Local Woman Fights For Her Family’s Rights A Profile of Sabrina Otis

by Bernadette Janes

    Although she has spent years striving for fair treatment for her family, Sabrina Otis should be looked upon as an advocate for all people subject to the constantly changing ordinances and plans of governmental leaders. Her ongoing struggle for suitable housing has put her in repeated contact with countless state and local officials from different levels. It has thereby caused her to be deeply versed in the confusing labyrinth of service programs that are supposed to meet the needs of Ohio’s lower-income families.

    A case in point is her recent “success” in obtaining temporary housing from the County. Her relief in receiving it was almost immediately marred by the fact that the entire heating system in the house had been turned off to allow for the repair of a broken chimney.  Typical of Ohio’s inconsistency of service, the chimney was quickly repaired, but the home’s heating system has not yet been turned back on, as of the month of January, often proving to be the coldest month of the year.  (Editor’s Note: Sabrina and her family have since moved to another property due to these issues.)

    Sabrina was born in Parma, Ohio and moved with her parents to Cleveland when she was in the eighth grade. After high school she supported herself working at a variety of jobs, and later participated in a welfare reform pilot program of the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority. Receiving a scholarship, she attended college in Dayton, but will soon transfer to CSU to finish a degree in Criminal Justice. Her interest in working on human problems led her to join AmeriCorps, where she discovered the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless and its helpful program, Bridging The Gap.

    Yet, becoming a working single mother brought inevitable problems finding daycare, as well as accusations of child neglect because of the lack and high cost of adequate housing. Homeless for a short period of time, Sabrina suffered the loss of her children to foster care, where they were mistreated and held out of school for four months. With her children now living with her again, she works as a custodian for the county, and ponders how to acquire permanent housing that will satisfy regulations calling for multiple bedrooms and no boy/girl doubling up of sleeping quarters for her five children.

    In accord with her desire to work on the difficulties of homeless families, Sabrina underwent training and has become a speaker for NEOCH’s Street Voices Speakers’ Bureau. To audiences in and around Cleveland, she tells of her belief that housing issues have been placed in the wrong agency. Since housing is being handled with constant shortcomings by the Children and Family Services Agency, she maintains that it should be placed instead under the Department of Human Services, where she believes housing could be more efficiently provided.

    In addition, Sabrina insists that homelessness is often not the fault of homeless people themselves. By law, she declares, the public authorities of city, county, and state are obligated to provide suitable housing for families with children. The problem, according to her analysis, is the well-known shortage of low-cost housing, while expensive developments can be seen going up in many parts of the city. Once again, the mentality of the market has taken precedence over the basic right of  Sabrina and her family, as well as thousands of other Americans, to the availability of affordable shelter as one of the necessities of life.

   Sabrina enjoys public speaking as a Street Voices speaker, now and then vividly retelling the story of her sometimes hotly-animated encounters with workers in charge of housing. Her children, however, through it all, have developed a friendly person-to person touch: kicking a ball around and exchanging gifts with other children last year at St. John’s church in Strongsville. Recently, Sabrina, prompted by her personal struggles, has also obtained training to become a mediator between landlords and tenants, expanding her experienced knowledge of situations faced by so many other tenants.

    In keeping with her well-rounded public spirit, she put that knowledge to good use last year by becoming a candidate for County Commissioner. As such, she did her best to inform the sitting Commissioners of their frequent failings. In her campaign speeches she educated the general public as well, imploring them to fulfill their civic duties and calling upon to study the issues and exercise the power of their votes to elect leaders more attentive to human needs.

    Yet, despite her years of struggle with only occasional victories, Sabrina has succeeded in one all-important endeavor. With her vigorous airing of vital matters of the day, she has made it very clear that, not only in Cleveland but everywhere in America, we desperately need more Sabrinas.  We need more determined individuals with the conviction and intelligent, impassioned voices to rouse the sleepwalking millions who work their jobs, pay their bills, and yet wonder why they’re still on a downhill path. If her ideas, energy and sense of civic duty were to be replicated throughout our society, we could go a long way toward recapturing the essence of that great country we all learned about, and believed in, long ago, in school.

Copyright Homeless Grapevine, Cleveland Ohio Issue 80 April 2007