In Cleveland's Fight to Address Growing Homeless Population, Outreach Workers Play a Frontline Role

There remains a clear need for more connections between those on the streets and services, housing

click to enlarge Dean Roff, founder of Homeless Hookup, handing out gloves and packed lunches to the unsheltered in late October. - Mark Oprea
Mark Oprea
Dean Roff, founder of Homeless Hookup, handing out gloves and packed lunches to the unsheltered in late October.
When Dean Roff was homeless, circa 2006, his life was bifurcated into different realms: On the street, off the street. In the system, out of the system. On the wagon, off the wagon.

Roff, then in his mid-thirties with a Charles Manson beard, was a man dealing with the troubles of his own itinerancy. If Roff wasn't resting at the men's shelter at 2100 Superior Ave., he was out peddling on East 4th, sleeping under the occasional bridge or at friend's house. "I was bouncing around couches," Roff said. "Breaking into peoples' sheds so I wouldn't get arrested."

Fighting alcoholism since returning from serving in the Persian Gulf, Roff checked himself into a sober home two years later. He did so lugging a big lesson from the revolving world of the shelter and the sidewalk: good housing doesn't come easy.

"I mean, everybody wants a free house. I want a free house, man—but I didn't want to have to go through those steps," Roff said. "Nobody wants to. I wanted to just say, 'I'm done drinking now. Can I have my house? Can I have my nice car? Can I have a good wardrobe and a cute girlfriend?' Now, I'm responsible.'"

Now 43, sober and living in a two-bedroom with his girlfriend in South Euclid, Roff has been running a small non-profit since 2014, one dedicated to handing out coats and meals and providing haircuts to the unhoused population around Cuyahoga County. (From a converted ambulance decorated in Ohio Buckeye decals.) Calling the operation Homeless Hookup, Roff, along with his friend and director Shaun Meier, run their outreach organization more like neighbors than a city agency.
Last year, as detailed in press reports and county council rooms, Cleveland was facing a spike in its unsheltered homeless population. More tents have popped up along Superior Ave., ground zero of Downtown's shelters, as have those asking for change or bus passes in front of grocery stores and bustling restaurants, much to the chagrin of suburban workers and visitors.

It's an issue that the city and county are now just catching up to. In January, Cleveland City Council greenlit $225,000 of emergency shelter funding to both the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless and the Metanoia Project to create some 90 seasonal shelter beds. And, last Monday, Cuyahoga County announced a $3.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that will go to six outreach organizations to energize their approach to solving youth homelessness.

"We know that the best people to learn from  are the people in this room who have lived experiences in the situation we're here today to tackle," County Executive Chris Ronayne said to the hundred or so attendees at the press event at Tri-C. "That's why it's critical throughout this process that we engage."
click to enlarge County Executive Chris Ronayne announcing $3.9 million in funding, from the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development, for solving youth homelessness, on Monday. - Mark Oprea
Mark Oprea
County Executive Chris Ronayne announcing $3.9 million in funding, from the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development, for solving youth homelessness, on Monday.
Which may seem like old news, even a kind of slight, to Roff and Meier, who make ambulance runs, sometimes daily, fueled entirely by private donations. In their mind, and even the minds behind the county's current strategy, the solution to remedying the homeless boom isn't a top-down maneuver; it rests heavily on strong, interpersonal trust that's cared for and maintained often over weeks and months.

"You can throw money at the problem all day long," Roff said. "But if I was homeless and you threw money at me, I'm going to burn it to stay warm. Whereas, like, me and Shaun, we can go into the trenches, grab their hand, and show them the way out."

The philosophy of Homeless Hookup, one that also seems to be in play in NEOCH's outreach team, seems to be reflected in the county's current, five-year strategic plan to drastically decrease the number of county residents who are unsheltered or homeless.

Its principles, which were published last summer, could almost be found on a Post-It in Roff's driver's seat. The plan stresses "intensive and persistent outreach and engagement" to build trust, rather that "enforcement, clearance, forced relocation and criminalization." (Cleveland's not a stranger to tent city sweeps in the past.)

Best care for those on the street, the plan emphasizes, comes only with a kind of empathetic personalization: "Individual choices about where and how to live must be honored," it recommends.

For Gerald, 62, it's the preference for Downtown's streets, mostly under an overhang on East 9th, or a bridge on Chester or Superior. A sidewalk existence is a little more freeing, he said, than the structure and stringency of the men's shelter at 2100, which doesn't allow pets, large families, and requires efforts toward employment and sobriety to connect to permanent housing services.

"They can throw you out. Then you got to get up and leave in the morning, you're not welcome back," Gerald said, standing on the corner of East 9th and Prospect Ave. in late October. "Why should I stay in the day when they going to make me leave in the morning? When I can sleep out here and I can sleep long as I want."

"And then they got these rules and stuff," he added. "You have to be involved in something. You have to be doing something to get your life together."

According to the county's most recent estimate, 500 of the 5,000 or so homeless people across Cuyahoga are unsheltered, meaning they spent most, if not all, of their days and nights on the streets. Three-fourths of these 500 have a disability of some sort, and thus require, common sense would dictate, professional intervention to link them with temporary housing. That process, through housing vouchers or case managers, would ideally evolve into a proper apartment or hotel living.

In a recent interview with Emily Collins, the advisor to Mayor Justin Bibb tasked with steering Cleveland's fix for its unsheltered, stressed the importance of bankrolling NEOCH and Metanoia's new emergency shelters—which Collins has toured—especially as late winter cold fronts threaten those living in Superior's tent neighborhoods.

Yet she described City Hall's vision of its street-level work as if the most basic aspects of the work still need addressing.

"The idea of what's communicated, how it's communicated, how each individual's needs are assessed," she said, from a conference room adjacent Bibb's office, "I think is a piece of the puzzle that we're looking to provide some leadership on."

There is "kind of this gap in connecting to services," Collins added. "So we need everybody to be doing that in the same way for the same purposes and with a unified good."
click to enlarge Roff checking in on someone on Superior Ave. - Mark Oprea
Mark Oprea
Roff checking in on someone on Superior Ave.
In late October, Roff took Scene out for a two-hour ride across Cleveland, in what was a normal Tuesday for Homeless Hookup. It was blustery and rainy for the most part, so Roff was sure to stock up on hand warmers and sleeping bags, along with 230 pre-packed lunches from St. Ambrose Church his girlfriend Dawna Natale, a fitness instructor who met Roff at a boxing class, helps organize in the back.

As Roff drove around Downtown, stopping to hand out rain ponchos or check up his "friends" of his—"they're my people, man"—his mind drifted back to the individual that catapulted Roff into his own recovery journey. It was Jack Mulhall, a social worker at the Ed Keating Center, who Roff said is the reason he's alive today.

An emotional wave overcame Roff as he drove. Him and Natale were bound for a week-long trip to Italy, Roff's first time out of the U.S., and Homeless Hookup was as financially strong as it's been since 2014. Roff tears up as he talks about Mulhall, recalling how "close to death" he was days before his mentor and Mulhall's I-can-know-you approach lifted Roff into sobriety.

"Sometimes you have to love someone at a distance—tough love," Roff said, recalling Mulhall's work. "And that's the kind of love he showed me."

Roff stopped the ambulance near East 23rd and Payne, about a block down from 2100. "Yo!" he shouted to two women walking south. "What's up, ladies!" Dawna readied some coats, a bag of sandwiches or two, as Roff leapt out to give the two women hugs in full electricity. "Sasha was wearing makeup, wow!" he said, back in the driver's seat. "She was looking bad last time. But wow. She looks like she's doing great."

click to enlarge Roff hugging his friend, Sasha. "She was looking bad last time," he said. "Now she looks like she's doing great." - Mark Oprea
Mark Oprea
Roff hugging his friend, Sasha. "She was looking bad last time," he said. "Now she looks like she's doing great."

He contextualized: "Hey, it's my job, my job to be that little pin of light in that abyss," Roff said, putting the ambulance in drive. "That one little piece of hope. If I've done that, then I've done my job. I've done something."
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Mark Oprea

Mark Oprea is a staff writer at Scene. For the past seven years, he's covered Cleveland as a freelance journalist, and has contributed to TIME, NPR, the Pacific Standard and the Cleveland Magazine. He's the winner of two Press Club awards.
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