Breaking New Ground: LMM continues its mission to end homelessness

Local organizations are working diligently to shelter those experiencing homelessness in Cleveland and Cuyahoga County, especially with the coronavirus having a large impact on shelters.

The number of unsheltered homeless people dropped 30% in the second half of 2020, according to the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless (NEOCH). Strategies like using hotels to shelter people who are at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19 also helped keep people safe.

Cuyahoga County Health and Human Services’ Office of Homeless Services reported 5,089 people were serviced in local shelters in 2020—856 of whom were children.

The good news is, 718 families exited from the Northeast Ohio shelters into permanent housing last year. Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry (LMM) wants to keep that number growing as it continues its mission to get as many families experiencing homelessness into permanent housing of their own.

Christian Kirksey, linebacker for the Cleveland Browns at the groundbreaking for the renovation of Bonna house.In 2019 LMM launched Breaking New Ground—a $3.5 million affordable housing initiative to buy and renovate 20 homes in the St. Clair Superior neighborhood by 2024 for permanent family housing.

Michael Sering, LMM’s vice president of housing and shelter, says LMM has raised $2.57 million as of Feb. 4.

“It’s really important for people to know this is permanent housing, because permanent housing is what families want and need,” says Sering. “We’re careful not to call it transitional housing, because it is permanent—we want these people to know they are home.”

Of the $3.5 million being raised, $2 million is earmarked for the renovation of 20 units, and $1.5 million will go into a perpetual Family Stability Fund (FSF), created in 2019 for the tenants. $1 million has been raised for the FSF as of Feb. 4.

Under LMM, which will serve as a landlord with these properties, rents paid by each family will not exceed 30% of the family’s monthly income. The FSF—the first of its kind nationally, LMM says—is designed to be a temporary support model for tenants to leverage their existing income and other resources to stay housed, encourage self-sufficiency, and to break the cycles of poverty and homelessness.

LMM plans to connect the housed families with additional support—including in-house social services and external community resources.

Noting that 85% of all evictions are for non-payment of rent, Sering says they plan to limit, or have no evictions, if possible. “We really want to keep people in their houses,” he says, adding that a person making $14 an hour should be able to afford rent, but there continues to be a gap between minimum wage and a living wage.

But Sering says Breaking New Ground also removes many barriers to entry when it comes to finding permanent housing—like bad credit and previous evictions.

LMM is well on its way to meeting its goal with plans to house seven families by the end of the year, says Sering. “We’ve acquired three houses—two duplexes and one single family home—that will house five families,” he says.

The duplex on Bonna Avenue that LMM acquired in 2019 will house two families and is currently out for bids on the renovations, says Claire Billingsley, LMM housing and shelter project manager. She adds the process has taken longer than usual because of COVID-19. The property should be move-in ready by the end of summer.

Edna Avenue“We’re excited to finally get into the nitty gritty,” says Billingsley of the Bonna Avenue house.

Meanwhile, work is also underway on the other two houses—a single-family home on Schaefer Avenue and a duplex on Edna Avenue. “Schaefer is currently under renovation and we expect to wrap up the interior in a few months and then begin the exterior when the weather turns,” says Billingsley. “With Edna, we have started doing some of the basic demo work and then will get deeper into the reno in a few weeks.”

LMM is also currently renovating a duplex on the East Cleveland/Cleveland Heights border. Billingsley says that home will be an extension of its shared housing model for formerly homeless adults in the same area.

With Breaking New Ground, Sering says they should have permanent housing for seven families by the end of this year. Meanwhile, LMM is also looking for an additional five to six family units (three to four properties) to acquire by the end of the year. He says they are working with the Cuyahoga Land Bank on acquiring houses slated for demolition to renovate, as well as possibly buying some homes on the private market.

“With the Land Bank partnership, we are looking at whether the rehabilitation costs are in line with the budget,” says Sering. “And we’re looking at a couple on the private market. They cost more to acquire, but the turnaround time would be less.”

Additionally, LMM has formed a partnership with the St. Clair Superior Community Development Corporation (SCSDC) for strategic planning with the Breaking New Ground plan—and embracing the project as one component in a community development plan.

“As perhaps Cleveland's most diverse neighborhood, we are excited to see new dignified housing options becoming more readily available for the very unique St. Clair Superior community,” says Joe Duffy, SCSDC executive director. “Organizationally at SCSDC, we are evaluating models for additional, multi-faceted and scalable home rehabilitation programs.”

Duffy says the partnership with LMM should be a great community improvement strategy for both organizations.

Ward 7 Councilman Basheer Jones swinging the sledgehammer at the groundbreaking for the renovation of Bonna house.“It is my goal to tailor physical development with our local partners in a way that prioritizes community safety, health and wellbeing—while giving our community better options for family stability, recreation, and stronger pathways to financial health,” says Duffy. “Beginning in 2021, deeper community dialogues will further explore ways SCSDC can best support homeownership and engineer a stable rental environment for everyone involved.”

Sering says this whole plan is part of a larger strategy to end homelessness in Cleveland. It is possible, he says, pointing to other U.S. cities that have ended chronic homelessness among the veteran populations—like New Orleans in 2015.

Sering envisions that Cleveland can do the same, especially if organizations like LMM, the Land Bank, and SCSDC partner with housing assistance and homeless prevention organizations CHN Housing Partners, EDEN, and Frontline Service.

“It’s really not a pipe dream—we could end homelessness,” says Sering. “We think upgrading and investing in the community makes for better housing stock. This is part of a strategic plan to end family homelessness.”

LMM continues to accept donations to the Breaking New Ground initiative. “Any dollar amount is welcome,” says Sering. “It’s cool to know that people support us, and people have been really generous.”

Read more articles by 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.