Transitional Experiment Struggling for Jobs

By Meg Grady

NEOCH intern

Six months have passed since the opening of North Point Transitional Housing Center.  For the men at North Point, six months make a point where they are expected to have found jobs and housing.  For others, it is a time to take a critical look at how effective the center’s methods have been so far.  The facility’s director asserts that the program has been successful; one former resident thinks that significant changes need to be made.

North Point was created in January in response to the closing of Aviation High School, an overflow shelter for homeless men-.  Interestingly, it serves a somewhat different purpose; the center features 160 beds for single men directly referred from the 2100 Lakeside shelter.  These men may stay anywhere from one to six months, and extensive case management aids them to developing good mental health, domestic skills, recovery from drug and alcohol addiction, and emotional stability, as well as obtaining permanent housing.  Therefore, instead of replacing the overflow shelter it aims to eliminate the need for overflow beds by providing services that will permanently end the homelessness of the men participating in the program.

Participants are exclusively referred from 2100 Lakeside.  A case manager conducts a short, simple screening every Wednesday night to find men who fit the criteria for eligibility:  committed and able to work full-time, committed to moving into permanent housing, and committed to saving 4o percent of his income for housing.

Every resident is required to participate in an employment support program through either Towards Employment or Employment Connections.  This is the most positive aspect of North Point, said former resident Greg McPherson.

“Everyone is expected to look for a job,” said center director Ed Gemerchak.  “Over half are 25 to 30 applications a week.  If people refuse to do that, they can’t stay.”

In addition, every resident is required to open a savings account through Huntington Bank, which has agreed to provide a safe place to save money for any resident no matter what his credit history.  To assist in finding permanent housing, EDEN, Inc. provides tenant-based rental assistance to subsidized the first six months rent plus the cost of a security deposit.  Finally, the Child Support Enforcement Agency has agreed not to secure funds from a client’s bank account for one year and to work with the client to modify the terms of his support payments.

So far, says Gemerchak, North Point has been “very, very good.” 

As with all new projects, there have been growing pains,” he said, “We’ve had to learn as we go.  There have been successes and setbacks, but we’ve learned an incredible amount.  We’re very happy with the successes we’ve had.”

He attributes the successes to a great staff, as well as an atmosphere focused on working and/or looking for work.  As of June 27, 130 men had secured new jobs at an average wage of $8.63 per hour.  What’s more, he said, the center’s programs have been set up to ‘meet men where they’re at.”  With four different employment programs, “it’s not ‘one size fits all.”

According to a survey conducted by staff, men seem to like it at North Point.  The only repeated complaint was that there are no hot meals due to trouble with the kitchen.

However, for some people “six months isn’t enough time to get yourself together,” said McPherson.  “People come with no birth certificate, no ID, no drier’s license, and it’s a process to obtain those things.”

McPherson, who was discharged from the program before the six-month point, was dissatisfied with other aspects of the center as well.

“If a guy makes progress there, he won’t be able to stay there the whole six months,” he said.  “If you you’re making progress and you have some initiative to get yourself together, they think you’re taking advantage of them.  They didn’t give me a fair opportunity.  But I didn’t take personally.”

He says his extensive criminal record prevented him from successfully securing a job, and that mandatory resident meetings were scheduled when “they knew I wouldn’t be there.”  According to McPherson, once staff saw him using his girlfriend’s car, they began to think that he didn’t really belong at North Point.

Of the first group of residents, a total of 28 were discharged from the program, for offenses ranging from drug and alcohol violations to fighting to refusing to comply with program requirements.  The next batch of residents will likely be better screened, leading to better end results, said Gemerchk. 

We brought in some men who weren’t really willing and able to work, “ he said. “Now we can be more careful.”

Though the men are not tested for drugs and alcohol, use inside the facility is prohibited.  About two-thirds of residents are battling drug and alcohol addiction, and ‘if we tested at the front door, we’d have about 50 in the building instead of 160,” said Gemerchak.  “It isn’t a Pollyanna’ approach – we just believe that it’s better to recover in one’s own home than in a shelter.”

McPherson asserts, however, that there are ‘a lot of guys getting high,” using drugs and alcohol inside the facility.

There’s no curfew – guys take advantage of than,” he said.  He says that if he were in charge, he’d make a number of significant changes, among them a curfew (so that the men can ‘go to bed and get up early the next day to work”), stricter security guards, more enforced drug and alcohol policies, hand-picked residents who are willing to change their lived, and a year-long stay instead of just six months.

Over the next month or so, about 100 men will be moving out of North Point.  Extensions will be granted to those who qualify, though this process will be ‘somewhat strict,” said Gemerchak.  He looks forward to seeing what happens with residents after they leave.

“In the long term,” he said, “I think it (the City of Cleveland and Cuyahoga County Financial investment) will pay off tremendously.”

Copyright Homeless Grapevine Issue #85 in July-August 2008 Cleveland Ohio.