Novel approach: Cuyahoga County brings services directly to the community

When Cuyahoga County Executive Chis Ronayne was campaigning for his seat in 2022, he made it clear that he wanted to meet people where they are, that residents shouldn’t have to come to government offices to meet their needs.

“I spent time a year-and-a-half ago on my campaign, listening to people on their porches and in community meetings,” he recalls. “I said then that my hope was to be able to decentralize some aspects of county government and bring our services to the people.”

It’s a philosophy Ronayne learned in the late 1990s and early 2000s while working for then-County Commissioner Jane Campbell.

Cuyahoga County Commissioner Chis RonayneCuyahoga County Commissioner Chis Ronayne“I learned the value proposition of having community facilities in the community, where people could enlist in what they needed in their own communities,” he says. “Fast forward to the time of the pandemic, for the most part post-pandemic. We learned a lot in the pandemic about people's needs and where people are sometimes disconnected from government services.”

So, in early November, Ronayne renewed his commitment to meeting people where they are—in their communities—and launched Neighborhood Based Services, partnering staff with Cuyahoga County’s Division of Job and Family Services (CJFS) with the Greater Cleveland Food Bank, Cuyahoga County Public Library Garfield Heights branch, and Friendly Inn Settlement.

Cuyahoga County residents can now meet with County caseworkers and apply for or renew benefits programs like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Medicaid.

Ronayne says the Neighborhood Based Service locations will reduce barriers to access like transportation and digital inequality that may make it harder for customers to connect to Federal benefits programs. He points out that previously, County residents had to get downtown to the Virgil E. Brown Neighborhood Family Service Center or the Jane Edna Hunter building.

“Our reason for doing this is to make it a little more convenient for people, so they don't have to find a ride or pay to park or necessarily spend [money] on transit,” he says.

County caseworkers will also assist customers in the community partner agencies with speaking to CJFS eligibility specialists about applying for benefits, case status questions, and renewal of benefits.

Greater Cleveland Food Bank SNAP outreach help truckGreater Cleveland Food Bank SNAP outreach help truckSince launching, CJFS has served 385 residents at the neighborhood partner centers, with nearly half of the residents going through the Food Bank when it opened its Community Resource Center.

“Our residents have expressed appreciation for the services and our partner agencies continue to provide positive feedback for the County's presence at their respective locations,” says Ronayne. “The success of Cuyahoga County's neighborhood resource centers exemplifies the transformative power of community collaboration, where shared resources become the catalyst for progress, fostering resilience and prosperity in the community.”

Ronayne says the program is a model for future expansion of county services, calling it a “watershed.”

“One, we're really taking government to the people, making it more accessible so they don't have to find a path to us—we find our way to people,” he explains.  “Second, which specific to the Greater Cleveland Food Bank [Community Resource Center] model, is teaming up with other area social service providers to create a team-based approach to getting people the foundation to stand on, making sure that people are back on their feet.”

Although Ronayne specifically cites the resource center, he adds that the Cuyahoga Public Library and Friendly Inn also follow the model of offering social services and resources under one roof.

“Libraries are anchors in their community these days,” he says. “It is still a place where people check out books, but it's also a place where there's a myriad of social programs. And Friendly Inn, in my opinion, lives up to its name. It's a friendly place with good staff. Same with our librarians. They're good people trying to help people.”

Yolanda Armstrong, President & CEO of Friendly Inn Settlement, IncYolanda Armstrong, President & CEO of Friendly Inn Settlement, IncOfficials at both the Friendly Inn and the Garfield Heights library are enthusiastic about the partnership.

“This partnership is a natural extension of the work we do every day at Cuyahoga County Public Library to help county residents access and maintain benefits,” said chief public services officer Pamela Jankowski in a statement. “The Garfield Heights Branch is a trusted community hub where residents know they can turn to for support. Hosting CJFS onsite will make it easier for them to get the assistance they need.”

Friendly Inn Settlement president and CEO Yolanda Armstrong agrees, saying the organization has been providing neighborhood-based service since its inception 149 years ago.

“We value our residents and support the Division of Job and Family Services in making this important effort to come into our communities to meet our residents where they live,” said Armstong in a statement. “We have observed the program in its pilot stage and have begun seeing an increase in residents coming to our building to receive services from CJFS, therefore we know this new collaboration is working. Working together and knowing those you serve is key to making sure that services being provided will help our families thrive.”

Ronayne says he expects the Cuyahoga County Neighborhood Based Services program to continue to succeed, saying, “We anticipate the expansion of this critical program in the near future.”

Karin Connelly Rice
Karin Connelly Rice

About the Author: Karin Connelly Rice

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.