Southerner Brings Charm to Street Outreach

By Brooke McConochy

Danny Stephens was the Lead Vista for the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless from March 1998 to May 1999. In May, Stephens took over Mark Budzar’s position with the Volunteers of America shelter. He is one of the Volunteers of America shelter. He is on of the daytime outreach workers who partly the city looking for homeless people that may need assistance or just a friendly face. When Danny Stephens handed me a small turtle as I stepped into his office and said “That’s Edmund.", I knew that he was not your typical outreach worker.

Homeless Grapevine: Where did you get Edmund?

Danny Stephens.: “One day my Dad let a bull out of the gate when he was taking the tractor out. He started chasing the bull with the tractor and he couldn’t catch it., so finally he got off the tractor and threw his hat down. When he reached down to pick his hat up there was little Edmund. He let me have him for a pet. That was about a year ago.”

I came to find out that Danny knew a little bit about turtles. In fact, Danny knows a little bit about a whole lot of things with sleeping on a steam grate not the least of them. He’s a large unassuming man with a Southern drawl and an infectious grin. His interests include fishing, farming, brick collecting, and making Christmas ornaments with his Mom, not to mention helping Cleveland’s homeless off the streets. His career in this rather unusual “service industry” began when he graduated from Shawnee State in Southern Ohio. He’s been helping Cleveland’s homeless for just over a year. First working with the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, and most recently as an outreach councilor for the Volunteers of America shelter near West 25th and Clark.

D.S. “After I graduated from college, one of my professors wanted me to apply for VISTA (Volunteers In Service to America) in Portsmouth, so I did. VISTAs work in low-income areas and they try to help better their lives. I was working with kids in…I hate to say projects, but that’s what they were. I implemented a ‘Hooked on Fishing, Not on Drugs’ program down there. When I finished up my year of service, there was a lead VISTA position over in Cleveland and I decided it was probably the best move for me because I thought there would be more of an opportunity in Cleveland. The job market down South isn’t the best.”

H.G. “What are some of the differences you’ve seen between southern Ohio and here?”

D.S. “Up here people go to coffee shops. People down home are not going to pay $3 for a cup of coffee. Coffee’s free down there. Other than that, I don’t think then mentality is any different, but it’s too soon to say for sure.”

H.G.: “What about the people you’re helping?”

D.S.: “The kids I was working with down there didn’t have a lot of family support and rarely did have a male figure in their life. I kind of filled that role. That’s what I miss the most, the kids down there. Up here I’m working with more homeless adults, and that’s just a different story. There’s not as much homelessness down there. In an urban setting there’s always going to be more homelessness.”

H.G.: “Why?”

D.S.: “It’s got more people, and any time you put more people together it causes problems. Affordable housing is not really great in this town.”

H.G.: “Had you worked with the homeless people at any extend before you started here?”

D.S.: “Not before I came to Cleveland. I had a lot of misconceptions before I took the job at NEOCH. The public thinks that homeless people are dirty or lazy, and that’s just not true. The majority of homeless people work. When I was at NEOCH, my job was public education. This homeless calendar was part of that.”

H.G.: (Looking at the Calendar.) “This is your cousin?”

D.S.: “ He died four or five years ago at the age of 99. He always wanted to be 100, just a couple of months short. He could still dance. He loved to drink whisky and walk, probably walked 20 miles a day.”

H.G.: “Do you think he chose that life?”

D.S.: “Yeah, pretty much. I think it’s just what he wanted to do.”

H.G.: “Was he a deeply philosophical man?”

D.S.: “I don’t think so. I don’t think anybody else thought he was. I think he was pretty deep but I don’t think most people would agree with that.”

H.G.: “Anyone who walks for 20 miles a day has got to do a lot of thinking.”

D.S.: “He was in a nursing home one time. He used to escape all the time, come back and forth-there would be these old ladies in there with straps on their wheelchairs. He didn’t know what Velcro was so he would take his pocketknife out and cut the straps so they could get free.”

H.G.: “Was he always a part of your life as you were growing up?”

D.S.: “You’d see him every now and then. He’s walk the roads; sometime you’d pick him up and take him somewhere.”

H.G.: “ Did it strike you as a child, that this was an unusual way to go through life?”

D.S.: “ No, not really.”

H.G.: “What have you done since you left NEOCH?”

D.S.: “ Right now what I do with Volunteers of America is –we have a homeless shelter here-go out in the street and try to find people who want to come in to our shelter. We have emergency shelter with 22 beds. That’s 22 people off the street.”

H.G.: “They can just walk in, 24 hours a day?”

D.S.: “If we have openings, we’re full a lot, so it’s not real easy to get in. We also have a transitional program that is a step up from the emergency shelter. There we address each person different needs. A lot of the people we deal with have drug and alcohol problems.”

H.G.: “How do you deal with that.”

D.S.: “Well, we try to get them into programs like Daywood to help them with their addictions. We try to get them into detox and different things. If you test positive for drugs, then you’re out. It’s tough. I talk to people out on the streets. I just try to let them know we’re here. I’m not going to twist their arm to get in here, because if they’re not ready to come to a shelter it won’t work.”

H.G.: “What are some of the rules?

D.S.: “You can’t use. You’ve got to be in at a certain time. You’ve got to be out at a certain time. You’re expected to have responsibilities. You’re expected to help out. There are chores. It’s not living under the bridge. We’re in constant need, and you can circle this, or donations.”

H.G.: “Financial donations?”

D.S.: “Well, the outreach program really needs stuff like towels, clothes, and toiletries. I do a lot on the street too, with clothes giveaways and stuff. Like I said, I’m not twisting anyone’s arm to come here. I’m just trying to let them know someone cares. The system is pretty harsh and you can go through the system and get the idea that nobody really cares about you. I just want to let the guys know that somebody does care. Here’s a pair of socks or here’s a doughnut, if you ever reach rock bottom you can decide to come to the shelter and straighten your life up.”

H.G.: “You’re on the street, you’re out there?”

D.S.: “Yeah, and it’s pretty amazing the places that I find people. Under bridges, in the woods, steam crates, just everywhere.”

H.G.: “Steam grates?”

D.S.: “You know, on the city sidewalks where the steam comes up. That’s houses, that’s people houses, and you don’t mess with somebody’s home. You don’t invade that space.”

H.G.: “How do you approach these people?”

D.S.: “They know the van, they know the people pretty well. They know who the VOA is out on the street, so we can pretty much walk up right to them. I get all kinds of requests. Candy. ‘I want some candy.”

H.G.: “Do they joke around with you or do you ever get harassed at all?”

D.S.: “No, I never get harassed, but I get requests for any item you can name. And if it’s sitting in the office here, somebody might as well use it, peppermints, deodorant, clothes, and stuff like that.”

H.G.: “What percent do you think are addicted to alcohol?”

D.S.: “I would say over 50% is drug or alcohol related. Mental illness is a big, big problem also. We also have a contract with the VA and we supply beds from homeless veterans.”

H.G.: “Is it a lifestyle choice these people are making? A lot of people think they are content living that way, or don’t want to get out.”

D.S.: “Well, we all make choices, every choice we make we have to live by. That’s what life is, choices. But I don’t think…. who would want to live in a steam grate? Who would want to live under a bridge? It’s not easy. There are a lot of homeless people who don’t do drugs, too. There are a lot of homeless families, a lot of homeless kids.”

H.G.: “What exactly is your job description?"

D.S.: "I’m outreach councilor for the homeless people. You’ll see me driving the VOA van around and people will flag me down, or I’ll flag them down. Pretty much I’m there for anyone in the city who is having problems and needs somebody to talk to. If I can’t help them I’ll try to find somebody who can. We do whatever it takes.”

When I left the Volunteers of America shelter that afternoon I realized how naïve I had been. I’ve seen homeless people all of my life. I can’t count the time that I have walked by them, or around them, stepping away a little bit by apprehension maybe from guilt. I went home after the interview. I think I even turned the air conditioner on because it was getting hot and muggy. I had never really thought of what life would be like without a place to turn. I never thought about how these people lived. I was glad Danny Stephens had decided to make a difference and I decided I would make a difference too.

Copyright for the Homeless Grapevine July 1999 Issue 36 Cleveland Ohio.