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Cleveland's settlement houses persevere, even as they struggle with funding and obscurity
CLEVELAND, Ohio - Antonia Tosado loaded a cart full of bread and produce ... Those that linger find themselves surrounded by empty storefronts and vacant homes with shattered and boarded-up windows. University Settlement sits adjacent to the Industrial ...
Gallery: University Settlement
By Patrick Cooley, cleveland.com
CLEVELAND, Ohio - Antonia Tosado loaded a cart full of bread and produce into the trunk of her daughter's silver sedan on a recent Monday after collecting food from the University Settlement on Broadway Avenue in Cleveland.
It wouldn't have been her first choice.
"I go to Save-A-Lot when I have the money," Tosado said.
The Cleveland woman, however, said she often relies on the generosity of groups like the University Settlement when she doesn't have money for foodThe nonprofit is among the city's remaining settlement houses and Tosado is just one of the tens of thousands of Northeast Ohioans who depends on them for basic needs.
Most readers likely haven't heard of settlement housesThey don't hold a the prominent place in the public consciousness as they once didBut they play a vital role in Cleveland's most vulnerable neighborhoods, even if the scope of their services is limited by their funding.
Settlement houses emerged in the United States in the late 19th Century to provide for waves of immigrants coming to the countryThey taught new arrivals English and helped them acclimate to their foreign surroundingsToday, they provide food, daycare, education, activities for seniors and assistance with rent and utility bills, among many other things, to Cleveland's needy families.
The story of settlement houses in Cleveland reflects the way the city has changed and provides a window into the struggles of its most powerless residents.
Settlement house mandates have evolved as the years as the neighborhoods they serve have changedBut their clientele remains overwhelmingly poor.
Cleveland once has as many as 22 settlement housesFourteen remain.
Those that linger find themselves surrounded by empty storefronts and vacant homes with shattered and boarded-up windowsUniversity Settlement sits adjacent to the Industrial Valley near abandoned warehouses and shuttered factories that once provided a middle-class lifestyle to Cleveland's East Siders.
What follows is a look at the city's settlement houses and the people they serve.
The history of settlement houses
Toynbee Hall in London is recognized as the first settlement houseFounded in 1884, it provided food, shelter and education to the city's impoverished working class and relied on donations from wealthy Londoners and scholars who volunteered their time.
The United States imported the idea in the 1890s as millions of European immigrants crossed the Atlantic and settled on this side of the ocean, often in squalor and abject poverty.
Cleveland's first settlement house - the Hiram House on Orange Avenue - opened its doors in 1896It was founded by Hiram College students
The West Side Community House - originally the Methodist Deaconess Home of Cleveland - is one of the oldest surviving settlement housesIt also got its start in the late 19th Century.
Settlement houses adapted their missions and goals as the immigrants they once served migrated to the suburbs.
The 110-year-old East End Neighborhood House, for example, catered largely to the city's Hungarian community, but neighborhood demographics shifted in the 1950s and the surrounding community transitioned to a predominantly black one.
"You had a migration of people coming from the South to look for better opportunities here," East End Neighborhood House President and CEO Zulma Zabala said in an interview"White flight changed the neighborhood."
The University Settlement in the Broadway-Slavic Village neighborhood once provided for a community composed mostly of Polish, Slovak and Czech immigrantsThe community is now half black with pockets of Latinos.
"The community has changed dramatically," University Settlement Executive Director Earl Pike said"At height of World War II it was 100,000 people, now it's 22,000 peopleThe people with the most resources left and the people with the fewest resources stayed."
More than half of the neighborhood's residents live below the poverty lineBusiness owners fled when most of the steel mills shuttered - depriving the neighborhood of good paying jobs - leaving the streets with dilapidated buildings and empty lots where stores and houses once stood.
Gentrification led the The West Side Community House to relocate from Ohio City to the near West Side in 2006.
"We moved because our participants were no longer in Ohio City," Executive Director Dawn Kolograf said.
Settlement house directors began to delve into politics and social justice as the 20th Century wore onCleveland's Karamu House, for example, achieved notoriety outside of Northeast Ohio thanks to its interracial theaterToday, it's recognized as the oldest African-American theater in the United States.
"In the earlier history of settlement houses in Cleveland, you won't find the Harvard Community Services Center or a couple others because we came in after the Civil Rights Movement," Harvard Community Services Center President and CEO Elaine Gohlstin said.
Who the settlement houses serve
Tosado was on the verge of tears when a University Settlement worker explained how to store some of the food items in her cartShe thanked the worker profusely before another worker helped her load her daughter's car with foodstuffs.
The settlement's clients more often than not come from poverty and do not have access to carsTosado, for example, doesn't have a car and relies on the generosity of friends and family when she needs to travel.
"I come (to the University Settlement) when I can get a ride," she said, explaining that she's afraid of being robbed walking the streets of her gritty East Side neighborhood"I don't want to be alone in the streets."
A few days later, a group of seniors played dominoes at circular tables in the cafeteria of the Harvard Community Services CenterThe nonprofit lets elderly people socialize there on certain days.
One of the seniors, Clara Russell, spoke to a reporter as a staff member made preparations for pokeno, a card game similar to bingo.
"Can you imagine all these people sitting at home with no one to talk to and nothing to do?" Russell asked during a brief interview.
Speakers occasionally talk to the group about medical and social services available to older ClevelandersMedical professionals sometimes take their blood pressure and provide care the seniors might not otherwise receive.
I've been coming here quite a long time," Russell said"We used to have more peopleSome have died and some have moved onBut as long as (The Harvard Center) keeps doing this, I think it's a wonderful thing."
The house also has a daycare center, computer labs, and space for parents who have lost custody of their kids to meet their estranged children.
Expectant mothers can work with the Harvard Center beginning at the third month of their pregnancy to get the care they needThe center also partners with children's services to work with troubled families to keep their children out of foster care, provides after-school programs and offers a space for community meetings, among other things.
And it's not the only settlement house to offer an array of services.
Zabala said the East End Neighborhood House serves its clients "from birth to their elder years."
East End employees deliver meals to 44 seniors every day and the house provides a space for gatherings like AA meetings and community advocacy gatherings. East End serves as a barometer of sorts for the issues that affect the city.
"We're the ones that always have our ear to the ground and know what things are happening," Zabala said.
Settlement house leaders said they have difficulty counting the number of people they help because some clients take advantage of multiple programsOthers who take advantage of food giveaways might not be officially counted.
"Last year, we served 16,000 families," Gohlstin said"It might be more than that, because sometimes people fall through the cracks."
The problems that face communities that are home to settlement houses are manyEast End has an after-school program which, among other things, helps children readThe program began after workers found that neighborhood children were passed from grade to grade before they learned how.
"Parents want their children to do well, but parents who are living in poverty who have two jobs don't have the time" to help their kids with school work, Zabala said.
The Harvard Center was born out of of similar concerns, Gohlstin said.
"We grew out of a group of residents sitting at a street club meeting who said, 'You know what? We have some problems with our students after they get out of high school,'" she said"We need to find somewhere for them to go."
Settlement house leaders say their work with struggling residents sometimes gives them early warning signs and insights into struggles that otherwise go unreported.
When the mortgage crisis struck Northeast Ohio in the late-2000s, much of the focus was on homeowners, but Zabala said the East End Neighborhood House immediately realized renters were also in need because landlords were losing their properties to foreclosure, displacing the families living in them.
"People were coming to their doors and telling them that they had to leave because the house was being foreclosed," she said.
The settlement houses confront their own troubles as they battle to improve their communitiesOne of the biggest is obscurity.
They're often left out of the spotlight as other nonprofits use attention-grabbing headlines and public relations campaigns to raise moneySettlement house leaders just want people to know they exist.
Zabala hosts a regular coffee and dialogue meeting to spread the word about the East End House and the role it plays in its community.
"That is the challenge that we're facing," she said"People think we're this thing of the past but we've been very busy advocating for families and communities."
A combination of city, county and federal money, along with grants from charitable foundations, keep settlement houses afloatTheir budgets can stretch into the millions of dollarsThe East End Neighborhood House's 2017 budget, for example, surpassed $2 million.
"It's diverse but it's still tight," Zabala said"Right now I'm trying to figure out how to fund some of our senior services."
The houses often work together, sharing kitchens and vehicles to ensure that community members get what they need, she added.
"We learned early on that a diverse funding pot is important to have," Gohlstin said"If you depend on one pot of funding and that funding goes away, that means your organization goes away."
Wealthy Clevelanders and prominent Northeast Ohio institutions often donate to settlement houses, providing everything from renovations to food.
The East End Neighborhood House has an outdoor basketball court made possible by contributions from the Cleveland CavaliersThe pavement is emblazoned with the Cavs' logo.
Following the election of President Donald Trump, who shows little interest in providing more funding for social safety net programs, settlement house directors publicly and privately admit that they worry about keeping the lights on.
Times of trouble can be particularly hard on smaller organizations like settlement houses and community centers, Gohlstin said.
"Larger organizations are able to get larger pots because they already have the supportive services in place," she said.
As a result groups like the Harvard Center have taken to asking the public for help more frequently.
"Before we might have had an end of the year donation drive," Gohlstin said"But now we're asking for donations several times throughout the year, usually for specific programs."
Services are lost when the funding dries upZabala said that East End, in its funding heyday, took high school students to college campuses hoping to encourage them to pursue higher educationToday they no longer have the money.
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