I love the Homeless Children and Youth Program at the Cleveland Public Schools. It is a model program that works to get a child back into school as soon as possible after their housing falls apart. They also provide wrap around services to help a child during their homelessness to help them stay at grade level when their home life is in chaos. I have worked with Dr. Marcia Zashin of Project ACT for 23 years.
In fact, NEOCH would probably be out of business if it were not for Project ACT. When I started at NEOCH, the organization had no staff and was basically only publishing the street newspaper, the Homeless Grapevine. I was volunteering to keep the paper going while bartending at night. Dr. Zashin had worked with the previous director to apply for an AmeriCorps*VISTA program for NEOCH and the school district. Our request was granted and we had to find a place for 11 VISTAs to be divided between the two agencies. It was too difficult for a huge organization like the school district to handle the administrative burden of working with the federal government, so NEOCH was the lead. Spencer Wells at the Cleveland Tenants Organization took over NEOCH and hired me to administer the Coalition. We went from all volunteers to five full time staff working on homeless issues.
We had to restart the public education, advocacy, training, Street Card, street voices, and anything else these new college graduates who were AmeriCorps*VISTAs wanted to work on. They did some nice work on investigative stories in the paper, and began to go to the shelters to hear about the horrible conditions. The other VISTAs stationed over at Project ACT helped expand the Cleveland Public Schools tutoring program, set up a hotline and worked to provide care packages for the families who are experiencing homelessness. The VISTA's working over at Project ACT set up these great partnerships with artistic organizations so families living in the shelters could go visit the Playhouse or Near West Theatre to participate in art projects.
This partnership blossomed statewide so we were eventually working with every large school district in Ohio. The programs all expanded and did some great work in the 1990s and early 2000s until VISTA decided that we would have to pay for the VISTAs (time limits). Instead of focusing on the good work that the VISTAs were doing in Ohio, federal officials focused on how long the program had been at an agency. We were changing their goals and the VISTAs turned over every year, but the Corporation for National Service decided to give this resource to some other group in the community. This does not build loyalty for the program, which now that VISTA is on the chopping block it is going to be hard to get groups to rally around the VISTA federal program.
The NEOCH board saw the value of the organization because we had four staff working on things in Cleveland with our partnership with Project ACT as we stabilized. The VISTAs were working on creating programs to reduce poverty locally. The VISTAs spent their time on starting programs like Voice Mail, Bridging the Gap, Homeless Legal Assistance, expanding the paper and various art projects. They contributed so much to homeless people living in Cleveland, and much of it had to do with Project ACT. We gave Dr. Zashin the Ione Biggs Award last year for her decades of service in Cleveland. The other great thing about the Homeless Children and Youth program is that they have great about keeping track of the homeless kids. They have a much broader definition of homelessness, and so if you do not have a place to live the schools consider you homeless. In the rest of the system, if you can answer 13 questions and did not just get out of jail, you are homeless. There is no confusion in the schools.
Thanks for the appreciation, but I appreciate Project ACT as well.
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