Interview by Ariela Alpert
In the last issue of The Homeless Grapevine, Managing Editor Kevin Cleary wrote a commentary discussing the volunteering spirit of America’s youth, and contrasted this with the public perception of a “useless and selfish” generation.
Erin Huber, the young founder of local non-profit organization Covering Cleveland, is another example of this volunteering spirit. Started in 2000, when she was only 18, Huber’s organization seeks to provide warmth in the form of blankets, jackets, hugs, and more to homeless people in and around Cleveland. Huber recently sat down with the Grapevine to talk about her work.
Homeless Grapevine: Have you always been interested in helping others or was there a particular incident that spurred your interest?
Huber: I think I had a really great upbringing, which is the main reason that I feel we must all help each other. My mother has always taught me to be kind and my father, who is now deceased, taught me to always love one another.
When I was about 15, I went to my first soup kitchen (by myself), and I was hooked really. After that, I joined Big Brothers Big Sisters, began volunteering for Habitat for Humanity, and then moved on to my current project, Covering Cleveland.
Grapevine: How did you start Covering Cleveland and how did it develop?
Huber: The story is posted on the website for greater detail if needed, [but,] in short, have you ever felt like you wanted to do more, but didn’t know how? Or maybe something you wanted was just a few inches from your reach -- you weren’t satisfied with what you were doing?
Well, I think that’s how I felt before starting Covering Cleveland.
I just wanted to do more and after experiencing (the story on the website), I just started with a few blankets and my car, covering people up on the streets, and it developed from there, with more people wanting to help. (Editor’s Note: The “story on the website”to which Huber is referring involved a trip to downtown Cleveland at the age of 16, in which she saw someone sleeping on the street and felt compelled to grab a blanket from her car.)
Grapevine: Have you heard any interesting stories from you interactions with the homeless community that you would like to share?
Huber: Some of [them] I don’t think I should share, but I will say that the homeless are commonly discriminated against and some have been harmed on many a night by people who should be protecting them, which is sad.
Also, there is one issue I would like to address here and that is: Many of us are only a paycheck away from being homeless. There are many reasons for homelessness, and I think the saddest story is that of a close friend who I won’t name.
He and his wife had a happy marriage and a son in Cleveland 10 years ago. One day, someone took his son’s life for no reason. His marriage was torn apart from anger and depression. The man who killed his son was just released from jail this year, but he, the father, has been on the streets for about 9 years mourning his son’s death, dealing with depression, the loss of his son and marriage. The point is that we never know what life is going to hand us or how we will react to it, and not everyone has solid family and friends. It is not hard to become homeless. Many of the men I meet have high school diplomas, some college, long, solid working careers, etc. So, when you see a homeless person on the street (not a panhandler), please treat them as a person with respect. You have no idea how close to home their story may be.
Grapevine: What else do you think would help homeless people in Cleveland?
Huber: I really feel that the city can get more involved. They have shown their support for what Covering Cleveland does by giving us a Resolution of Recognition in November, but I am speaking of making central centers to solve these [many] issues of homelessness. Lutheran Metro Ministries, which I am most familiar with, runs the [biggest] men’s shelter in the city and does a very good job. The problem is that they can only fit so many people into their programs.
If we could have a centralized space where all of the local organizations that deal with homelessness [could] meet, exchange ideas, program information, and maybe work together on more projects (with and without the city), I think this could be beneficial in moving people through and out of homelessness more quickly. I do [also] want to mention that I understand money is always an issue and that these are just my personal ideas.
Grapevine: Do you have any future plans for Covering Cleveland?
Huber: Honestly, no. Things are manageable for me the way they are and we are very happy with the amount of people we help. All of my volunteers, [including] myself, work full-time jobs, have families and other obligations like school. So I am very thankful for all of our achievements and the organization is exactly where we need it to be. But, there is always [room] for fine-tuning things and becoming more effective and efficient)
Grapevine: What do you think is the best way to reach out and make others aware of the problems in Cleveland?
Huber: [There are a lot of ways, like] flyers, emails, sleeping on the street in the snow for a night (like Blaire Winner and I did last January), speaking to youth groups (with and without their parents), community service at soup kitchens, etc. There are so many ways to educate people about the homeless and how to help. Covering Cleveland tries to reach all of the bases regularly.
Grapevine: What has been your favorite part of the project?
Huber: To be selfish, knowing that because of us, someone may not freeze [while] sleeping on the street or that we gave someone a hug who may not have had one in months or years! Also, I love driving around at night and talking with people on the streets. My volunteers and I have learned quite a bit about life [this way].
Grapevine: What are your hopes for the future?
Huber: [We hope] to have a few leaders in the organization, to stay purely volunteer, and I hope that our young generations will appreciate their family, friends, and all of the things that we take for granted. But, most importantly, that people will always have a hand reaching for those who may have fallen, because we are all in this together.
Copyright Homeless Grapevine, Cleveland Ohio Issue 82 October 2007