feeding the Souls of Clevelanders

Commentary Sarah Novak

The Bishop William Cosgrove Center is celebrating its 20th anniversary of serving Cleveland’s most needy in 2014.  The agency is led by Nicole Evans the program director at the Bishop Cosgrove Center and Sharon Drexel the head chef at the Cosgrove Center. Evans described the center as “The Bishop Cosgrove Center serves as a safe-haven for those in the community who are homeless or otherwise disenfranchised a place out of the elements of the environment.” She described the days in which Cosgrove Center saves lives in Cleveland. “So when it is extremely hot we are here or when it is extremely cold we are here. We not only provide meals but rental assistance, utility assistance, ways to find someone’s birth certificate and get ID’s,” according to Evans.   She referred to Cosgrove Center as a “one-stop center”. 

The Bishop Cosgrove Center began because there was a significant need for a drop-in day center on the East side of Cleveland. There were three programs before the Cosgrove Center came into existance. These where St. John Cathedral where they did Cathedral Meals, The Father Gatsby Program on Quincy Ave and St. Peter’s church had a small program. Because the need was so great, each one of the facilities outgrew there own facilities. In 1994, the Erieview Catholic School had closed and it was decided to use the former school for programming. In 1994, Catholic Charities began their renovations and the Bishop Cosgrove Center opened its doors. The Bishop Cosgrove Center was named after Bishop William Cosgrove who was an auxillary bishop with a strong focus on social justice issues. He actually was the founder of the Social Action Committee within the Diocese of Cleveland.  

Chip Joseph also had a huge part in the direction of the Bishop Cosgrove Center.  He took over for the founding director Sister Pat.  When the option came up to renovate Erieview School he took a look at the space, and gave it his approval.  They rented out the upstairs half of the building to Mental Health Services for their money and mailboxes program and administration staff. Joseph said that the task of running the Center was a difficult task but extremely rewarding. When the Cosgrove Center first opened they had a lot of issues with figuring out the right balance of security and welcoming a fragile population especially with the large number of mentally ill using the facility daily. Staff of St. Peter’s Church that is next door to the Center complained all the time. They were also losing $100,000 dollars a year with creating and building a new program in a older building. Besides these facts, Joseph found the job to be very rewarding. His favorite part of the job was to see people who had been on the streets not only get a nice meal but move into independent housing.  He was always proud when a client came in to show off a key to their own apartment. 

When the Cosgrove opened they were surrounded on all sides by shelters, and there were as many as 60 people sleeping on the steam grates on Superior Avenue. Staff at the Cosgrove were on site during the day, and received the complaints from the problems that had occurred the night before with the large number of homeless people in the neighborhood and the awful conditions in which they were living.   There was a shelter for the mentally ill in the basement of the Welfare Building and the garage on the other side of East 18th was converted into a Project Heat site.  Both these locations were the bare minimum and only offering a place out of the cold.  There were no beds but just these old green mats that were pulled out everynight.  In 2000, the Homeless Coalition began protesting for the closure of these deplorable shelters that surrounded the Cosgrove Center.  

In their twenty years of operation, the Cosgrove Center have served over two million meals. It is estimated that they have served 100,000 meals every year. This is a pretty remarkable number considering the size of their staff. The Bishop Cosgrove Center currently have five fulltime staff and three part time, but would not exist without the thousands of volunteers. Much of their operation has a strong volunteer component. It is estimated that six hundred volunteers give 13,000 hours of their time each year.  The clothing program, serving the meals, cleaning up after the meals, and helping distribute the pantry bags are all critical volunteer functions. Nearly every day of the week, there is corporate, local business or religious group volunteering in the kitchen of the Cosgrove Center. 

The Bishop Cosgrove Center does not only provide meals, they also provide clothing and a bag of food for lower income neighbors. The most significant programs they provide though are ways of supporting homeless people to give them the shoulder to cry on and the skills needed to get off the streets. The Cosgrove Center provides space for other social service providers to help people struggling with housing. For example Care Alliance, the Veterans Administration, Homeless Legal Assistance all send program staff to provide help to those in need.

One of the most significant programs they run though is their Food Service Training Program. Sharon Drexel the head cook at Cosgrove runs this program. The volunteers of this program come from ResCare which is a program from the Jobs and Family Services of Cuyahoga County. These people are reaching their limit of 36 months on cash assistance, and need to improve their work experience. This program provides them skills and training on how to operate a kitchen and gives them the edge on an application because they already know all the basics on how to operate a kitchen. Sharon said “the whole reason I come here is to pass my knowledge to others.” Sharon gives of her time to help improve the lives of those who show up at the door and get them into a job and into a better life.

In order to help celebrate the Bishop Cosgrove Center’s incredible accomplishments over the past twenty years, they are hosting two events to celebrate. The first was on August 22nd with a Mass celebrated by Bishop Richard Lennon. This event had a reception and was focused on the donors and volunteers of the Cosgrove Center. Then there is the event that they will be having to focus more on the homeless guests called the Hand up Gala in October. At this event, the Cosgrove Center will be serving a four star meal in a fine dining environment which is not often experienced by the homeless. Local celebrities and government officials will be serving homeless people for this fifth Gala.  Evans described the significance of Hand up Gala very well, “The kindness of others by purchasing a ticket at fifty dollars and donating it to a person that is experiencing homelessness is more than just providing a meal for that day. It is giving them a sense of pride that lingers for days to come.” According to Nicole Evans, the Hand up Gala gives Cosgrove an opportunity to put on our best face with our shoulders high and our head back and open our dining room for a wonderful meal in a nice environment.

From what I have seen, the Bishop Cosgrove Center is truly a remarkable place. It is not just a place for homeless people to sit down and have a hot meal, it is a place for them to truly feel human. They are not just treated as another homeless person, they are treated with the dignity and respect that everyone deserves. The Bishop Cosgrove Center also gives them tools to get them out of this cycle of homelessness and poverty. The work that they have done in the past twenty years is life changing for many and I am sure they will have many more successes to come in the future.

Copyright Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless Street Chonicle; October 2014 Cleveland Ohio.