Roberts Takes Empowerment Center into Uncharted Waters

Interview by Brian Davis

Transcription by Craig Thomas

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Brian Davis: How long have you been with the Empowerment Center?

Dr. Goldie Roberts: I came aboard in February of this year (1999).

BD: For those who don’t know, what are the main programs that the Empowerment Center oversees?

GR: We do community outreach; we have a women’s support group called Minnie’s House that meets on the second and fourth Fridays of every month. We’ve been doing the bulk of our outreach doing community forums at various community sites. These have been about welfare reform and the sanctioning piece. We’ve been involved with quite a few of the sanctioning cases that have come along. People call in and they’ve been sanctioned, or they are having a hard time with their social workers. So our workers will actually do interventions, and act as an advocate for the client. They will go in and talk with the caseworker first, and then with the supervisor if need be.

            And we have gone to hearings also. So the bulk of what we’ve been doing has been around welfare reform, education, and advocacy in that area. We are also in collaboration with Merrick House on Project HEAL. And that is a project that looked at how the people involved with HMO’s under welfare were being serviced, and looking at the prose and cons of it.

BD: And when will that project be done?

GR: Project HEAL will be finished in December, and then that information will be made public at that time. Right now we are in the midst of doing focus groups; first there were 250 surveys done on the East and West sides for a total of 500, so the important thing is that a number of people have been surveyed about their experience. And you know, not everybody’s experience has been bad; we weren’t looking to skew it either one way or the other; we were just asking people in general so we would get both sides.

            We wanted to be sure that there was a mix, both racially, and ethnically; that is why we chose both the East and West side, so we would also get a large Hispanic input from the West side. So it was a written survey, and the focus group is in play now, and that should be ending very shortly. And Case Western Reserve was also involved in this project.

BD: How are you funded?

GR: The bulk of our funding is from the United Way, and when we are collaborating with other agencies other funding sources can come into play, like with the Gund Foundation, and so forth.

BD: And what changes have you seen over the last two years with welfare, and what has your agency done in response to these changes?

GR: Well, with the fact that I just came on board in February, I can only go by historical information that I have gathered from the files, but the fact is that I have been actively involved with issues concerning welfare because prior to this I was at Cleveland State for 8 years where I ran a program that assisted welfare recipients with coming into the University and graduating. This was the “Push to Achievement” program.

            And in the 8 years that I ran it we had over 125 graduates, and not to say how many other people have graduated as a direct cause of being in the program, so it was very successful.

BD: Did that program end?

GR: Yes, because when welfare reform first came into being there was this whole issue of whether or not higher education was going to be a part of it. So while that debate was going on there was no funding for the program; so it ended. Because I think at that time the reform piece was looking for job placement and short-term training. And “Push to Achievement” was a program that incorporated the student for 2 years; even though it was a four-year school we felt that if they had two years of intervention we could teach them how to maneuver and get through the rest of it.

            But you were talking about the changes. Well, first of all was the fact that higher education took a backseat to training. And what is sad is that of all of the programs that are made available to welfare recipients, we know that education works. Anything and everything that is printed says that education works, and it directly links to all kinds of social problems. And though it may not cure everything, it certainly helps. In terms of juvenile delinquency, crime rates, poverty levels, so much can be helped just by educating the parent. And the children of educated parents do better in school.

            BD: So you’ve been around since February, and there have been some changes in the past year because of welfare reform: I understand the welfare caseloads have gone down significantly.

            GR: But you know, when we talk about caseloads going down, that is one of the things Case Western Reserve has been hired to do. To find out where these people are. Just because caseloads go down, it doesn’t mean that those families are not in poverty any longer. So you know there is that whole piece that needs to be explored, as to “where are they?”

            BD: So in your outreach that you do, what have seen of the opinions or the impressions of welfare reform, from the people that are or were on welfare?

            GR: For one thing, we see a lack of urgency. Individuals who have been on for the two years and will be coming off next year, in 2000, we don’t seem to sense that there is an urgency there for them, and you don’t know whether it’s a sense of being overwhelmed by the whole system, and just not knowing where to go or what to do. I’ve noticed so many people expressing such frustration with the system. We are aware that the county has placed customer service representatives at each of the neighborhood outreach centers. But we are doing so much interventions, and because we do see the problem side of it, I don’t want to put more emphasis on that piece than necessary. But you know, we are very concerned as we work within the system at our ten workshops in the community that the county puts on to explain the welfare piece, and how to access their services, and then we tell people that have called here and are having problems. We tell them what we say welfare is able to do, and then we talk to the caseworker, and they say that that is not the case. So I’m just really feeling that there is a lot of misinformation being given out by the county, to the agencies that work with their clientele.

            We do see that there is so much to be learned in terms of the regulations, and that sometimes the interpretations are left up the self-sufficiency coaches, and supervisors, but we all should be on the same page. It just doesn’t seem to happen that way. Personally, when I sit in those workshops I ask specific questions and write down what they say. But when I repeat that back to a caseworker or supervisor, they say that that is not the case.

            For example, the PRC [Prevention, Retention, and Contingency fund]: I know that I’ve been in workshops where we were told that if a person were in danger of losing their job because of transportation, such as their car breaking down or something [they can get PRC funds]. And we weren’t told that there was fine print or anything, just that a person had to show need. And then when you send someone for that service, that doesn’t happen.

            Another case in point was that they would help with either security deposit or rent, and if a person was going to be homeless, or didn’t have a place and needed money to get a place. Then PRC money could have been used for this, but we sent people there, and [the caseworker] said “No.” [We have found] the only time PRC money could be used for housing is if they are red-tagged. But I’m thinking that by the time they are red-tagged they are just about on the street, aren’t they? I mean I don’t know of too many landlords that if a person has not paid and they are at the point of being red-tagged, will want to take that person’s money.

            It just makes you wonder, when you talk about this welfare reform, and how it’s supposed to be more customer friendly. I’m at a loss how friendly the county really is towards trying to help people.

            BD: So do you see children better off or worse since 1997, the year welfare reform was enacted in Ohio?

            GR: Absolutely worse off. [The current system] hurts children. You know when you sanction a family, you’re sanctioning the children. But I think there is legislation now, so that everyone in the family won’t lose the benefits, just maybe the person that is being sanctioned.

            BD: So do you see this agency as an advocate for the individual, or for systematic change?

            GR: Both levels, because we work for the change in policy. I’m involved with the Electric Deregulation Network, where we are sitting at the table and trying to be a part of, and have input into the legislation.

            The legislation is a done deal at this point, but in how it’s going to be administered, we have a chance to intervene, and have some input to make sure that the programs that serve low-income people will still be serving them in a manner that is at least as well as it was before, if not better.

            BD: I know that nationally and even in this state that there is a movement to end time limits and stop the clock. Do you see any hope of that happening?

            GR: Well, as an agency we certainly hope that that is the case, but you know the protesters will have to get out. But what’s sad for me is that when I talk to people who are former welfare recipients they are not supportive, and they think that time limits are a good thing.

            I guess I don’t mind so much the time limits, though I think that three years is a little too short. I think that when you do institute some time limit, and you have a good program, and everything would have to be in place, like an ideal welfare system, because I think that when you do use a time limit it gives people hope. They know that they are coming on, and they have this amount of time to get themselves together for a program, but if they are not ready they don’t have to worry about being tossed off. That is what is sad about it, whether you are ready or not you are gone; you’re history.

            With Cuyahoga County, I was right there listening to all of it as welfare reform came about, and following it very closely. The one thing that I do know is that when welfare reform first started two years ago, they were saying that people should be trained. But the training sites were not even in place. And not only that, the Cuyahoga County workers had to be retrained. So they were unaware of what was available, and how to service people. So those people in the first year did not get all of the services that they should have, and regulations were misinterpreted to them. So I don’t think that the first year should even count. Because there was a phase-in for the County administration itself; they were still writing a plan while they were supposed to be servicing people. And I think that is terribly unfair.

            BD: How do you separate the role of the Ombudsman and the role of the empowerment team; how are those different since they represent the interests of the people who are on welfare?

            GR: I think that the roles are probably quite similar, but it is my understanding that, particularly when it comes to the health issue piece, that they were more involved than we were. Because I know that when we receive calls about medical issues, there are some things that we do; for the most part we refer those things to the Ombudsman.

            BD: I understand the Cleveland Welfare Rights Organization, and now the Empowerment Center, was one of the first organizations of its type in the country.

            GR: Yes, we were the catalysts.

            BD: What do you see as changes either in the movement nationally, or how this organization has changed since its inception?

            GR: Well, we changed because the Board of Trustees of the Welfare Rights Organization looked at the scope of the work done, and saw that it was about more than just welfare rights, it was encompassing more. And that is why the mission would be written to reflect that we are not only welfare rights advocates, but deal with issues that pertain to the low-income community. Also just educating the public in general, about welfare issues and low-income issues.

            So in looking at the broad scope of things that we do the Board came up with the Empowerment Center. Because that is what it is supposed to be about. When you look at someone who is moving toward self-sufficiency, you want to look at empowering them with the skills that are necessary to obtain self-sufficiency.

            BD: Do you think that the agency has sort of softened its advocacy, and not pressed the elected officials? You said that there is definite harm to children, and we’re not holding the politicians who enacted this legislation to the fire, and saying this is harming our community. And because some of the former welfare recipients think that this is a good idea. Has there been a softening of the advocacy on a broader policy level?

            GR: I don’t think so much a softening, because I know that we are there at the public forums where commissioners are and so forth. I know one of the outreach workers has constructed a letter to one of the commissioners about some harsh things that were said at a meeting that she had attended. And one of the state officials from the welfare department was there, and she has drafted a letter to that.

            You know funding is a major problem for us, so having the time and the people to pursue so much of that certainly is something that we want to do more of. I think that the agency has been in a transition because I just came on board in February and prior to that they had been without an executive director. There had been two full-time people, not counting the administrative assistant, to do all the work. And one is acting as the executive director, so we just haven’t had the manpower. So we are certainly looking at becoming more proactive.

            Right now so much of our work is being done trying to assist individuals who are having problems, and doing the community education piece, trying to prepare them for the year 2000.

            So I don’t see it as so much of a softening as a having a lack of manpower to press issues in certain directions. We were part of the Ameritech lawsuit that was dealing with the SBC merger, and we were right there in the forefront for that, making sure that we got a program so that low-income people would not be hurt in that merger. And looking at jobs that were involved, so that people would not be harmed.

            You have to pick your battles, and it takes time gathering information. You don’t want to just blow smoke at people; we are definitely facts and figures. So we are gathering our information; we definitely are.

            BD: I look at the group in Cincinnati that regularly hold protests in front of legislators’ houses, and are at the forefront nationally trying to make sure that the time clock gets stopped. And even though that seems like a very futile battle, they are definitely there to try to call attention to the harm that that’s doing. It seems that with Cleveland having one-third of the poor population in the state, and that we have politicians and legislators who are Democrats, and who therefore have some connection with poor people, we’ve let them get off; we’ve let them get off for the implementation of the state’s level of welfare reform. And we haven’t really pressed that we’ve already seen harm in our community; we haven’t really addressed that.

            Do you see that with the United Way funding and with the overwhelming need in the community for advocates on a personal level? That that makes it difficult to do systematic advocacy about welfare reform?

            GR: Since I’ve been here I haven’t seen that, as I said, when I look over the files and see what has been done in the past, and how much impact this agency has had. I think that some of the momentum has been lost because of a lack of funding, and we have bare bones funding. We have a membership group that was very active with helping to stage protests and all, because that’s where the numbers are.

            And we are beefing up our membership, so that we will have volunteers that can help. As I said right now, we are stretched, and it’s not like it is going unnoticed.

            We look at several things, such as the legal side of it. Is there a way to inroad this, and maybe have a test case. I am aware that you can’t sue welfare, but you can call attention to the fact that individuals will not have had three full years of service.

            Basically they have had two years, because the first year was implementation. So as we look at those avenues, we see that there are more ways of fighting this than necessarily in the streets. Not that I am against it, but we do need more manpower, and that is what I am looking for.

Copyright NEOCH and the Homeless Grapevine, Issue #39, December 1999-January 2000