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Unsung Hero: Dennis Ashton

Written by Brian Davis on . Posted in Blog

There are a few things I know for certain from my work life:

  1. Homelessness is a solvable problem.
  2. People who experience homelessness are stripped of their civil rights daily which is extremely demoralizing, and makes it that much harder to get back your stability.
  3. Pitchers should never be forced to bat in professional baseball.
  4. Dennis Ashton and Jim Schlecht of the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless (NEOCH) will always be there to help those struggling in Cleveland. 

Dennis came to the work helping people with government bureaucracy at one of the meal programs in Cleveland, showing particular prowess in getting people identification. He also volunteered overnight to stay at one of the winter shelters, a role that turned into a paid supervisory job. Then Dennis started doing outreach for the NEOCH. It was a part time position but he spent long hours driving around the streets of Cleveland looking for people who needed help or responding to concerned citizens who were worried about their neighbors living outside. 

Dennis Ashton checking on someone living outdoors in Cleveland.

The outreach system became more advanced in Cleveland with all the groups sitting at the same table on a regular basis to talk about strategies, housing options and the best approach with certain individuals in need of help.  They started to have real success getting to know everyone on the streets and building a trusting relationship, and then the pandemic hit. 

Dennis said that it “started out as if it was not real.” The overnight drop in center closed because of safety concerns.  The shelters started moving people out to try to de-concentrate and things began to look really bleak.  There was a ceremony to give out tents soon after the overnight drop in center closed at the church in hopes that the residents could make it on their own. The men and women were asking, “Where can we go with these tents?” Outreach staff were frustrated that all progress they had made over the last 7 years would be lost. It was decided then and there to try to put as many people as possible into hotels. The hotels were basically sitting empty and there were potentially hundreds who were going to be outside in the rainy spring of 2020. What started with just a few people and no money grew and grew. Private foundations and donors kicked in money to start this program under the leadership of NEOCH. Eventually, the County agreed to front the money for the hotels in order to de-concentrate the shelters until the federal CARES act funding was in place. Eventually, there were five hotels used with an additional space for families as well.  

The program was a huge success. Before the pandemic, it took time to build a relationship with those living outside and a great deal of coaxing to find the best solution for the individual to come inside.  Now, you could just drive to the campsite and say, “Who wants a motel room?” Then you would work with the person on their issues where you knew where they would be and they knew they were safe. The outdoor population went from a few hundred to a couple of dozen living rough in February 2021. It was difficult to move people into more stable housing because the system was mostly frozen for a year. There were very few evictions, no one was relocating out of their housing especially if there was a subsidy attached and nearly every permanent supportive housing unit was full in Cleveland. 

Dennis said it was a horrible year with many getting sick some of the more fragile died. But the federal relief for homeless individuals was successful in Cleveland because it started with a plan for safe private rooms inside. There were challenges with getting people identification and there were not nearly the number of volunteers helping with food or other supportive services that the system enjoyed before the pandemic. Getting food was never an issue for most because of the number of church based groups that served hot meals in Cleveland. All the places that afforded the opportunity for community shut down or were take out only. There were no Zoom meetings to check in with your friends that you saw at lunch every few days.

Dennis said that the local public hospital, MetroHealth, stepped up to provide testing and even sending nurses out to do health screenings. The Central Kitchen delivered food to all these hotels locally which was a huge escalation of their services. He said that all outreach were told not to transport people because of the safety of being in a car with someone potentially infected, but he just could not leave his friends out on the streets to tell them to walk the 3 or 4 miles to the hotel. Dennis said his biggest job was trying to keep people calm and not make them more scared than they already were. He worked from 6 a.m. until late at night trying to meet the needs of those without housing. Law enforcement were calling for outreach help more often and there were some sticky days when the curfew was in place and people who were outside were told to get inside or face a ticket for violating the statewide curfew. Dennis, the eternal optimist, said that everyone was doing the best they could over the last year. He said that unfortunately, the shelters have a bad reputation for a lot of people, and this hotel program gave everyone an option to go inside that we never had in the past. There were also so many people with special circumstances like pets that the system could finally help.  

Street Outreach during cold pandemic months.

In a crisis, there are people who really step up to meet the needs of their neighbors. Dennis Ashton of Cleveland, OH, is one of those unsung heroes in the local community. He went about his job getting people into housing during the pandemic without a lot of fanfare or assistance.  Overcoming the fear of infection while working to keep those on the streets informed and calm during this crisis is how Dennis went about his job.

There are many cities in the United States who could not figure out how to keep individuals experiencing homelessness safe or reduce the number of people staying outside during the pandemic. In my opinion, a large part of that is because they did not have a Dennis Ashton working in their communities. 

New Jersey Executive Chef Dedicates His Life’s Work to Helping the Homeless

Written by admin on . Posted in Blog

During a time when our nation needs it most, Executive Chef Cardie Mortimer wants to help us find unity in the kitchen. The culinary therapy cookbook, Keep on Cookin’ contains 280 pages full of recipes and stories about life, love, and laughter. “Keep on Cookin’ was written intentionally to bring families and friends back to the heart of the home, the kitchen.” – Executive Chef Cardie Mortimer.

Executive Chef Cardie Mortimer graduated from the New Orleans Culinary Institute in 1978 and has received numerous teaching and culinary certifications of the past 42 years. In New Jersey alone, he has served as a popular instructor at King’s Cooking Studios in Short Hills, Adult School of Montclair, the Adult school of Continuing Education in West Caldwell, and was the 1995 Master Teaching Professional at Chef’s Lab in Montclair.

Donate $100 and we’ll send Mom a copy of Cardie’s soulful cookbook!

Over the years, Chef Cardie has acted as an advisor, sous chef, and Executive Chef in many northern New Jersey restaurants and in Birmingham, Alabama, and Savannah GA. He was also a guest chef in two Emeril Lagasse restaurants in Las Vegas. Some of the world-class chefs Cardie has worked alongside include Robert Irvine, Neil Dohery (Cisco Foods), Emeril Lagasse, Paul Prudehomme, Sean Roe, Dana D’Anzi Tuohy, and Kevin Belton (New Orleans School of Cooking).

Celebrity chef Maria Liberati describes Cardie as a chef that cooks with soul. Outside of the kitchen, Chef Cardie believes giving back is another great way for us to come together. His relationship with a homeless man named Charlie inspired him to gift all proceeds from Keep on Cookin’ to support the National Coalition for the Homeless, and other organizations working to end homelessness. 

Resources in the American Rescue Plan of 2021, and How to get your Economic Impact Payments

Written by admin on . Posted in Blog

Our April Town Hall (click here for more on the Town Hall Series) featured a look at the American Rescue Plan passed by the 117th US Congress and signed into law on March 11, 2021 by President Joe Biden.  The first speaker was Janne Huang, Outreach Campaign Strategy Manager at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (www.cbpp.org).  Huang has worked over the last year to assure that low income and especially homeless people have access to direct financial assistance provided in the three COVID Relief packages passed over the last year.  She began her discussion by describing the $1,400 stimulus funds and the additional resources for families as life changing for many, and so it was critical for groups to help people access to those dollars.  Ms. Huang wrote an article for CBPP last year which is still relevant for the March COVID relief package:

https://www.eitcoutreach.org/blog/outreach-tips-to-connect-people-experiencing-homelessness-to-stimulus-payments/

The easiest way to help those without income access these funds are to file an IRS tax return for 2020 tax year.  Those incarcerated individuals are also eligible, and you should claim everyone residing in your household to get the full benefit.  The American Rescue plan also offers an advance on child tax credit that can be as much as $3,000 per child as part of your refund in 2021.  The local 2-1-1 system has lists of local programs which can help individuals file their taxes for free.  Agencies can get a tool kit from the IRS to help people file their taxes and can answer some common questions about the COVID relief funds.  Huang described the IRS Get-My-Payment website, which can help with filing and tracking those checks. https://www.irs.gov/coronavirus/get-my-payment

There is also a process in which an agency can be trained to be a local assistance center to offer tax filing assistance.  The agency can then work with clients to answer some questions, securely upload income and banking documents then the IRS will take over and assure the client gets their recovery funds.  Individuals do not need a bank account either to receive the help, they can get debit cards or actual physical checks.  Those just add time to the processing.  The IRS has even made it possible to receive assistance through phone peer to peer payment apps like Venmo.  We learned at the Town Hall that shelters in which many people are using as an address sometimes slows down the processing.  Local shelters can register with the local IRS office to clear up the confusion.  Also, the use of PO Boxes sometimes will slow down the processing of these payments. 

Other resources for assisting someone with, or obtaining EIP payments:

The other presenter was NCH Board President and Minnesota advocate, Sue Watlov Phillips who provided a broader look at the American Rescue funds and how they can be used for creating programs to assist with housing and support services.  Huang’s presentation focused on the benefits for the individuals while Watlov Phillips focused on the funds available to non-profit agencies.  Some of this is up in the air since the rules for use of these funds will not be released until the fall, but these are assumptions based on the past two emergency allocations from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.  The big difference in these funds is they do not rely on the limited definition of homelessness HUD uses in most of their programs because it includes those at risk of homelessness, domestic violence victims including those fleeing an abuser who is stalking them and veterans who may not be able to be served by the VA.  Click here to find out how much your community is receiving here is the HUD site with the dollar figures for the $5 Billion in HOME program for people experiencing homelessness.

The important message here is that there is a great deal of money coming to the local community for reducing the impacts of homelessness and you need to be involved in how that money is distributed.  Advocates, including people who have experienced homelessness and/or housing crises in the local community know how to best utilize these dollars, and they need to be at the table. Nearly every big city and larger metropolitan county/parish has a “continuum of care” committee which will most likely oversee how these dollars are spent.  Some are managed by a local governmental body while others have a private company or non-profit which oversees the committee.  There are typically social service providers, children’s programs, legal assistance programs, housing entities, advocates and typically a couple people with lived experience.  They typically have public meetings and other community input.  For rural communities the states take the lead in managing these funds in what is typically called “the balance of state” advisory boards.  Again, these are typically public entities like housing development agencies who coordinate these groups.  Get involved and push for housing over shelters.  Push those entities to think broadly about the problem and do not push people down only one path.  Give people experiencing homelessness dignified programs that can quickly and safely move them back to stability.  We need your voice at the state and local levels to advocate for effective alternatives.  

There will also be $5 Billion in Emergency Housing Vouchers which will also include a broader definition of homelessness.  Public Housing Authorities will be receiving notification of this in the next 4-5 weeks, which will hopefully be facilitated on an aggressive technical assistance model. 

Finally, there is a proposed 15% increase in the HUD budget for fiscal year 2022 which would hopefully be in place by October 2021.  

More resources on the FY22 budget here

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