MHS Helps Evacuees Find New Homes in Cleveland

by Pamela Vincent

      According to Ann Poston, with Mental Health Services (MHS), when approximately 850 men, women and children from the Gulf Coast arrived in Cleveland after Hurricane Katrina struck in September of 2005, the County and City Officials turned to MHS for help. MHS, long known as a community leader in case management and crisis services. She and Rick Oliver, the Director of Crisis Services, had no idea what to expect and had to “write the book” as they went along. So, they rolled up their sleeves and began the huge task of helping the evacuees put their lives back together.

      The mission of Mental Health Services for Homeless Persons, Inc. is to “help people gain control of their lives by forging solutions that resolve mental health crises and end homelessness.” The programs offered by MHS were a good fit for the Katrina evacuees as they presented a variety of different needs once relocated to Cleveland.

Grapevine: Where did the funding come from to assist the evacuees and what is the approximately costs to date?

Rick Oliver: The money came from the Employment and Family Services division of the County. They signed a contract for MHS to provide assistance to any evacuees who wanted help. So far we've spent about $200,000 and are in negotiations for additional funds for phase two of the process. Parts of the initial contract ended on Dec. 31st, 2005

Grapevine: What did the first phase of services consist of?

RO: The first phase consisted of meeting their basic needs, finding housing, providing some household items, warm clothing, food stamps etc… The second phase will focus on permanent housing for the evacuees that have decided to make this area home, help with their finances, job training, employment assistance, and counseling to help with symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress disorder.

Grapevine: How many evacuees are still in this area and what are their ages?

RO: We count them by households and right now about 350 people or 130 households have returned to the Gulf Coast area. That leaves 125 households or 250 people that remain. There's not a huge percent of elderly or children, since they couldn't travel that far from home. Eighty percent of the people had family or friends in this area and that's why they came here. Twenty percent stayed in hotels initially and eighty percent stayed with their family or friends.

Grapevine: Were most of them healthy?

RO: Most of them were healthy a small percentage of them were disabled.

Grapevine: How did the process start, did you verify that the people were actual evacuees from the Gulf Coast?

RO: The process was that originally 850 evacuees were referred through the Red Cross. Out of those only 700 contacted us for additional support. Both the Red Cross and the County had measures to prove the people were indeed evacuees. They had a good screening process.

Grapevine: How have they spent the money they were given?

RO: The households received some emergency funds. The financial piece was difficult to manage. FEMA put some guidelines in to place after the fact. The evacuees were given $2,300 to be used for certain needs which weren't originally defined. FEMA then asked that they provide a list and receipts of how the money was spent. Aside from rent and utilities…the evacuees thought they could spend the money on everyday needs.

Grapevine: Where did you find housing so quickly?

RO: We worked with the Cleveland Housing Network (CHN) and their staff. This part of the assistance went really well. In fact, Cleveland was the only area of the country to place their evacuees into housing 100% [of the time]... none of the evacuees went homeless. CHN had a bank of landlords that they called and each family was placed in an apartment or a house. For example, some of the people were placed in Reserve Square, the West Tech lofts or Arbor Park. Originally, the lessees paid the rent. Now the rent gets paid directly to the landlords and it's a better set up.

Grapevine: Do they pay market rate rents?

RO: In some cases it is, and in others the landlords were offered the top rate for apartments or houses in that area. It was an incentive to the landlords and they liked the idea of the steady income for previously un-rented housing.

GrapevineWhat is the background of some of the evacuees?

RO: Initially, we had some doctors, teachers, university professors, and restaurant owners. Some of the restaurant owners lost everything they had. But, they do qualify for small business loans, so they can start over if they want. A lot of the professionals have already left the area, gone back home to the Gulf Coast or on to other positions.

Grapevine: What's going on with FEMA? Is there a cut off date for assistance?

RO: The cutoff hasn't been decided yet and the financial piece from FEMA is uncertain… they have given a few extensions. We're all trying to prevent the evacuees from going on welfare but, some of them are in CMHA housing already. They know that the rent assistance won't go on indefinitely, but the longer FEMA pays them, the better their chances of [maintaining] stability. Getting people stabilized is the key.

Grapevine: Of the people remaining, are they looking for work or planning on staying in this area?

RO: Some of them are working and the people who find jobs and develop roots will most likely stay. For a lot of them the weather is a big factor in their decision to stay. The winter is a challenge for them and they aren't use to it. When they arrived last September, they didn't have any winter clothes. Some of the evacuees arrived wearing shorts, which is OK for September but, our weather changes quickly. Once FEMA cuts off funding people will have to make decisions on whether they find work here and make this area their home or return home to the Gulf Coast.

Grapevine: Tell me about the people who are experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PSTD). How are they being helped?

RO: Our agency has a program that provides counseling for children who witness violence. When the evacuees showed symptoms of trauma, (approximately 40 people) they were referred to the same agency to see a Therapist. The prognosis is very good for these individuals and the counseling is usually short term.

Grapevine: What have you learned from this experience?

RO: This has helped us to prepare if there is ever a disaster in this area. We now have the framework for assistance and feel it was a very positive experience. We sent out a follow up survey to our clients and 95% of them were very satisfied with the level of assistance they've received from MHS, the County and the Red Cross.

      The staff at MHS put in a lot of extra hours working on the cases of the evacuees. This was on top of their regular work load. No one complained though because they felt they were making a real contribution to the Katrina relief effort and according to Ann Poston at MHS, “it was personally gratifying and it was also a chance for all the different program directors and staff to work together.” Overall it was a rewarding experience for those involved.

      The Interfaith Hospitality Network also assisted the effort to provide mentoring relationships with those who evacuated. IHN was able to bring 140 religious congregations to serve the evacuees.

      Editor's Note: If you'd like further information about MHS programs or would like to volunteer please call their office at 216-623-6555.

Copyright Homeless Grapevine Issue 75 March-April 2006 Cleveland, Ohio.