NEOCH Breaks the Cycle of Homelessness

Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless (NEOCH) gives a voice to homeless individuals and helps break the cycle of homelessness.

I sat on Public Square at two in the morning not knowing what I was going to do nor where I was going to go. I was not being able to call 211, because the phone app I was using did not support calling that number. I looked around, thinking about how tired I was, I walked from West Boulevard. I was thankful that it was still summer, but it was August and I had nowhere to go. Never in a million years did I ever think I would be in this situation, but here I sat – homeless.

I spent two days at the large women shelter before going to a smaller one, which had specific beds for veterans. It was while there, when I was asked if I was willing to do volunteer work as I waited for the VA to render a decision on a compensation claim. I pondered the idea and agreed to meet with NEOCH.

The rest is history. My first day, after spending what seemed like five hours reading the Volunteer Handbook, I had the opportunity to witness NEOCH.  They are doing what I have come to realize they do best. Helping people survive the harsh winter and doing it with love!!!

I was all in at that point…”

These are words written by Hazel Williams, a Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless
(NEOCH) staff member, in 2018. Today, Williams is leading the expansion of one of the organization’s programs to help provide housing to homeless people in Northeast Ohio.

Williams is a perfect example of the work NEOCH does: empowering homeless and at-risk men, women, and children to help break the cycle of homelessness, led by those who are currently homeless and/or have lived through the experience. Through public education, advocacy, and the creation of nurturing environments, the organization has been the voice of homeless people in Cleveland since 1989.

“We are about amplifying the voices of people in the homeless community,” says NEOCH Executive Director Chris Knestrick. “They need to have a voice in the services that are being provided to them. They need to be sitting at the table where decisions are being made about the shelters and policy formed about affordable housing. They are the ones that that will be looking for affordable housing and utilizing the services. They are the ones impacted.”

NEOCH embodies this philosophy to a tee, with most of its staff and outreach workers having previously experienced homelessness, and are now leading programs.

The organization works on the belief that through community action exists the power to change institutions, policies, and attitudes that create homelessness. It’s the only non-governmental organization in the city whose employees work exclusively on developing and lobbying for solutions to the homeless problem, with a strategy centered around maintaining political pressure to encourage change, public education on the true nature of the problem, and collaboration towards alliances and solutions.

There’s a pretty good chance you’ve seen NEOCH’s programs in action — or read its stories. The Cleveland Street Chronicle, a newspaper written by individuals who are currently homeless or have been in the past, is sold on the streets by members to encourage an attitude of entrepreneurship, instead of panhandling. Their “Cleveland Street Voices Program” allows individuals to share their stories with the community in an effort to try to break down stereotypes and inspire people of different ages and backgrounds to get involved in social justice.

Along with diminished federal funding, one of the major challenges NEOCH faces is the alarming rate of family homelessness, which has experienced a 30% increase in the last three years. This increase of mothers and children entering into homeless services has overwhelmed service providers, coupled with a lack of affordable housing in the community. According to Knestrick, many people do not qualify for subsidized housing for a variety of reasons, such as a criminal record and previous evictions. “Some families are being asked to pay 80% of their income toward housing,” he says. “Ten thousand people are selected for CMHA from a waiting list of 55,000. Finding affordable and safe housing is an ongoing challenge making our housing trainings so important.”

The Callahan Foundation is proud to support NEOCH with a grant of $10,000 for their housing trainings, which are offered to service providers, social workers and advocates to build capacity in the community. The workshops provide important knowledge about how to work with people experiencing homelessness, troubleshoot difficult situations, and eliminate barriers to housing, deepening the community’s ability and collective skills to work with the population, treat them with dignity, and get people into housing quicker.