George Hrbek: Department of Employment Services

By Connie Davis

            “Let me tell you,” Says George Hrbek, the director of Employment Services of Cuyahoga County, measuring his words carefully, reflecting his frustration and concern, “we have minimal resources that enable us to target the single male and female.  If you look at the Project Heat population, we have few resources to work with those people in terms of employment.  They don’t qualify.”

            Unfortunately for all of us, Hrbek doesn’t make the rules.  If he did, some outdated bureaucratic procedures and inflexible government regulations would be liberalized to encompass his vision and humanity.  Hrbek believes that representatives from all areas of society – the government, academia, organized labor, industry and individuals – need to sit down together.  We need to redefine what it means to earn a living, what it will take to protect the nuclear family and how we’re going to have to change as a society to adapt to the drastic changes in the economy as we head into a new millennium.

            Hrbek had made a career out of working creatively within the system to effect change.  Fifteen years ago he and Sister Donna Hawk started a food center at St. Patrick’s Church on the west side.  At first it served about 150 to 200 families per month.  “Now,” Hrbek says, “Who Know? That food center is probably serving close to 1500 families per month.”  What started out as a temporary service has now become an economic necessity for far too many people who would go hungry without it?

            Recently, Hrbek was instrumental in reshaping the huge bureaucracy at the Department of Human Services.  A year ago it was broken up into five smaller, more manageable departments.

            “I was the head of the whole thing and I helped to facilitate the restructuring.

Now I’m head of this one piece of it.”  His piece is the Department of Employment Services, which provides job-and training – related services to over 10, 000 people receiving various forms of social assistance.  He estimates that there are as many as 70,000 additional people within Cuyahoga County who want to walk but who need employment counseling, retraining programs and other job-related advice.  He simply doesn’t have funds available to help them.

Two years ago, general assistance (GA) was cut from $148 per month, plus food stamps and medical coverage for 12 months per year, to $100 per month plus food stamps and medical coverage for only 6 months per year.  The other 6 months recipients get only food stamps, no money and no medical coverage.  Because of these cutbacks, Hrbek reinstituted a form of Work Preparation Alternative program, with money received from the Board of County Commissioners, to provide some assistance to these people.  “It’s simply an opportunity for the folks who had been cut off GA to become involved as a volunteer in a not-for-profit or public agency making a contribution.  In return for volunteering one day per week, four times per month, they could receive a $30 per day stipend, not a salary.”

            There are over 800 people in the program right now, but Hrbek predicts a large increase in April when more people are cut off GA.  In spite of the nominal payment, Hrbek says, “Some of the people come every day, which works out to a salary of $30 per week.”  Occasionally, their efforts are rewarded with full-time employment.

            “The old methods, the old assumptions, just don’t hold anymore,” Hrbek says.  “Everyone’s talking about family preservation.  We’ve got to do something about strengthening the family.  And we’re not targeting the single men, who now can’t support their families even if they wanted to, with resources.  No one is doinganything very creative with that population.”

            What’s needed?  Imagination.  Innovation.  Entrepreneurial ideas.  And, of course, money.  We all have to get busy.  George Hrbek can’t do it alone.

Copyright the Homeless Grapevine and NEOCH, Issue 5, Cleveland Ohio Winter 1994