Out with a Whimper

Another rough year for non-profits in Cleveland.  The big news was we lost the second largest mental health agency in Cleveland: Bridgeways.  After seven months they are still trying to sort out the property owned by the non-profit and their dealings with a for-profit subsidiary.  There were a number of affordable housing projects owned by the non-profit and de-tangling that when the agency goes out of business has been tough.  We saw WECO go out of business earlier in 2012 after 40 years in Cleveland.  Some of their projects were taken up by Neighborhood Progress Inc., but WECO was helping low income people with obtaining funding for micro-enterprise projects and that was not picked up.  When the financial and banking industry was caught undermining the US economy, it would seem to be a time that you would need an organization that provides credit to very low income people more than ever.   They offered loans to people who are often viewed by the financial services and banks as not worthy of credit, but now they are gone.

Over the last few months we learned that the Empowerment Coalition of Cleveland (formerly Welfare Rights) has "suspended operations."   This is a historic organization from the late 1960s in Cleveland that was started by a group of African American women who organized themselves to protect against the arbitrary decisions made by the county human services and children services agencies.  There has always been issues with interpreting federal rules and implementing those at the local level. They started with a nationally recognized walk from Cleveland to Columbus to protest against cuts to welfare with a huge demonstration in Columbus and many other cities in June 1966.   From cash assistance to Medicare, child support and Food Stamps, all of these progrmas have been difficult to navigate for women left to raise their children when the dad leaves the picture.    This was a historic organization in Cleveland that eventually dropped the word "welfare" when that lost favor with the public in the 1990s.  During the Clinton administration, welfare became a dirty word when the federal government tore a big hole in the safety net under the guise of "reform."  Welfare Rights held on for 15 years as the Empowerment Center of Cleveland, but organizing poor people is not a value we pay for in our community anymore.  They were kicked out of United Way, and could not find a firm footing in the community.  Figuring out how people in need of a hand up can speak collectively to government is not a skill we value anymore as a society.  Last year, the Cuyahoga County Ombudsman went out of business which had a similar function in the community to process and resolve complaints against government agencies. 

The Welfare Rights movement started in Cleveland with the walk to Columbus.  They fought for a living wage for every family in the community.  They fought to get everything that a mom was entitled to from the federal government.  They flooded the system in an attempt to demand benefits that could sustain a and preserve a family.  They pushed for expanded health care, access to food and a safety net for those struggling to raise children.  ACORN grew out of the Welfare Rights groups in America, and they have also disappeared from the landscape over the last four years.  Where does a poor person go to get help if they are terminated from assistance improperly?  Who will be their advocate if they do not understand the rules in dealing with Children and Family Services?  Where do they go to push for the State of Ohio to expand Medicaid when that is an option in 2014?  Where does the media go to hear from people who are on food stamps when one Presidential candidates is out labeling President Obama as the Food Stamp President?   Where do poor people go to talk about the issues of being forced to go to work in order to get cash assistance and thus turning their childcare over to other poor women just to receive some table scraps? There is no one left to advocatefor the poorest in our community. It is no wonder why the Occupy Movement caught on briefly in many communities. 

The READ literacy organization also closed up shop in 2012; Alternatives Agency was caught up in the County scandal and closed, and the League of Women voters shuttered their Cleveland office. In 2011, we lost InterAct Cleveland.   Haven House, a program providing housing for veterans, closed in 2012.  Most of these non-profits closing did not even get a mention in the Plain Dealer.  The Welfare Rights Organization came into existence in Cleveland with a bang, but left with a whimper.   It is rough keeping a non-profit going during an economic downturn.  There is a push by the foundations to consolidate non-profits to cut the number of directors in the community.  Some of the recent consolidations can lead to an elimination of one's identity in a community.  For example, when Templum House merged with Domestic Violence Center we lost a force for advocating for sweeping changes in how we deal with domestic violence victims in the community.   They were very good at advocating for changes in policy and changes in police procedures to serve the victims of domestic violence.  Yes, they ran a shelter, but they were best at advocating for their clients and the children of women abused.  The merged domestic violence agency has since merged with a children's organization and they are much bigger.  They do great with the individual fleeing violence, but they are not as good solving the problem of violence in our community.   We have fifteen years of very little happening at the local level to reduce violence against women, but we have a much healthier and much bigger Domestic Violence organization.  Social services have triumphed over social justice.

Brian Davis

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