commons stories

Spotlight Stories: Allen County, Kansas

The Spotlight Stories series features examples of how people across the country are working creatively and effectively to enhance well-being for themselves and to leave a legacy of well-being for generations to come. These are stories from communities creating lasting legacies identified through the Well Being Legacy initiative.  


Allen County, Kansas is a rural county located in the southeast part of the state. It’s made up of ten cities, the most populous of which is Iola – the county seat – with 5,600 residents. Allen County has experienced a century of decline in population, as well as economic and health conditions. People were reluctant to fill the few jobs available, in part because they simply did not want to live in Allen County. As a result, in the early 2000’s, local residents found themselves “chasing smokestacks” in futile efforts to recruit a factory to town. But, recruitment was unsuccessful and the situation became untenable: the hospital was deteriorating, community institutions were starting to fall apart, and the basic conditions that make a community livable were starting to disappear. Ultimately, a group of locals — ranging from healthcare providers to a domestic violence shelter — recognized that existing efforts were unsuccessful; a new approach was needed.


There is an assumption that in rural counties everyone knows and talks to each other regularly. This isn’t actually the case in Allen County, which lacks population density – distance between communities creates physical barriers to gathering together, to community fellowship. Whereas previously, people might have met on Tuesday mornings at the local diner, or Wednesday evenings at the Lions Club, these opportunities no longer exist. The local diner closed; the Lion’s Club disbanded; even some churches dissolved. In addition, a lot of people come to rural America because they don’t want to be bothered by other people – there’s a sense of “rugged individualism” that can hinder collaboration and community.


Community members seeking change understood that they had to be disciplined about engaging residents in community improvement efforts, including meeting regularly, rain or shine. Efforts are intentionally inclusive, county-wide and resident-led. The group creates a safe space for conversation so folks are able to learn what is going on in neighboring towns, talk to each other and share ideas. Because physical distance and isolation make it difficult for people in some towns to be involved, the group makes an effort to meet in smaller towns (e.g. Savonburg, population: 103) and bring others from around the county.

They’ve also sought to shift the paradigm around community engagement to create opportunities for people to get involved on their own terms – people will volunteer to do things they want to do and work on things they care about. If someone volunteers to help build trail on Saturday morning, they aren’t asked to do volunteer dental screenings next month. This approach creates a sense of comfort and ownership in volunteering among community members.


The group has developed techniques for engaging local government in efforts to improve community wellbeing. Specifically, they’ve focused on strategic framing of issues. For example, although most of the county is in a food desert, that isn’t the focus of policy discussions around planning for a new grocery store. Instead, they talk about how nice it would be to walk to the store, for 15-year-olds to get a job bagging groceries – the conversation isn’t necessarily about the “health effects” of community conditions. The key is finding messages that resonate.

To put it simply: the community mood has improved. There is a totally different vibe than there was in Allen County ten years ago. For example, the community built and is still building trails to increase community connectivity and opportunities for physical activity. Initially when the group started building trails, people claimed no one would use them, but the culture changed. People tend to do what they see others doing; if you see people walking or biking, you’re more likely to walk or bike. Slowly but surely, they’ve changed the culture in a way that’s respectful and culturally competent but that also brings about the kind of change that is necessary for rural communities to survive. People are more receptive to improving the health of the community than they ever have been; as more work is accomplished, more people reap the benefits and recognize its worth.

“There is a science to community conversations: you have to set the chairs in a specific configuration, so no one is left out, and have the meeting regularly at the same place and the same time.” – Dave Toland, Executive Director, Thrive Allen County


The hard work is just beginning. Although much has been accomplished, Allen County is still ranked 84 out of 105 counties in the state, according to County Health Rankings and Roadmaps. An upcoming health equity project is slated to address the most disadvantaged town in the county, which has daunting rates of poverty, cynicism and lacking physical infrastructure that we take for granted in 2018 (e.g., multiple boil orders per year due to contaminated water, sewage backing up into peoples’ homes). However, there are people and groups dedicated to solving problems that have always been perceived as impossible, and to create conditions for residents to meaningfully engage in locally-led work that will continue to make progress towards getting things “back on track” throughout Allen County.

We Are Here: Luz Elena Schemmel and Amelia Wehr on Santa Maria Community Services

We believe in the power of storytelling and the importance of investing in the future by sharing those stories – whether they are stories of successful community ventures or lessons learned from stories of things you wish happened just a little bit differently. These are the stories of communities working together for the common good. This article is part of “We Are Here: Housing Insecurity in Cincinnati,” a series produced by Women of Cincy and originally published at

Interview by Ellen Huggins. Photography by Angie Lipscomb. | We arrived at the waiting room of Santa Maria Community Services in Price Hill and sat amongst individuals and families who were waiting for any one of the educational, financial, and health services they provide to the Lower Price Hill and various immigrant communities in the Greater Cincinnati area. Luz Elena Schemmel’s smiling face greeted us and we joined her in an office with her colleague Amelia Wehr. Luz Elena is the program director for immigrant services/wellness and Amelia is the stable families program manager. With spare pairs of shoes piled around the office and lists of services covering the walls, we sat down to discuss the importance of their presence in the community.

Tell us about your roles and what services you provide at Santa Maria.

Amelia Wehr: The Stable Families Program focuses on three main goals: housing, income, and school stability for the child. In the two-generation program, we’re working with the adults and the children; we’re assessing different things that are going on in the adult’s life, as well as the child’s life. The program was specifically picked out for and targeted in Price Hill because of the school mobility issues in this neighborhood. Along with Santa Maria, Housing Opportunities Made Equal also has a program that’s focused on housing because, again, of the school mobility. We have like 10 different schools in West Price Hill, and you can move from one side of the neighborhood to the other and be in a different elementary school. We find that educating our parents around – not only quality housing, affordable housing – but what moving does and how having a plan to move and what school district that they’re going to ultimately affects their children, their education. We work with another agency, UpSpring, who has a lot of research out there around how many moves a family has and how that is affecting children and how they’re getting behind their classmates because of the stress that housing insecurity has on the entire family – [it’s] not just the parent that’s feeling it, getting laid off, not knowing how they’re going to pay their rent, evictions, being doubled up with other family members. All of that stress trickles down to the children.

We work with about 60 to 80 families a year and we’re really focusing on getting that housing piece stable so that we can start addressing the other things that are going on and bringing the family up and working on their professional goals. My colleague, Molly, about 20 percent of her caseload is our immigrant families, and one of the things that we find with them the most: It’s not so much finding housing as it is finding quality housing. Because of documentation issues and landlords asking for income verification and different identification things, they might find housing that is just not quality. Landlords are not fixing things, and they think that they can get one over on this population because of language barriers or the fear that the police will come. They’re not as able to advocate for themselves as our English-speaking families. Molly does a lot of work around being that advocate for them and also just trying to get them into quality housing so that overcrowding isn’t as much of an issue.

I know we have housing stabilization staff in each one of our programs that can help people who are experiencing housing issues. The Stable Families Program is an 18-month program, so we’re really trying to move that family forward and working on those personal goals.

Luz Elena Schemmel: Something that is very specific to the immigrant population with the laws and their rights: They have to pay their rent, and there’s processes they need to learn. We give them power in terms of education. We have a tenant education class that goes through the whole process of what to they need to know. That’s an important piece.

Amelia: Our tenant education class is very unique compared to what some of the other agencies have because it’s five hours and we do it in English and Spanish. We’re teaching financial education, the landlord-tenant rights, budgeting and managing utilities, and even communication stuff, like, “How do you talk to your landlord or your neighbors so that things don’t end up in a bigger problem, like eviction?” We follow up with our families, and we require tenant education for any financial assistance through any of our programs. At one point or another, the shelter systems actually contracted with Santa Maria so that we’re teaching this class at some of the shelters – Bethany House, Interfaith Hospitality Network, the YWCA. We have really great relationships with places that provide housing opportunities with bilingual staff, especially with legal aides that are bilingual. We’re doing a lot of advocacy with helping our families understand their rights.

When we’re talking about homelessness in the city of Cincinnati, there’s tons of resources out there. But you don’t see many of our immigrant families calling to get into shelters. They have the ability to work with families that need a different language; some of these families just don’t realize that they can access those. Even housing programs: There’s different subsidized housing programs that our immigrant families can have access to, regardless of their documentation that they may or may not have. That’s some of the work that we’re doing here, trying to fit families into where they would best be able to become stable.

Luz Elena: Something that is pretty unique to Santa Maria is the community that we work with – this is a trusted place for them. They trust us completely, most of the time. So, we work with, like she said, legal aides and sometimes the police, and we first call them and explain the pros and cons with them depending on what they want.

When people think about Santa Maria, they think that we work just with Spanish-speaking families. That’s a misrepresentation sometimes. Only a third of the families that we serve are English as a second language. We serve anybody in the community that needs our services – in Price Hill, mainly. They might come to get a notary, to apply for financial services; maybe they need a letter – during that conversation we learn about different things that the family will need. If the mom is pregnant, we have an early childhood program. If they need resources about schools or housing, we have that. We help the families to move forward depending where they are and what they need.

Have either of you or anyone close to you had an experience with housing insecurity?

Amelia: I know [laughs] when I was a college student, I was living at one of my first apartments in Northside and I had a landlord that was out-of-state and there was not a maintenance person around that was really responsible. One of the things that I know now that I could’ve used was Escrow and how to write a 30-day notice to get that addressed instead of withholding my rent – which is what I ended up doing. Lucky for me, since he was never around, I never got into that eviction process. I had family I could move in with, whereas a lot of our families here, their support system is not like what some other families have. They don’t have somebody they can move in with, or they’ve already used all of those resources. They’ve already been to that family or friend’s house. Or they don’t have access to credit cards or credit lines or family members that can give them a couple hundred to just get a moving truck to move all their belongings.

So for me, personally, I know what I’ve learned here could’ve really helped in my younger days. One of the things we’re looking into is how to brand that tenant education to high schoolers. They’re turning 18 and if they get an eviction on their record, because it’s public record, a landlord could see that person’s name with the code and not work with them. That’s what’s stopping a lot of people from getting into the neighborhoods and school districts where they would really rather be. Whereas right now, we’re looking at Price Hill, and a lot of landlords will thankfully work with us because we do have families who have barriers or are not able to show enough income. We’ve also realized that we’re in a neighborhood with poorer schools and higher crime. Realistically, do we think if our families could, would they move out of this neighborhood? Some of them would.

Prior to being at Santa Maria, I worked at Welcome House, an emergency shelter. I saw that network of staff working with families, how much that relationship-building really helps those families. Not only are they doing their job, but that relationship-building is huge. Some of the clients and families that we worked with have long been closed or even moved away, but they’re still contacting us. It’s a cool feeling. A lot of people still call just for advice. It gets really complicated and there’s not an average case – everything is very, very different when we’re thinking about housing. We had a landlord here that had brought a lawsuit against one of our families, so there’s some discrimination, and it got very messy. We had a landlord up the street who was sued because of lead issues. There’s so much that comes into play when you’re thinking about housing. Shelter is one of our very basic needs, and nothing else can be addressed until that’s done. We have all these early childhood programs and wellness programs… How can we talk about somebody’s health or education when they’re in this emergency crisis mode because their basic need of having a roof over their head is in jeopardy?

Luz Elena: Taking advantage of people who don’t speak English… We’ve had families who have come and said, “I had been paying late on my rent, so I was paying a late fee each month, but the landlord said he already filed. So I had to pay $250 since an eviction was filed.” And then she has to pay the next month. We checked on the computer and he did not file, but they are paying this in cash. They need to be willing to file those charges. And in some cases, they do, and sometimes they prefer not to. It’s another challenge that we see every day. At the same time, we’re so glad that they had somebody to come and talk to them in their language about their options and support them in any way they want. A lot of times they just pay this stuff, so at least we’re here to provide information and tools to move forward.

Are either of you aware of any eviction rates or statistics that affect, specifically, the immigrant communities?

Amelia: What’s funny is that a group of us went to an eviction prevention strategies training last week that the Human Services Chamber had built. There really weren’t very many statistics around immigrant families. I think a lot of that has to do with that it’s not seen as a need. People know that Santa Maria is working with this population, that we’re advocating for them. But we’re just in Price Hill and that’s about it. Unless you’re working with immigrant populations, it’s just not coming up. As far as statistics, I don’t know of many. I know that there’s very few members of that population that are contacting places to find transitional or emergency housing.

What trends do you see in the Price Hill community?

Luz Elena: Something that we have in place with Price Hill Will is a homestead program where people can purchase a home if they prove that they can maintain their housing and have savings. That’s a great program that exists. But, there is a huge waiting list. LISC [Local Initiatives Support Corporation] is another organization that works with us. We try to work together, but it’s not enough. We need more affordable housing. There’s been a lot of investment in the community, and those houses are beautiful. But if you want to rent one of those, it’s like $1,500 a month for two bedrooms. That’s the trend. Empowering families with more affordable housing is super important.

One thing about Price Hill is that it’s on the bus line; there’s a Kroger; there’s a free clinic down the street. So there are a lot of good things that are happening in the neighborhood.

Amelia: We’re resource rich – comparable to Avondale and Walnut Hills. But Lower Price Hill would be considered a food desert. There’s a huge need for affordable housing; we don’t have large project-based housing in Lower Price Hill. We do have a large rental company that accepts housing choice vouchers, which a lot of people have. A lot of families that have these really valid vouchers are actually having a hard time with finding housing because of the stigma around Section 8 and the inspections.

That surprises me, actually. There’s so much housing stock in Price Hill.

Amelia: The quality of housing here is nowhere near what you would find in a larger income neighborhood. We’re talking about very old houses, for the most part. I do know 50 percent of the lead referrals that are going to the health department are coming out of Price Hill. We are working with a lot of families that have children that are being exposed to that. That has a huge, huge risk for their development. We are doing a lot of education around that.

What’s the history of Price Hill that contributes to some of the trends you’ve mentioned?

Luz Elena: Santa Maria started 125 years ago in Over-the-Rhine because no one was working with immigrants at the time – Greeks, Germans, Syrians, Italians, etc. That’s how we started with English classes, housing, employment readiness, and childcare. Forty years later, they moved to Lower Price Hill. In that neighborhood, they started working with Appalachian families that were coming to the city with the same services, besides the English classes. Within the last 20 years, we’ve seen the Hispanic community moving to the area. Within the last 10 years, we have seen West African families moving to the area. That’s the demographic; it’s a pretty diverse community – one of the more diverse communities in the area.

The three neighborhoods – Lower, East, and West – are very different. They are proud of their neighborhoods, which is a gift and a challenge at the same time. A lot of the families in West Price Hill, they stay there forever. People from Lower Price Hill, we’ve seen a lot of Hispanics who used to live there. Once they get economically better, they move up the hill to East Price Hill or continue moving up the hill or to the West Hill.

Do you feel like the families who come in here become family with each other?

Luz Elena: We have grown some groups, like women groups, where they can come and get to know other women and get involved in the garden, take classes about knowing their rights, or knowing how to work with the police. We don’t even really have to advertise much anymore.

Amelia: With social media nowadays, we have Facebook groups for our different programs. We’ll see a family post about giving resources they learned from us to another family or friends. That sharing of information – you only know what you know and you don’t know what you don’t know. By being here and providing the tools, education is spreading, thankfully. It’s helping the whole family.

Do you have any specific stories of families who have really touched you?

Amelia: There are many [laughs].

Luz Elena: I have one that’s very close to us because it’s been 15 years since the first time she came to Santa Maria. She was new to the city with a sick baby and no diapers. She came to us looking for assistance. She got diapers; she got formula, and she got connected with services. Now, 15 years later, they got a house; they have three little girls; the girls are thriving in school; she’s looking to go back to college. Every time there’s something that she needs, she will come here. The other day, she’s waiting outside – it was Wednesday morning – and we have a counselor here on Wednesdays who is bilingual. It was meant to be. We were able to get her in the same day. We’ve been able to support her journey through different things. We’ve had families that I don’t want to move too far, who we are helping with housing. She didn’t want to be very far from Santa Maria. They want to stay close.

Amelia: I think about our robust programming. We have families that enter our program who are already homeless or have an eviction because they lost their job and don’t know how to pay their rent. As long as I’ve been here, we’ve had three families who have started out there and are now homeowners. The children are successful in school; they’re very involved in the community. All of the programming that Santa Maria has can help get you to wherever you need to be; we can get you there by working with some of our staff. That’s always really neat to witness. I always tell anybody that’s walking in our door, “Wherever you’re starting out, we can help you get where you want to be with your hard work.”

The Holistic Homestead Brings Fresh, Organic Produce to Food Desert in the Mountains

We believe in the power of storytelling and the importance of investing in the future by sharing those stories – whether they are stories of successful community ventures or lessons learned from stories of things you wish happened just a little bit differently. These are the stories of communities working together for the common good.  – Community Commons 

The Holistic Homestead| Gilpin County is the second smallest county in Colorado, with just over 6,000 full-time residents. Living in the shadow of the Continental Divide at elevations between 9,000 and 11,000 feet above sea level, winters are long and harsh, neighbors are far and few between, it takes all-wheel drive and good tires to get anywhere safely, and residents of Gilpin County like it that way.

However, the shifting demographics of this historical mining area turned gambling haven have brought more young families and the fastest aging population in the state – populations with limited resources that require local access to basic services. Add to that the prevalence of casinos, liquor stores, convenience stores, gas stations – as well as the complete absence of a grocery store, a clinic, or public transit – it’s no surprise that Gilpin has high rates of crime and heart disease, issues that local nonprofit Holistic Homestead hopes to alleviate.

The Holistic Homestead is a nonprofit based in Gilpin County, dedicated to improving health and wellness in the community through education, outreach, and advocacy. The Homestead actively address the lack of access to health care and food with educational campaigns in the schools and local papers, wellness clinics, and by launching a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program in February of 2018.  

The Homestead’s CSA is a “mountain style” model, as farming at 9,000 plus feet above sea level with a five-month growing season limits the variety and amount of fruits and vegetables that will grow. Members of the CSA pay on a month-to-month basis, and the Homestead buys as-local-as-possible organic produce for bi-weekly pick-ups from local distributors and farmers.

Arwen Ek, founding director of The Holistic Homestead explained, “The priority is to bring fresh, organic produce into our community – even if it’s bananas from California and Oranges from Florida. Our co-operative CSA model gives us the buying power to purchase from local distributors, while also creating an incentive for local farmers to grow more. In the Summer of 2018, our CSA supported three mountain farms buying mountain grown potatoes, beets, radishes, carrots, kale, and chard. We will always purchase produce grown in our community before we put an order into our distributors.”

Building on the success of the CSA, the Homestead initiated a Farmer’s Market to run concurrent with CSA pick ups. This gives CSA members direct access to support local artisans on a regular basis, and it gives cottage industry producers more exposure to the community. A variety of other locally produced goods through the Farmer’s Market are also available, such as honey, maple syrup, olive oil, fresh baked breads and jam, eggs, and even aquaponically grown fish. And the general public can come and shop our abundance of fresh, organic produce like zucchini, mushrooms, tomatoes, squash, apples, onions, potatoes, leafy greens, and seasonal fruits and veggies.

Arwen said, “While we don’t have a permanent storefront yet, this model is the best way to bring healthy food into Gilpin County. We depend on growing participation in our CSA and local vendors to make this a sustainable venture for The Homestead. We are proud to see Gilpin County recognizing this as an important community program, and hope that we can find a permanent location to keep it going for years to come.”

The Farmer’s Market doubled in size and participation in just a few short months, leaving the Homestead looking for a bigger space. The Gilpin County Commissioners partnered with Gilpin County Parks and Recreation to offer the Community Center for the market through the winter, recognizing the local demand and community building potential of this program. Additionally, with the increased demand for fresh produce, the Homestead was in need of a walk-in cooler for storage. Local business owner, Roy Stewart of Roy’s Last Shot, offered space in one of his restaurant coolers. Now, with a higher order volume and increased access to much-needed storage, the Homestead has launched a Peak to Peak produce delivery service bringing fresh, organic produce to the community’s front door.

Arwen’s enthusiasm for the growing success of the CSA and Farmer’s Market is contagious. “It’s pretty amazing what can be accomplished with no investment capital, no commercial space and a handful of volunteers. The greatest feedback we’ve received about our produce programs is that people are eating more fresh, organic produce! Also, where residents would typically drive 20 miles or more to a grocery store, they are now planning their shopping around what we will have at our markets, and making requests. Our plan is to continue growing organically, and sustainably until we can find a retail storefront, and even then to continue organizing the CSA and Farmer’s Markets.”

Holistic Homestead is dedicated to increasing health literacy, building healthy communities, and advocating for the medically underserved. Their wellness programming includes Hands-On Health Literacy for Kids!, Used Durable Medical Equipment Program, Community Meditation, Community Supported Agriculture among others. Learn more at:

We Are Here: Mary Burke Rivers on Simple Math, Over-the-Rhine Community Housing, and More, Part 1

We believe in the power of storytelling and the importance of investing in the future by sharing those stories – whether they are stories of successful community ventures or lessons learned from stories of things you wish happened just a little bit differently. These are the stories of communities working together for the common good. This article is part of “We Are Here: Housing Insecurity in Cincinnati,” a series produced by Women of Cincy and originally published at

Interview by Hillary Copsey. Photography by Stacy Wegley. | Start talking about housing in Cincinnati – particularly affordable housing – and eventually, someone is going to say, “You should talk to Mary.”

Mary Burke Rivers is the executive director of Over-the-Rhine Community Housing (OTRCH), a nonprofit organization that develops and manages resident-centered affordable housing and aims to build inclusive community and benefit low-income residents. For three decades, Rivers has been at the center of the discussions about housing in Cincinnati, constantly advocating for making clean, safe housing available to everyone.

You’ve been here at Over-the-Rhine Community Housing for 25 years. Over that time, how would you characterize the change in the conversations about affordable housing?

The same problems from 1993 are the same problems from today.

There’s a negative stereotype of affordable housing. Every neighborhood is afraid of it. They don’t want it. They fear it will impact property values. There’s just a lot of fear. It’s pretty much the same – except, there’s less and less resources on a federal level, so it makes it even more challenging.

When we look at the affordable housing crisis today, on a positive side, we’re talking about it. But we’ve got to move that to action. And that’s the hard part. That’s where leadership is required.

When neighborhoods experience disinvestment, there’s “affordable housing” there. The decline is already happening, and then the decline provides space for – not really affordable housing, but a space where people will buy properties and rent to people with low incomes. Then people who have been in the neighborhood for a long time say, “Ah! There’s been disinvestment and it’s your fault! That’s Section 8 housing, and it’s Section 8 housing’s fault!” When more than likely what they’re pointing out probably isn’t section 8 housing. It’s probably a property owner who’s renting to folks with low incomes who are paying more than 50 percent of their income for that apartment, so eventually it’s going to fall apart. There’ll be an eviction and then it’ll turn and then people will think that’s affordable housing. When in reality, it’s serving that low-income market, but it’s not affordable. …

There’s a book called Evicted – it’s that scenario. It’s a landlord that sees an opportunity to make some money, but the model is not sustainable for the community. It’s a subprime market that has to be created because we don’t have a system in our country to provide housing for people who need it. The story goes that, back in the ’70s, if you made minimum wage, literally you could afford an apartment. That’s not possible today.

Yeah, the National Low Income Housing Coalition just released that study that showed there is nowhere in the U.S. where minimum wage covers the cost of a two-bedroom apartment.

Right. And it’s both sides. Minimum wage didn’t keep up with rising costs. The math doesn’t work. That’s how we talk about it. That’s how I like to talk about it: The math doesn’t work.

It could be people who are working – people who are working in nursing homes, people who are working in schools as teaching assistants, or working in the school cafeteria, or driving the school bus or driving the Metro bus, working in daycare centers. They just don’t make enough money to get housing in the marketplace.

There’s two sides: [Make] sure that people’s salaries increase significantly, or figure out a way to subsidize housing.

I read an op-ed you wrote about CEO pay and the dramatic income disparity in Cincinnati. You were adamant at the end that charity can’t take care of the problems caused by income disparity. Why can’t charity deal with these problems, including housing?

Charity should be for emergency situations. This is a systemic piece where the math doesn’t work. If you’re a senior and you’ve worked your 50 years or more and you’re on a fixed income, you can’t afford what it takes to run a household responsibly. … Charity can’t fix that gap for millions of people who need that gap addressed.

Even the subsidy programs are really hard to fund, because they don’t end. When you subsidize someone’s rent, some people hope you’ll move off needing that subsidy. But you have to make considerably more money to be in a better spot where you don’t need that rental subsidy anymore. We have those conversations all the time: “When do people move out? When do they not need us anymore?” Part of it is that we don’t want people to be stuck in poverty, but we also want people to have community and relationships. The goal for us isn’t to move people out. There are just a lot of steps that people have to go through to get to a point where they can operate a housing unit. … And the more income [you make], the different subsidies you have for food, for housing, for daycare – those all get reduced. So if you get a raise, sometimes you’re in a worse financial place.

It’s an economic problem. It’s a math problem. It’s systemic. It’s just too big for charity to address.

How did you get involved in housing work, generally, and also specifically here?

I was a social worker for the Hamilton County Department of Human Services [Hamilton County Jobs & Services]. I was in 241-KIDS; I was in the sex abuse unit, and then regular abuse and neglect intake unit. While I was in that, I realized that it was really hard for women to address issues of their own sexual abuse as a child – to address issues of how they protect their children, parenting, any of those kinds of things – because their housing was so unstable. They had moved several times in the past year, or they were at risk of being evicted in two weeks. So talking about those other issues – you just wouldn’t get to them.

I was working with a woman whose child had been sexually abused; she had been sexually abused, and I was taking her to Women Helping Women for appointments, and I was talking to a counselor there: “Gosh, it’s so hard. She doesn’t know where she’s going to be living in two weeks.”

She said, “Oh, well, I’m part of this group called Women Research and Development Center.” It doesn’t exist anymore, unfortunately, but Maureen Wood – she died last year, unfortunately; she was a leader in Northside, a feminist, a visionary – was leading this women’s effort to try to create housing options for women and people of color. She said, “Why don’t you come meet with us? We’re talking about rehabbing this school in South Cumminsville for affordable housing.” So, I started doing that.

And then there was this position available at the county that was called the housing specialist. If someone came into the system for whatever reason and housing was an issue, they got referred to that position. I got hired. My focus was just housing. That’s when I had the experience of being side-by-side with women who were experiencing homelessness. At the time, we placed families at the Milner Hotel. It was a hotel down on Garfield – it’s no longer there. It was a privately owned hotel, like 115 units, and we used it to keep families who were homeless together when the shelters were full, and some of the women’s shelters used it, too. This was back in the early ’90s. With the Milner, I started getting engaged in the Homeless Coalition … and I started testifying at City Hall during budget hearings about the need for affordable housing.

At the time, there were even conversations about the value of mixed income neighborhoods, so we argued that there was the perfect opportunity for mixed income down on Garfield. You had the Milner Hotel, and then you had a parking lot on either side. We were suggesting that the developer could build market rate housing on either side and then make improvements to the Milner and you’d have this mix on that block.

The city bought the Milner, tearing it down and then turning it over to the developer. So, I was lobbying at public hearings, wearing Save The Milner stickers, and then the county commissioners were like, “Who’s Mary Burke? She can’t be out there speaking out on our behalf.” So, I got pulled in, understandably.

It was a great experience working at the county, driving all over, experiencing different neighborhoods, trying to find housing, and just really having this side-by-side experience. But it was more Band-Aids than permanent solutions. I wanted to be more solution-focused. And then this position came available at what was Over-the-Rhine Housing Network. I got hired in September of 1993.

I’ve learned a ton about everything from property management to financing community development projects to building relationships with people. … I became more and more educated about social justice, racism, classism. It was during those budget processes, where I was kind of a new voice in public housing, and I thought once I shared what it was like for the women I was working with, that it would make a huge difference – and it didn’t. I started seeing how decisions are made, the golden rule thing: The people with the gold make the rules. But I also could see how advocacy works, that when people get together and organize, you can make a difference. Things can change.

But these days, it’s hard. It does seem like you get more out of the individual relationships and experiences than big systemic change, although we’ve got to fight for that, too. It can be discouraging.

What happened to the Milner?

That’s what’s interesting about advocacy. We were fighting to save it. Other folks were fighting to get the best of what they could out of the deal. It kind of splits the effort and then, you end up getting something that doesn’t really do what it needs to do. … There were some affordable units, but they’re not there now. … A couple years ago, I got a call from a social worker who was looking for housing for a woman who was in her 80s. She lived on Garfield, and her rent was affordable, but they were increasing her rent dramatically, like $300 per month. I wondered if it was one of the affordable units from the Milner, and it was. So I called one of the principals at Towne Properties and said, “There’s a woman who’s 80 years old in your building. and your property manager is raising her rent dramatically.” And he said they’d met the 20-year compliance [for affordable units], and I said, “Well can’t you – ?” And he did. She got to stay. But it was one person and it was because we knew the story.

Faith Community Health: Integrating Faith and Health for Improved Quality of Life

We believe in the power of storytelling and the importance of investing in the future by sharing those stories – whether they are stories of successful community ventures or lessons learned from stories of things you wish happened just a little bit differently. These are the stories of communities working together for the common good.  – Community Commons 

Donna Stauber, Ph. D., Baylor Scott & White Health| Mary moved away from her family, out of state, looking for a fresh start. She had a new job and was excited about her future. However, a few weeks into her new job, she became extremely ill and went to the ER for treatment. After numerous tests, she was diagnosed with Stage IV ovarian and breast cancer that was widely-metastasized.

When Dianne attended Faith Community Caregiver Training offered by Texas health care system, Baylor Scott & White, she shared with the group that her husband had died of cancer a few years earlier. Dianne watched as he endured the pain of chemotherapy and radiation, and then held his hand as he slipped away after a long battle. However, instead of letting the pain make her bitter, Dianne became passionate about helping others and became a Faith Community Caregiver volunteer. Soon after, she was paired with Mary. Dianne assisted Mary with transportation and food needs. She visited one hour per week to offer a ministry of presence, assuring that she was not alone in her journey, and providing Mary with a shared love and compassion over her final days.

Baylor Scott & White Health’s Faith Community Health program has been documented to better identify, analyze the needs, manage, and serve chronically ill and vulnerable populations. By utilizing a collaboration of healthcare expertise, community resources, and ministry of presence, Faith Community Health provides a way for communities to truly care for and improve the health of their members. We know that people of faith are trusted and working within their own communities for the good of all. Through their impact, we can reinforce the underlying need to help people manage the complexity of healthcare and live a healthier lifestyle to improve quality of life.

What is Faith Community Health?

Faith Community Health is a rapidly growing area of healthcare that seeks to provide preventative education and compassionate care, as well as connection with needed healthcare resources to the vulnerable population in the communities.

Faith Community Health works on two fronts. First, it identifies high risk and vulnerable community members and partners them with compassionate volunteer caregivers from local faith communities.These volunteers are called Faith Community Caregivers (FCC). FCC’s attend a 3.5-hour training and learn skills to support and offer a ministry of presence, alleviate loneliness, assess needs, and assist individuals receive access to the resources that will improve health outcomes.

Through the referrals of healthcare professionals and faith communities, a collaborative effort is formed to find and connect those who could benefit from extra support to improve health outcomes, lower readmission rates, and reduce unnecessary emergency room visits

The Faith Community Health Program extends assistance based on four principals:

  1. Right Door: educating people on correct avenues to seek health care
  2. Right Time: educating and equipping individuals with prevention information to help them recognize and act on early symptoms
  3. Ready to Be Treated: helping people understand what they need and their medical options
  4. Reassured: treating people with compassion and competent care that eases fear and helps them know they are not alone

The Faith Community Health program also works with congregations to empower them towards holistic health and wellness by assisting in forming health ministries. The Health Ministry Teams work within the faith community to create opportunities for preventative education and disease management, as well as empowering members towards healthier lifestyles in terms of nutrition, exercise, stress management, and mental and spiritual health interventions.

The Faith Community Health Program has already shown promising results. The first 50 patients through the program have seen results of 30.0% decrease in admissions, 50.0% decrease in length of stay, and 80.4% decrease in emergency department visits.

If you are interested in learning more, becoming a congregational partner, or finding out if Faith Community Health exists in your area click here.


We Are Here: The Faces of Weightless Anchor, Part 1

We believe in the power of storytelling and the importance of investing in the future by sharing those stories – whether they are stories of successful community ventures or lessons learned from stories of things you wish happened just a little bit differently. These are the stories of communities working together for the common good. This article is part of “We Are Here: Housing Insecurity in Cincinnati,” a series produced by Women of Cincy and originally published at

Interview by Kiersten Feuchter. Photography by Angie Lipscomb. | We arrived at Weightless Anchor in East Price Hill on a hot, hot July Thursday about a half an hour before the home opened. We could’ve benefited from the wisdom of Cassy Booker, the ministry’s director, for hours, but our time was short, and women were already knocking on the door seeking an afternoon of comfort in the tiny, cheery home. In fact, two women were already in the kitchen, one half arguing with the other and half arguing with herself about whether she was ready to seek treatment for her addiction. Cassy seemed unfazed – not unsympathetic in the slightest, but she had a job to do, and her job was to love that woman – real, straight up, sometimes-tough love – whether she was ready for it or not. While the women continued talking in the kitchen, we thanked Cassy endlessly for her time and sat down to get right to the point.

Tell us about Weightless Anchor and what you do here.

So we have two houses: One’s in Lower Price Hill. It’s about a mile from here; you just go straight down Glenway. That was our original house. That opened in in 2012. So Weightless Anchor is part of BLOC Ministries, and our mission is just to serve our neighbors, and we saw a really big need in Lower Price Hill for women that were struggling on the streets. So we worked with a church down there and opened a place during the day that women could come to get meals, to shower, to get food, to be prayed for, in hopes that the love that was pouring out on them, that they would start to believe that they had worth.

Lower Price Hill used to be one of the biggest open soliciting areas in Cincinnati, and then in 2014, they closed down State Avenue and did major construction, so all the traffic went up Glenway. So in 2015, we opened this, just because we saw another major need up here. If you drive down Warsaw, you can see many women that are involved in sex trafficking. Pretty much hop every corner; you can see someone.

So last year at this time, we probably had an average of 6 to 10 women coming in a day. Now, we have about 20 to 25.

What changed?

We’ve built the trust, and so maybe women that were hesitant to come before are like, “Okay. I know people that have been coming there for a year. They’re not gonna snitch on me.” That’s a big thing in this community. A lot of women have warrants. Pretty much everyone that comes in this home are active users. So that’s kind of how I think it’s grown, is just the word’s gotten out. People feel safe here.

In a way, we work with the District 3 vice team that focuses on prostitution in the city. We have the same mission: that is, to help these women to find freedom. I was like, “How can we help you the best?” And they said just get women to court. So we provide rides to court, to detox facilities, to treatment facilities. I was in Lexington taking a girl to a hospital yesterday, so we just meet those needs and that’s the best way that we can help them sometimes.


With this series, we’re trying to tell this story better, and just say, “We’re all humans.” What advice would you give us on how to tell these types of stories?

The first thing that comes to mind is trauma. All of this begins with trauma. A lot of it’s generational. So many people that are displaced – you hear about veterans all the time; that’s a lot to do with trauma and unaddressed mental health issues. So I think a piece of that is: Explore people’s stories. What has happened to them? What kinds of things have they already had to experience, and what are they battling?

I’ve been here for a little over a year, and it is like… If you walk with someone trying to get back on their feet, you begin to understand how hard it is. I had no idea. When you’re growing up, you’re like, “Oh, just get a job.” That’s just the mantra: Get a job, then you make money; then you can get your house; it’s that easy. And just watching people actually go through that, it just gives you so much empathy for this situation, because it is so hard, and you just watch people get kicked back over and over and over again. It just gives you a better understanding of how hard it is to get back on your feet once you have become homeless or have had some sort of instability in your life.

What led you to get involved here?

I was a special education teacher for seven years, and then I was getting my master’s in mental health counseling, so I need more of a part-time job. I started working for a nonprofit, and I liked it, but there was too much paperwork and not enough human contact. One of my professors from school, her and her husband own this ministry. I had been bringing some girls that I mentor – we have a home that’s for women that are in recovery – so we had been going over there and volunteering and just building relationships with women. Just like, what does healthy friendship look like? Maybe for the first time ever, they’re getting to see that. So we had started doing that, and about the time when I was feeling like I needed to leave that [other nonprofit], they approached me and asked if I would become the director of this ministry.

How has this work impacted you? What are your relationships like with the women who come here?

I guess I’m like the mom. [Laughing.] I have really good relationships with most of the women. Some are more connected than others. For obvious reasons, a lot of women have a lot of walls built up. And we run completely off volunteers besides myself and one other staff member, Tessa. I tell the volunteers to not get discouraged. Like, imagine that they have had to protect themselves with this huge wall for their whole lives, and every day, we’re just taking off one brick from that wall. It’s not gonna come down overnight. They’re not gonna trust us overnight, and they might never trust us, and that is okay. That’s not what we’re here for; we’re here to just love them unconditionally.

It can be really tough. I’m kind of in a season where I’m experiencing some compassion fatigue. I’ve been doing this for a year without a break, and so in August, I’m going on a week break.

It’s the most heartbreaking thing I’ve ever done in my life. We’ve had women die. We’ve had women overdose in our bathrooms. Right now, this home has been the busiest it’s ever been, and with two volunteers and like 20 women in this small home, it feels like chaos. We just don’t have enough capacity to handle the volume of people that we’re getting right now, so it’s been something that we’ve been really praying about and trying to figure out what that looks like. Is this just for a season? Do we need a bigger house? If we do, how do we get that house?

And then this week, everything changed. It was so weird: This house had had a really negative, dark feeling about it. I just think everyone is hot and tired and exhausted of this life, and so they’re angry, and I understand that. But that’s hard when I’m also trying to take care of volunteers that just want to love them. And then this week, we had so many women that were like, “I’m ready.” So yesterday, one woman went to the Lazarus Home, and she’s detoxing from alcohol and laid her life down for the Lord yesterday, so she’s in recovery. This morning, another woman went to Dayton for recovery. I took a lady to Lexington last night to get into the hospital. She was gonna die in the next couple days if she didn’t get to the hospital. And then hopefully she goes today [gesturing to the woman in the kitchen]. And that would be four women off the street in 24 hours, and that is just unheard of in this ministry.

Now, statistically – this is based on the facts that I’ve seen here – three of the four will be back on our doorstep next Monday. And that is the heartbreak. You see this glimpse of freedom that they get a taste of, and just… all the lies that they believe about themselves and all the things that the world as told them, it’s louder than the truth that they are worth it, and so that just beats them down.

And detoxing is hard, and if you’ve been using drugs to numb the pain and the trauma of maybe being molested your whole life as a child… All the sudden that’s taken away? You have to deal with that. You can either deal with it with zero coping skills, ’cause you don’t have any, or you just go back to the streets and continue numbing yourself. It’s so hard.


If you had to boil it all down, what are you all up against when it really comes down to it? What would have to change in order for a place like this to not even have to exist?

I would say it all starts with families – unhealthy families. Every single person that you talk to here, either their body was sold at a young age by a family member to someone else so they could get drugs or alcohol, or they began doing drugs with a family member at a really young age… Most commonly, they’ve been molested by a family member, and so that’s where it starts. The mantra in this neighborhood is you don’t snitch. And so that is the same in families. If you snitch, you are the worst of the worst. You are out of the family. You have no value. You are a piece of shit. And so these generations of families never change because no one’s talking about it. No one’s healing from it.

A huge piece of it, I believe, is on the mental health side. So many people are really hesitant in these neighborhoods to talk to anyone ’cause again, that’s snitching. So, I graduate in three weeks with my master’s, and what I’ve been doing for my internship is providing free counseling for people in this community. And BLOC Ministries has a unique foot in the door ’cause they’ve been here for 20 years, so people in Price Hill know who we are and they trust us. So I’m having people come to me and talk to me that maybe would never go talk to a normal mental health counselor. So I think that some change is gonna start through that avenue, but, it’s like this darkness that just continues breeding itself, and when there’s no light shown, it’s just gonna stay dark.

If you could make one ask of “the system,” what would it be?

Before Cassy can answer, the woman in the kitchen comes in and says, “Okay. I’m outta here.” Cassy gives her a hug and says, “You got this. Love you.” The woman leaves, and Cassy turns to us.

She’s not ready. I know she’ll be back in a couple days. You can just tell. Like she says that she can’t get any lower, but she can, and that honestly has to happen before people are really ready. I mean, that’s not my hope for her. I just see it all the time.

For the system… To understand trauma better. To take a trauma-approached look at what is systematically happening in our society. These are not choices. These choices were made for people a long time ago. And that’s the hard part, I think, to understand.

Same question, but if you had one ask for your “average Cincinnatian,” what would that be?

It’s so hard, ’cause you can’t teach empathy, and I think that’s what they need. So maybe it would be to put themselves in an uncomfortable position for one day. Put themselves in a place where they feel like an outcast or they feel unknown or unloved and like, sit with what that feels like. Because that is what the people on the streets and the people that are struggling feel like every day.

Collaborating for the Common Good

“Only when diverse perspectives are included, respected, and valued can we start to get a full picture of the world.” – Brene Brown

Hopefully you’re sensing a theme or two in the way we talk about the future of Community Commons: the vulnerability, the innovation, the vision, and the collaboration. As we noted in our last post, the Commons was formed out of a burst of collaborative energy among like-minded organizations looking to power community change at a new level. That said, it’s only fitting that as we think about how to evolve the platform of Community Commons, we also consider how we can better collaborate with organizations committed to bringing diverse perspectives to this community change work.

One of those organizations we have added to our cadre of core partners is the software developers, BroadStreet. The BroadStreet team is committed to bringing information together for the common good to benefit all. Their vision for community change truly lives into the mission of the Commons and we gain a more robust picture of how collective impact can be leveraged.  

As a core partner of Community Commons, the BroadStreet team is helping to re-envision and completely redevelop the Commons to become a more dynamic platform to empower those working on community change. Together, we have created a community-centric platform where changemakers:

  • Access the data, maps, and tools that they need to assess and improve their community
  • Share stories, local successes, and lessons learned
  • Connect organizations from around the nation to share successes and align strategies to accomplish big goals
  • Have a social forum for input, interaction, and empowerment that is central to the Community Commons vision

This means will be more than just a website for those wishing to improve their communities and build new data tools. It will be a platform that can be built upon (think plugins and integrations), a place of shared resources with carefully curated collections and user generated content, and a place for connecting. And for the technologically savvy, our new data API will allow users to build tools using Community Commons data that is easily shared and hosted on your own website. And, in the spirit of fostering an open, collaborative environment, the new Community Commons platform is built using modern, open-source technologies. The goal is to build an interactive dynamic platform to support community changemakers in a truly unique way.

On December 31, 2018, the site as you currently see it will close and will reopen as a brand new, exciting site on January 7, 2019. As we begin to display the years of brainstorming, development, and collaboration, keep in mind that it won’t be perfect. We’re in the fledgling stages but will remain committed to working with you to build something that is truly invaluable to your daily work.  Got questions? Check out our FAQs or shoot us a message at 

P.S. Register now to attend one of our sneak peak webinars to preview the new Commons, followed by an interactive question and answer session with our team.


We Are Here: Crystal Steele on Personal Triumph and the Interfaith Hospitality Network

We believe in the power of storytelling and the importance of investing in the future by sharing those stories – whether they are stories of successful community ventures or lessons learned from stories of things you wish happened just a little bit differently. These are the stories of communities working together for the common good. This article is part of “We Are Here: Housing Insecurity in Cincinnati,” a series produced by Women of Cincy and originally published at

Interview by Hillary Copsey. Photography by Chelsie Walter. | For five years, Crystal Steele has worked at Interfaith Hospitality Network (IHN) of Greater Cincinnati, helping families facing homelessness get themselves back in safe, secure housing.

She knows what the families are going through and how to help them. She knows, because she was homeless once, too.

Would you mind telling the story of when you were homeless and how that came about?

I don’t mind sharing my story at all. It shows triumph – how you can get through certain situations.

Well, I’m a single mother of three boys. This happened in 2010, so they were a little younger then. I paid my rent to my landlord, on time, every month. I was working three jobs at the time. I paid my rent for that month on the first. And on the second when I came home from work, my things were out on the porch. Come to find out, the landlord sold the building, didn’t let us know, and I couldn’t get my rent back for that month.

What neighborhood was this in?


How old were your boys?

My oldest was 10 at the time. Then I had a 6-year-old and a 3-year-old.

You were working three jobs, with three kids  

And going to school.

How did you make that work?

It was all about time management. I still had time for my boys, of course. I would mainly work a first-shift job – work full-time on first-shift – and then second shift, I would work two part-time jobs. So I may work Monday, Wednesday, Friday for one part-time job and then Saturday and Sunday for another part-time job. Then I was going to school online, so I would do my schooling when they went to sleep. I look back on it now and say, “How did I make it work?” But I made it work.

How much of your income was your rent taking up at the time?

My rent was a lot. I mean, on top of gas and electric, and then of course having the regular responsibilities of a car note, car insurance, daycare fees… I was paying out-of-pocket tuition at that time, too. But rent was the majority of it. I would say it was 65 percent of my income.

What did you do?

I went to a shelter in Dayton. Stayed there for about a week. The case manager there did not even acknowledge me. Did not even say hi, or “I’ll be right with you” – nothing like that. So me and my boys ended up leaving. I slept in the car for two nights, and then eventually I went to stay with my mom, who was in a one-bedroom apartment at that time. I just got my king-sized mattress and we just crashed in her living room until I was able to save money to move into another unit, which took about eight months.

Did your kids have to move schools then, too?

No, I transported them back and forth to the schools they were going to.

Is your story similar to the stories you see here at IHN?

Majority of the stories are kind of like mine. It could be landlords not taking care of the property. It could be vermin or roach infestation in an apartment where people don’t want to stay longer than they have to in a unit. Of course, there’s non-payment of rent. If clients can’t pay their rent on time, the landlords aren’t willing to work with them. There’s issues with neighbors. It’s not stories exactly like mine. But they’re all relatively the same, wrapped up kind of in one.

Were you already in school then to be a case manager?

Actually, no. That’s a whole ’nother story. I actually went to school for middle school education, math. I have my degree in middle school education.

So why did you decide to switch to social work?

I think it was because, as a case manager, you can do more for people. You’ve walked in their shoes before. Like, me being a single mother, I’ve been through the JFS system; as far as getting food assistance OWF for a couple months. Been on Section 8. I just seen fit that me being a case manager, people know where I came from, and me already living through that struggle of being a single parent, I think a lot of people will relate to me. So that’s when I kind of decided to say, “You know what, I’ll just not do teaching. I’ll keep that maybe on the back burner, but go into social work.” I’ve always been a people person; always been outgoing; always been a helper. So, I believed that social work was the best fit for me, and I have found out that it is. I love my job. I love the people that come through here, through our shelter; love the people and colleagues I work with in the system.

So your job as a case manager, what did that look like on a day-to-day basis? What do your case managers do now?

Well, meeting the clients. Seeing where they are, first of all, and not being judgmental when they walk through the door. Not saying, “Oh, you’re homeless; you’re going to always be homeless.” We don’t put that judgment on them. We’re here to help. Them coming in the door, it’s like, “Hey! What’s your situation? How can we help? This is your case plan. What do you want to do? What barriers do you see that are hindering you from getting a new place?” I would meet the clients every day, to see what they’d done the previous day; see how I could help them more to rid their barriers. Even if it’s, “Oh, I still have Duke Energy on in my previous place. How can I get that disconnected?” It’s also life skills. A lot of them don’t know life skills. You have to step aside from being a case manager and also kind of be a mentor, as well. It’s a lot that a case manager in the homeless system does. We’re not just a case manager to get you in and get you out. We want to see what the actual issue was coming in the door.

So, when you were working with families, you talked about barriers. What were the barriers they were facing? And what barriers did you face trying to get them help?

Good question. Some of the barriers that we see is, like I mentioned before, high Duke Energy bills. That’s the biggest barrier we see. We try to work with Duke to rid that barrier, but again, that’s a hard thing to do with a [huge] bill. In that case, we do try to encourage people to file bankruptcy. But again, that’s a money factor. You need about $1,000 to file bankruptcy. And we try to negotiate with Duke, like, what would that person need to get back on PIPP, where the Duke bill is converted to going by their income and not just a regular average of usage? That’s one barrier.

Another barrier I see is unemployment or not enough employment. The average minimum wage here is what? $8.50, something like that. [Editor’s note: Ohio’s minimum wage is $8.30 per hour.] The rental rates have went up in the last two-and-a-half years here in Cincinnati, but wage is still the same. So again, if somebody works a 40-hour job and they’re making $8.50 an hour and their rent is $625, you know, they would have to work full-time plus overtime – if the job offers overtime – to sustain their unit. Because we’re talking about transportation, you know, paying rent, paying Duke, paying daycare, all those factors that will hurt people in the long run. With the employment thing, we try to have the families enroll in GED or life skill programs to increase their skills. We work with Cincinnati Works to have them come up to our shelter and talk to the families about getting more skills under their belts and not just having a high school diploma or GED. Customer service skills – we work with Urban League on that. People that have mental health issues, we get with BVR, the Bureau of Vocational Rehabilitation, for that. That’s how we deal with the employment side. Those barriers are more complex. We have to see what’s really causing you not to work. That kind of takes a longer period. But we’ve had people come into the shelter not having a job and leave having a good, $10-an-hour job.

Another barrier is transportation. A lot of families can’t transport their kids to daycare or don’t have daycare for the children coming in the door. So, they let us know that issue: “I want to work, but I have nobody to watch the children.” As far as JFS goes, they have to have some kind of employment or be doing some kind of school before they can get daycare, so then that’s another barrier. But luckily, coming into the shelter system, we have a connection with JFS where they will provide childcare vouchers to our homeless families with or without employment, and without having to go to school. That lasts 60 days. So in those 60 days, we try to help them.

Another barrier that hits all the homeless families is evictions. Evictions is a major problem anywhere, but it’s a major problem here. Landlords do not want to deal with families or people who have recent evictions. Landlords look for people who don’t have evictions in the last three to five years. If you’re a family who got evicted from your last place, you have an eviction on your record, so then landlords don’t want to work with you; you’re deemed as a bad person who doesn’t pay their rent. But it could have been a whole, totally different reason why you were evicted. I have an eviction record from 2010, when they threw my stuff on the street, and I paid my rent. Back then, I didn’t know how to fight for that. I didn’t know about Housing Opportunities Made Equal. I didn’t know about Legal Aid. If I did then, I would have took the necessary steps to either get my money back or them putting me in a new place right then and there. But I didn’t know that.

Well, how would people learn that without going through it?

Right. That’s the thing. Unless you actually go through it, that’s when you say, “What resources do I have now?” Now, you have in the palm of your hand [holding her phone] your encyclopedia, as I call it. You can go to Google and say, “What do I do if this happens?” But back in 2010, that wasn’t a thing. It was, “Let me go to the Cincinnati library and sit there with three kids and look up how I can do all these things,” and on top of that, work three jobs and still do school. I didn’t have that time or effort to put into that.

But yeah, those are the top barriers that we see. And convictions, you know, having a record is another one that again, landlords don’t look past; don’t want to deal with that.

So, how did you get past your eviction record?

It’s still on there. I ended up getting on – I can’t remember what the website is called, but where it shows all the foreclosed buildings and things. That’s how I finally told my next landlord, “Okay, the place I was living was foreclosed on, and here is proof that it was foreclosed.” Again, he was sympathetic with me and he ended up letting me rent from him. I stayed for five years at that place.

You found a sympathetic landlord and did some research. If either of those things hadn’t happened

Then I’d a probably still been with my mom.

What about the families you work with now? Are there other ways for them to get past eviction records?

We usually coach families when they come in the door to see if they can get a letter from their previous landlords stating why they left. If it’s non-payment of rent, get something from the landlord saying you were unable to pay your rent. You want somebody to be truthful to the next landlord, to say, “Oh you got this eviction. You’re deemed a person who doesn’t pay their rent.” If you get a letter from the previous landlord to explain, “This tenant was in my unit for six months; paid their rent on time, but then came on hard times and couldn’t pay the rent,” things of that nature, then we can kind of coax the next landlord. You know, this person went through hard times; they’re working; we’ll help them pay their rent; the housing programs that we have available, we can be their safety net from here on out.

But some landlords don’t like to hear that. And then we usually go to our second-chance landlords. There is a few in Cincinnati that we deem second-chance landlords, because that person is like, “Okay, I’mma overlook the past. You’re going to start brand new with us.” And you can move forward paying your rent. Luckily Interfaith has an after-care program. So if you’ve already been through the shelter system before, you can call our after-care case manager; if you’re having a crisis where you can’t pay the rent, you can call him, and he’ll assist you in paying your rent so you won’t be homeless again. There are programs and resources out there now, but some resources require you to have employment, too. So you know, that can be another barrier for the after-care part of it. If you lost your job, then you can’t pay your rent, and resources are saying, “You have to be employed before we help.”

How long do people typically stay at the shelter?

Our length of stay is usually 30 days. That would give us 30 days to work really hard to try to get people employment if they don’t have it; childcare; try to negotiate with Duke; finding new landlords; finding childcare near the place they want to live; giving them resources near the place they’re living. It’s a really intense 30 days. But the most the people will stay – depending on barriers, depending on their past, as far as convictions, employment history, things like that – is usually 60 days. Some families are tougher than others. We just work with them. Slow and steady win the race sometimes.

I noticed on your annual report that more than 90 percent of families that leave the shelter end up staying in stable housing. Within what timeframe is that statistic?

It’s usually within a year. We go by recidivism. So if people leave and then come back to the shelter within two years, that’s recidivism.

Can you put that into perspective compared to other shelters? How do you do keep families in housing?

I have to give credit to our after-care program. If we didn’t have the after-care program, we wouldn’t be able to keep the people in housing. That after-care case manager will be like that safety net; if they need more resources, more life skill training, that case manager is there to say, “Hey, you’re not alone,” or “I’ll send you here,” or “Go here to get more budgeting,” because it might be that issue.

And then you said there’s also money for rent assistance?

Yeah, so through our after-care program, we do have funding. It’s based on a yearly contract. We get a certain amount of money every year. Other shelters also have after-care programs. Ours is, we try to go above and beyond, past the budget that we usually have. Sometimes we run out of money, but we point them in the direction they need to go to get that rental assistance.

Is that state or federal money? Local?

One of the after-care programs is City of Cincinnati, through the Human Services fund. Then Strategies to End Homelessness gives us money to help with after-care, as well.

The other thing I noticed in your reports is that your families helped doubled from 2015 to 2016. Why did that leap happen?

Well, for the past couple of years we’ve been doing what’s called a summer surge. This was recommended by Strategies to End Homelessness and a couple of other shelters here in Cincinnati. We see a spike in homelessness for families in the summertime; the reason being is because kids are out of school; there’s nice weather; families that they’re doubled up with are more amped to push them out. So, we seen this spike in the summer, so Interfaith and Bethany House, we do the summer surge. We take extra families in the summertime. That’s where the increase is. We serve four additional families here at Interfaith over the summer. Normally we only serve eight. But during the summer, between June and September, we take four additional families. And you know, that’s rotating: getting them in, getting new people; it’s a revolving door.

What would those families have done without you all taking the summer surge?

Anybody facing homelessness will call the CAP line. People still call now and our shelters are full. They would just have to stay doubled up with families and friends until a space comes open in the shelter system. They would just keep calling the CAP line. No telling when they’d get in if we didn’t have the summer surge.

How often are your shelters full?

Oh, all the time. The only time we see that a lot of families are not consistently coming in is usually around income tax time. But when that money’s gone, that’s when the floodgates open.

Do you all keep track of how long families have waited to get into your shelter?

We don’t.

What can people do to help? What could the city or county or random person do?

It all boils down to housing. If we had enough affordable housing here in Cincinnati, then a lot of the families would be able to afford their housing. And increasing [wages] would help tremendously.

Do you see threats that could decrease the supply of affordable housing further?

I’m all about small business. But it boils down to people wanting to start a small business, have a small business, and then that takes away from housing. Like, how OTR is building all the businesses downtown; you know, they’re kind of moving people out of their housing … but not helping them with relocation. If they are moving them out of their units, then help them with relocation.  

Let’s talk about kids dealing with housing insecurity. How does all of this affect them?

Luckily we have a child enrichment program here. Our child enrichment program coordinator kind of keeps the kids busy with activities. Summer camp just ended last week for the kids that are in school. A lot of parents and people in the community don’t know the effects it has on a kid. You know, one day you’re in your own room; you’re playing with your toys, and the next thing you know, we’ve got to pack up and move. So, where’s my toys? Where’s this? Where we going? It does affect a child. From my personal experience, my boys were affected because, you know, they would go to school, but they would act out in school because they didn’t have their own room to have their own privacy. We were in the living room seeing each other every day. We all have to compromise on what we wanna watch. So, yeah, it plays a different role for the children, because it’s like, “Did I do something wrong? What did I do?” It comes back down on the kids to feel like they have done something for Mom or Dad to lose their place. But I think it’s a conversation parents need to have with the kids. I sure enough had that conversation with my boys. I knew they understood after that. After that, they didn’t act out in school. They understood the situation. We still went to the movies. We still went to the park. It’s just that one little crutch in life that we had. And now they’re honor students and they know that if the lights are off, hey, Mom didn’t have the money to have the lights on. But it’ll be on. Let’s just have some candles; let’s just sit and tell stories or play games or whatever.

That must be hard as a parent to explain a situation like that to your kids in the first place.

It’s definitely hard. You feel like you failed as a parent. Man, I got my children in this situation. I’m supposed to be the protector of them. And nothing happening to them. And keeping a roof over their head and keeping food in their mouth. Yeah, it was hard for me to have that conversation. But I felt the need to have that conversation because I didn’t want to keep it from them. Some kids think, “Oh, was I too loud in the place. Is that why we had to move?” That’s what my one son said: “Were we too loud? Is that why they kicked us out?” And I’m like, ‘“No. It wasn’t that.” That’s when I felt like I had to have the conversation with them.

Does that ever happen to families? To have a landlord not want to deal with kids?

They won’t outright say it. But, us being in this business for so long, I see it. When you ask, “I have this family that’s looking at one of your units and they really like the outside. Is there a way they could come see it?”

“Oh sure. We could schedule an appointment.” And then, when you have the kids with you, and they’re like, “Okay. So how many kids? How many dependants are there?” If you say it’s more than what he or she sees at that moment, then that’s the turn off. “Well, I have other applicants, so you can put in an application with a $40 late fee and I’ll get back with you.”

I think landlords do screen out how many kids are in a household. We do see a large family through, and it’s hard to house a large family. And, if we’re talking about affordability, if we’re talking about a family that has four kids, you know, they’ll need a three-bedroom. You’re talking about $800, $900, sometimes $1000. We know families can’t afford that. So, we try to say, “Oh you know, get a two-bedroom.” Landlords are like, “Nope. That’s too many kids in a family.

What are you trying to get them down to when you talk about affordability? Thirty percent of their income?

Usually, we don’t go by percentages. We’re not living the family’s life. We look at it like: What do you want to do? What is something that you can afford? We’re talking realistically. We’re not talking about, “Oh yeah, I make $1,400 a month, but I can afford $1,000 rent.” No. That’s not affordable. You spend the majority of your money on housing, but then you’ve got $400 for transportation, childcare; birthdays may be coming up; you wanna spend for a birthday. Back to school is coming up. Just, sit down. Let’s do a budget. Let’s get our guy in here to sit down with you. And boom. This is what you can afford per month. It could be $600, with you having that extra $800 a month. We ask them to write down all their expenses – cellphone bills, daycare – luckily, if they have a daycare voucher, nine times out of 10 you’re not paying daycare, which is an awesome thing – but then you have transportation and getting them to and fro, even if it’s bus or car; that’s gas. Gas is almost $3 a gallon. We make them see the real gist of life. The day in a life, in a month. We say, “Okay, you think you can afford $1,000 a month; let’s write that down.” Rent: $1,000. Okay, let’s talk about gas and electric. What’s the average cost? We’ll call Duke and ask, “What is the average cost for this unit?” They’ll give it to us; we write it on the budget. Then, we say, “Okay, the car note, how much is that? Gotta pay car insurance. You can’t be driving with no car insurance.” We do it line by line. It sounds intense, but that’s what we actually do. That’s when they see, no, I can’t do it, and they drop down a bit. We’ve had landlords that say, “You know what, I’ll take a family of five in a two-bedroom,” because they know if they go to a three-bedroom they wouldn’t be able to afford it. But then the landlord is right really telling them, I don’t want damages to the property. Things like that.

We always ask if there’s been a woman who’s influential in your life. Who’s the woman who’s influenced you in your life and in this work?

There’s plenty of women who are influential in my life. I would have to say my high school counselor would be my number one person: Norma Jackson. In high school, I was a class clown – I still am; I go to meetings and make everybody laugh – but in high school, everybody’s like I want to be this or I’m going to go to college; I’m going to do this. Me, on the other hand, I just said I was going to work at McDonald’s for the rest of my life. I didn’t want to go to college. I didn’t want to go anywhere. I just wanted to work. But that last day of school, at graduation, she said, “Crystal, you know you’re better than that. You have a meaning. You have a purpose to your life. I want to see you fulfill that purpose.” That was her words to me. The next day she called me and said, “I got you a scholarship to college.”

I said, “I’m not going to no college.”

And she said, “It’s paid for two years.”

And I said, “Oh. Well, maybe that’s okay.” She ended up getting me that scholarship, and I actually went to school, NKU, and did my first couple of years there. She was the most influential person in my life.

And then, my mom, Matilda Steele, who always wanted to be a social worker; never got to be a social worker, because she never went to college. When she found out I was going to be a social worker, she was excited.

We Are Here: The Faces from Third & Plum, Part 1

We believe in the power of storytelling and the importance of investing in the future by sharing those stories – whether they are stories of successful community ventures or lessons learned from stories of things you wish happened just a little bit differently. These are the stories of communities working together for the common good. This article is part of “We Are Here: Housing Insecurity in Cincinnati,” a series produced by Women of Cincy and originally published at

Written by Chelsie Walter. Photography by Angie Lipscomb and Chelsie Walter. | The following are comments made on Facebook regarding the Third Street encampment.


I watched a live stream of City Council taking comments from the community regarding Third and Plum and felt confused. I was at a loss for what to do, how to react. I felt like not everyone was being considered and that we should hear more perspectives from the folks who called the area under Fort Washington Way home. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this story, here’s the nuts and bolts: Close to 40 people experiencing homelessness set up tents under the shelter of Fort Washington Way. The city received complaints from downtown businesses and residents about the encampment and ordered city crews to dismantle it. City Council, in an effort led by Tamaya Dennard, halted the evacuation order to give residents of the encampment more time to relocate and for the city to bring in services in an attempt to serve the population. The camp was dismantled on July 25. Through this whole process, there has been miscommunication, misrepresentation, and just plain old drama. But we’re not here to talk about that.

On Saturday, July 21, Angie and I headed down Third Street. I was nervous. I think we both were, a bit. I wasn’t nervous about my safety; I was nervous that I’d offend someone, that I’d bring up old memories they didn’t want to share. I was nervous that the folks living there would see me as “media” and question my intentions. I mean, I was walking straight into someone’s home, unannounced, uninvited; I expected apprehension.

As we walked in, I was instantly struck by how much the space under the underpass felt like a community. Tents were neatly stacked into two rows lining the walls of the underpass. Each person had their own space, like tiny plots of land. There were bikes, beds, tables, chairs and even a grill.

We were quickly approached by Bison, the mayor of the encampment. Bison introduced himself; we shook hands, and he led us to the other end of the tunnel, away from the living area. Like I’d feared, Bison was a little apprehensive, but he listened intently. He wanted to protect his family, and the media attention the community was receiving was escalating quickly. I started by explaining who we were, fumbling my way through the usual spiel: “We’re Women of Cincy, an online publication and community that tells stories about Cincinnati’s amazing women…” I soon stopped and basically blurted out, “We’re here to tell your story, not our story. We’re here to make sure the world knows you. We’re here to put a face to this. We want to rise above all the bullshit and get to know you.” Bison let down his guard a bit. He agreed to ask fellow residents if they’d speak with us. Two folks agreed to speak on the record: Momma and Eddie.

While we were chatting, a man brought over chairs, referencing his upbringing in the South and extending southern hospitality. He sat down three chairs and walked back to his site. Eddie, an older man with an easy smile, walked over and sat down next to me. Eddie was born and raised in South Carolina. As I promised Bison, this is Eddie’s story, in Eddie’s own words:

“We are somebody, we may not be your ’body, but we are somebody. We may not be the person you want us to be, but we are somebody.”

Spotlight Stories: Greenville, South Carolina

The Spotlight Stories series features examples of how people across the country are working creatively and effectively to enhance well-being for themselves and to leave a legacy of well-being for generations to come. These are stories from communities creating lasting legacies identified through the Well Being Legacy initiative.  


Greenville, South Carolina sits in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, close to the North Carolina border. Whereas a little over a decade ago, the city was trying unsuccessfully to attract new residents after decades of population decline, Greenville’s population has been steadily climbing since 2005. The US Census Bureau named it the fourth fastest growing city in 2016 — a testament to local infrastructure investments, and commitment to downtown revitalization, and resulting job market strength.


Although Greenville’s population grew quickly after 2005, the community faced health challenges. Specifically, the county’s obesity rates were some of the highest in the U.S. As awareness grew throughout the nation around the serious negative health effects of obesity, prevention efforts gained momentum and funding opportunities arose. With its high adult and childhood obesity rates, Greenville was a prime funding candidate.  


LiveWell Greenville was launched in 2011, with initial funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and became the community’s primary network of organizations partnering to ensure access to healthy eating and active living. The network implemented a collaborative, common-agenda approach before the notion of “collective impact” was commonplace. LiveWell Greenville introduced a new way of thinking about community change that is intended to be lasting and intergenerational. They focus on enhancing each other’s capacity to share resources for common goals. Their work stems across policy, environmental, and attitudinal changes. It isn’t prescriptive; it’s responsive to community needs, which leads to community trust and allows the work to snowball.


As LiveWell Greenville’s work progressed, other community efforts evolved to address other health issues, recognizing the many conditions contributing to community wellbeing. Greenville implemented a job training and matching program, focused on matching people with jobs that result in wages that support upward economic mobility. The Greenville Homeless Alliance strengthens collaboration in the delivery of services to prevent and address homelessness. Livewell Greenville staff engaged in these efforts to encourage leveraging contributions to enable partnerships with local government and private businesses, and it’s working. One such indicator is the shift of the philanthropic sector engagement in advocacy and supporting functions that were traditionally left to local government. The City of Greenville recently partnered with two local philanthropic foundations to fund an affordable housing study and corresponding development of a strategic plan to address identified issues. Community stakeholders were engaged to develop recommendations, and the result was starting a housing trust fund. For the first time, the City setting aside $2 million in surplus funding to seed the trust, which was leveraged with additional philanthropic and corporate funding.

Perhaps most notable, Greenville’s non-profit community has refined their approach to community work, including identifying levers for attitudinal change and focusing efforts towards gatekeepers and those with much community influence. An example of this is how they’ve engaged the Greenville business community in efforts to improve city transportation. Hospitality is a growing part of Greenville’s economic health, but some business owners cannot afford to stay open within city limits due to lack of employees who can afford to commute downtown (from their more-affordable homes in the outskirts of the city.). Greenville efforts are using news and social media to frame public investment in transportation as imperative to local business and economic growth. The strategists of this endeavor hope this approach leads not only to attitude change and improved public policy, but also to long-term improvements and solidification of wellbeing as a common community priority in Greenville.

“Now more than ever the community voice is active, but we need to figure out how to position and channel the voice in a way that influences policy leaders. We’re at a point where we want to set up the dominos, so that when one falls, the other solutions start to fall into place, too.” – Sally Wills, Executive Director, LiveWell Greenville


LiveWell Greenville is hopeful regarding continued community commitment to a common agenda and aligned momentum going forward. Acknowledging that the conditions contributing to wellbeing are interconnected, The Graham Foundation, one of LiveWell Greenville’s partners, recently established a learning community network to facilitate collaboration, learning and support among strategists and those “leading the charge” in community improvement efforts.  Each of these strategists and change agents have worked hard to build a collaborative base; the opportunity is ripe to focus on the big picture, mobilize collective voices, and intergenerational impact that comes with attitude, systems, and policy change.

A New Era for Community Commons

Patron saint of vulnerability, researcher Brene Brown, once said that a secret killer of innovation is the fear of being vulnerable.

“That deep fear we all have of being wrong, of being belittled and of feeling less than is what stops us taking the very risks required to move our companies forward, […] but vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.”

For us at IP3, this hits close to home. As the hearts and minds behind Community Commons, we’ve lived at the nexus of innovation, creativity, and change for many years. Through the beauty of collaboration, we’ve been able to cobble together funding and keep the Commons alive and well. But, in the spirit of vulnerability, the hodgepodge of partnerships have not yielded the long-term sustainability needed for the Commons to head in the direction the field demands.

When we dreamed up this idea of the Commons with our partners at CARES and Community Initiatives, open source data and technology was new and emerging. Few platforms offered what we did. However, over the years, open data has exploded, making it easier for communities to access tools that power change and advance equity. For that, we’re grateful. It means that communities like yours are getting better-quality data, but improving communities requires more that just access to great data – which is where the new version of Community Commons comes in.

We know that data without context are just noise, there is need for an infrastructure of connection among those creating a culture of health and equity. And with that knowledge, there is so much more that can (and should) be done to leverage our collective impact. So, in an effort to remain ahead of the curve in this ever-changing landscape, we’re taking a risk and heading down a slightly different path than what you may be used to seeing on the Commons. We believe this is the best way to support all communities working toward a common good. We’re creating a space where data meets context, where knowing moves to action, and where stories are data with souls attached.

We’re asking for your patience – and maybe even some grace – as we launch a new version of Community Commons, one that is probably a little less than perfect, because it’s something we believe in. Innovation (and collaboration!) is messy; we don’t always want to show how the sausage gets made, but it’s time. On December 31, the old Community Commons will close and will reopen as a brand new, exciting site on January 7, 2019. We’re ready to show you what we’ve been working on and get input on where we should go from here (Check out our FAQs!). Rest assured there’s one thing that hasn’t changed: it is still all of us, together for the common good.

PS: Register now to attend one of our sneak peek webinars to preview the new Commons, followed by an interactive question and answer session with our team.

We Are Here: Women of Cincy on the Story of Home

We believe in the power of storytelling and the importance of investing in the future by sharing those stories – whether they are stories of successful community ventures or lessons learned from stories of things you wish happened just a little bit differently. These are the stories of communities working together for the common good. This article is part of “We Are Here: Housing Insecurity in Cincinnati,” a series produced by Women of Cincy and originally published at

Written by Chelsie Walter. Photography by Angie Lipscomb and Chelsie Walter.Several months ago, I went on a walk with my husband around our neighborhood. At the time, we lived in an apartment in East Walnut Hills. We were heading down Woodburn Avenue, chatting about our day, when a man sitting at the bus stop asked us for a few dollars. Both of us, dressed in gym shorts, told the man we didn’t have anything on us, and I think I said something to the effect of “Have a nice evening.” Undeterred, he politely nodded and walked quickly to catch up to the well-dressed couple in front of us.

“Sir, can I…”

“Get away from me!” yelled the well-dressed man, and shoved him.

Clearly upset, the man from the bus stop started to storm off, then turned around and yelled, “You didn’t have to be like that, man.”

Stunned, I started to walk toward the couple, then stopped and turned back toward the other man. I felt anger boiling up.

That night, we couldn’t get the encounter out of our heads. We talked about the exchange, about the clear and complete lack of empathy we’d witnessed. I felt we had to do something, but I was frozen. What could I do? This series started in that moment.

At Women of Cincy, we believe that if you can change minds, you change behaviors, and if you change behaviors, you can change systems. The people in this series are strong, innovative, inquisitive humans. They are worthy of love, respect, and the basic human right of safe, affordable housing. They are mothers, fathers, friends, spouses, and hard workers.

Here in our city, we’ve reduced to poverty entire generations who were born for better things. Cincinnati is among the 10 cities with the highest eviction rates in the country. In four years, Hamilton County had 49,757 eviction filings. According to a LISC study, Cincinnati is 40,000 units shorts of affordable housing.

Photography by Angie Lipscomb and Chelsie Walter.

We’re not asking the right questions to solve this problem. Instead of asking why someone is struggling to afford their rent, utilities, childcare, etc., we say things like: “Well, she shouldn’t have gotten knocked up.” “They must be lazy.” “There has to be something wrong with them.” Instead of: “Why is rent so high?” “How can someone work 40 hours a week and not be able to pay their utility bills?” “Why are our children struggling in school?”

Until we change our mindsets, and realize that millions upon millions of U.S. citizens are experiencing housing insecurity, not due entirely to their own transgressions, but due to an exploitative housing market and broken systems, we will never move forward. Until we reckon with our current state of affairs and the history, blatant racism, and exploitation of the American people, we will never move forward. To understand this problem, we must understand our past, our biases, and our fellow neighbors.

Home is where we find solace. It is where our kids grow up. It’s where we fail, without fear. It is where we create bonds with our family and friends. When we call a place home, we care for it. We care about our street, our neighbors, our neighborhood’s quality of life, and our children’s education. But what happens when home doesn’t exist? When we deny our children the existence of a stable, safe, loving home? When access to affordable housing isn’t attainable, chaos ensues. We create transient populations who, by force, cannot settle into their neighborhoods or obtain stable employment. We force folks into pockets of concentrated poverty, which breeds crime, violence, and drug use because they are shut out of better opportunities. Poverty is complicated, each barrier woven together, each affecting the other. Unstable housing appears at the core. When zip code determines life expectancy, there’s no denying that housing is a life or death situation.

I recently bought a home. It’s big and old and needs a ton of love. There are spiders, sunken floors, mold in the basement, and half-painted walls. But it is my home, and every time I step in the door, there is a sense of pride. I come home each night and paint, scrape, patch, clean, and repeat. I pick weeds and clean trash from the sidewalk in front of it. I talk to my neighbors. I look around and I see the future, the potential, in this house and our life. It is slowly and inexplicably becoming a part of my identity.

The home is the center of life. It is a refuge from the grind of work, the pressure of school, and the menace of the streets. We say that at home, we can “be ourselves.” Everywhere else, we are someone else. At home, we remove our masks.

The home is the wellspring of personhood. It is where our identity takes root and blossoms, where as children, we imagine, play, and question, and as adolescents, we retreat and try. As we grow older, we hope to settle into a place to raise a family or pursue work. When we try to understand ourselves, we often begin by considering the kind of home in which we were raised.

Matthew Desmond’s Evicted, page 293

Too often, we form thoughts based on stereotypes and false narratives. We jump on bandwagon lines of thinking without stopping to form thoughtful assessments. We make assumptions about people we don’t know, about situations we don’t fully understand. When it comes to affordable housing, or lack thereof, these assumptions halt progress.

“The math doesn’t work,” says Mary Burke Rivers, executive director of Over-the-Rhine Community Housing.

“I’m a single mother of three boys,” says Crystal Steele, services team lead at Interfaith Hospitality Network of Greater Cincinnati. “I paid my rent to my landlord, on time, every month. I was working three jobs at the time. I paid my rent for that month on the first. And on the second, when I came home from work, my things were out on the porch. Come to find out, the landlord sold the building, didn’t let us know, and I couldn’t get my rent back.

Crystal is one of thousands across our city who have faced eviction. Her story isn’t out of the ordinary.

“Almost everybody who is low income has been affected by an eviction,” says Legal Aid’s Amanda Toole. “Most landlords in eviction court have an attorney. Most tenants do not. In Hamilton County, about 1 percent of evictions are decided in favor of the tenant.”

When we slap evictions onto families without a thought, we take away their ability to create a stable environment for themselves and their children. When eviction becomes too much, when couches run out, and cars are sold or impounded, some of our families and neighbors end up literally on the streets. Some sleep on sidewalks; some in tent cities… until they’re evicted even from their tents.

“The fact is, until we get serious about solving these problems, until we actually have solutions, we must not punish people for trying to live,” said Josh Springs of the Homeless Coalition at a rally on Third Street via Facebook Live. “These are spaces that we all own. There is something very simple about the idea that if I don’t have a place to live, if I don’t have a place I can be, for whatever reason, I’m going to go to a place where we all own. Where I can feel safe. That is extremely simple.”

Sometimes this issue becomes overwhelming. I get it. I think about Momma, Eddie, Mercedes, Kay, Crystal, Bison, and all of the people I’ve met through this series, constantly. I hear their voices in my head. I see their faces when I hear people talk about “solutions,” or when I hear comments about what those experiencing housing insecurity should or should not be doing. They’re a part of me now. They will forever be a part of my decision-making process when I am at the ballot box, when I’m in meetings, when I pass someone on the street who is struggling. Because of this series, my mindset has changed, and so has my behavior.

I hope this series does the same for you. We here at Women of Cincy are not going to wait for empathy to fall into your lap. We’re going to deliver it to you. Every day. We’re going to change our city, our people, one story at a time. Telling stories changes things. Let them change you.


Revitalizing St. Louis’ South Side

We believe in the power of storytelling and the importance of investing in the future by sharing those stories – whether they are stories of successful community ventures or lessons learned from stories of things you wish happened just a little bit differently. These are the stories of communities working together for the common good.  – Community Commons 

DeSales Community Development | To get a sense of what’s happening at DeSales Community Development, it helps to follow the people that work there – if you can keep up. Employees tend to be on the go, shuttling back and forth between site offices, government buildings, parks, and schools. They carry youth program materials, building permits, rent checks, and health resources. Just recently, a collection of child-sized furniture pieces was purchased, assembled, and delivered to an elementary school. On a larger scale, an assemblage of vacant properties purchased last year was presented to a major nonprofit looking for a new space.

All of that work – done with everyone from accountants to construction crews to social workers – happens under the umbrella of DeSales, a nonprofit that serves a handful of neighborhoods on St. Louis’ south side. Their work loosely breaks down into three areas: real estate development, property management, and community programs.

Director of Community Health Initiatives, Becky Reinhart, oversees a wide range of these programs and resources for the neighborhood. A work day might include a meeting with a school to coordinate sports programs, a meeting with community gardeners to plan landscaping changes, a drive around the south side checking on the condition of various vacant buildings, a supervisory check-in with DeSales’ community resource coordinator, and then a trip to the park to help set up a free arts camp. All of that fits into a growing awareness among researchers that active, engaged neighborhoods are healthy neighborhoods.

“Housing is really important, but if you just focus on housing, the other stuff housing enables isn’t going to happen automatically,” Reinhart said. “There’s a lot more to that challenge.”

After nearly 40 years in the neighborhood, DeSales had become a respected developer and manager of quality, affordable housing. Those things are a major influence on health, as are the employers DeSales brought into the neighborhood, the vacant property it developed, and the community garden it established. But Executive Director Tom Pickel said the progress made in those areas led DeSales to wonder how they could improve quality of life beyond bricks and mortar. So, in 2013, he convened a group of service providers and stakeholders to further think about how to work together.

Photo courtesy of DeSalesHousing on Instagram

The group ultimately decided to focus on health, and enlisted the help of a practicum student from Washington University in St. Louis – Lindsay Jorgenson. Jorgenson was tasked with building health initiatives at DeSales, and soon became DeSales’ first Director of Community Health Initiatives. DeSales, and the neighborhood residents Jorgenson surveyed, fixed their attention on Fox Park, a green space in the heart of a neighborhood with the same name. The park was generally underutilized, and half of it was a recreation field that was closed to the public. With the help of the community and some grant funding, they reopened the field and established youth sports. Today, baseball, soccer, and basketball run most of the year under the name SouthSide Rec, which also includes programs like art, martial arts, dance, and Pokémon.

“That was something where there was a tangible change in people’s conception of what we were doing,” DeSales’ Project Manager, Sam Stephens, said. “You can’t fix up a house every single month, but every single season, you can organize a sports league.”

Stephens helps coordinate the moving parts within DeSales. Much of his days are spent working with the real estate and property management sides of DeSales, but he sees community development and health threaded throughout his work.

“Equitable, sound property management – that involves brick-and-mortar spaces and people,” he said. “The idea of converting a few of our buildings which were market-rate rentals to affordable rentals – that is a brick-and-mortar way of adapting our project to better suit the needs of the greater community.”

Photo courtesy of DeSales Community Development on Facebook

Mike Ziegler, DeSales’ community-based resource coordinator, sees up close how intertwined these things are for many residents. As a social worker, he connects them to resources that meet their needs. He also works to build supportive networks within the neighborhood. Both things make the neighborhood healthier. They also both depend on access to affordable housing, good property managers, and relevant programming.

In fact, though he does a lot of healthcare referrals, almost 40 percent of his referrals are related to rental and utility assistance. Sometimes, he connects community members to DeSales’ property management company, Fox Grove Management. Other times, he’s working with Fox Grove tenants, which reduces costly evictions and reinforces the healthy outcomes of housing stability.

“For a lot of people, housing is a definite entry point for social work,” he said. “It’s a very natural fit.”

Photo courtesy of DeSalesHousing on Instagram

DeSales has found other “natural fits” within their work. In mid 2018, Ziegler helped a Fox Grove tenant put on a series of free healthy cooking classes for the whole community, which will also help promote her young catering business. And Pickel is spending much of his time working on Brick City Makes, DeSales’ largest development project yet. In 2017, DeSales purchased an 87,000 square foot former factory in the neighborhood, which they and their partners are turning into a customized, shared workspace for small and mid-sized manufacturers. Pickel sees it as a way to bring jobs and people to the area.

“If we were a private investor with pure return-on-investment in mind, it would probably be a good candidate for a self-storage building. But that would not yield any economic benefit for the community,” he said. “For us, Brick City Makes is really more of a community development project.”

This approach to community development and health promotion sees all neighborhood happenings as relevant to neighborhood well-being. Residents agree. Last year, Reinhart established a Community Advisory Board to set priorities and develop goals. When asked to address health, they highlighted traffic safety, housing quality, racial equity, and social cohesion.

DeSales has experience in all of those areas, but it continues to connect the dots both within its own organization and with other organizations. That means that in another five years, the employees at DeSales – though they’ll no doubt still be on the move – might be doing different things than they are now. It’s not something that concerns them.

“I don’t think there is such a thing as mission creep as long as we’re serving the community and filling a gap,” Reinhart said. “The community organizing and being a resource for neighbors has always been part of DeSales’ work here, so the health initiatives are built on that. They provide a platform for the neighborhood to be more than just a place for people to live.”

Spotlight Stories: Omaha, Nebraska

The Spotlight Stories series features examples of how people across the country are working creatively and effectively to enhance well-being for themselves and to leave a legacy of well-being for generations to come. These are stories from communities creating lasting legacies identified through the Well Being Legacy initiative.  


Situated in Douglas County on the Nebraska side of the Nebraska/Iowa border, Omaha is the state’s largest city with a population of roughly 450,000. Around 2013, at a time when national juvenile arrest rates decreased, Douglas County remained nearly 50% higher than the national average.


Despite having ample resources (good public and private schools, corporations, universities, relatively low cost of living), Omaha has a history of disparity. At one point the poverty rate for African American youth was among the highest in the nation. There is a long track record of high incarceration rates for young people, with the majority of arrests for nonviolent crimes, and with disproportionate minority contact with the juvenile justice system. There have been community efforts to decrease the youth incarceration rate, but the work tended to be siloed. And, while rates decreased overall, the disparity between white and not-youth in the system continued to climb.


Collaborative funding from a mixture of public and private sources enabled Operation Youth Success (OYS) to work with local elected officials and stakeholders to assess the juvenile justice system. The group came together around the common goals of improving experiences young people have in the system and decreasing overall youth incarceration rates. Assessment results were used to inform efforts such as creating new services and building in alternative consequences so fewer youth enter the system, aiming towards large-scale outcome improvements. The group has a continuing focus on improving community engagement and includes community leaders with unique perspectives (e.g. a former police chief-turned nonprofit executive serving a low-income community). They hand-pick champions from various sectors and work towards engaging local families and young people in visioning and making decisions about how to improve their systems. They strive to be inclusive of residents  rather than the traditional method of recruiting a few agencies, officials, and nonprofits to make all the decisions.


Historically, representatives from Omaha neighborhoods that are disproportionately affected by poverty, unemployment, and resulting increased chance of youth incarceration, haven’t taken part in system reform work. Engagement with those with lived experiences with the juvenile justice system has led to an approach that is fundamentally different than what has gone on before: those most affected by the juvenile justice system are now a part of the decision-making process and share their direct experiences to shed light on improvements the county needs to focus on. The results are promising. There is a focus on upstream causes of youth entering the system in the first place, and an effort to eliminate the school-to-prison-pipeline through joint training with school resource officers on alternative interventions. Police report more positive relationships with schools and school-based arrests have decreased. A diversion program that provides young people additional extracurricular opportunities (clubs, sports teams, etc.) was formerly only accessible to students who had been ticketed by a law officer at school; now, it’s available to students before law enforcement gets involved.

“We’re still building trust with the community and families, and system stakeholders who feel we could be doing more to change the juvenile justice system and produce positive results for their community. We’re three years in and some of those relationships are still fragile. Building trust takes time, turning a battleship like the juvenile justice system takes time, but we are determined, and I am determined, to not have another generation exist without having the opportunity to be contributing members of society.” – Chris Rogers, Douglas County Commissioner


If the initiative can withstand the early growth phase, Omaha community members agree that there is a lot of opportunity for what the future holds for their community and juvenile justice system, in particular. In terms of community engagement, they’re working to improve the process, asking questions like: What does consensus look like? What does governance look like in these groups? How do you balance ideas and perspectives from a wide range of people?

Additionally, the judicial court bench will change within the next few years, due to both natural turnover and expansion. Incoming judges will provide new leadership, which will require more relationship-building, training and perspective. There is an ongoing focus on reversing the Disproportionate Minority Contact (DMC) with the system, in fact Douglas County recently received a federal grant to specifically address the DMC issue, which enabled them to hire a DMC coordinator. There are also plans to build new juvenile justice facility and implement a programmatic philosophy that incorporates trauma-informed approaches and family experience.

Healthy Meals on a Budget: Nutrition that Works for Real Families

We believe in the power of storytelling and the importance of investing in the future by sharing those stories – whether they are stories of successful community ventures or lessons learned from stories of things you wish happened just a little bit differently. These are the stories of communities working together for the common good.  – Community Commons 

Lou Hurst, Community Action Council | Over the past decade, the U.S. has seen a revolution in awareness about food quality, sustainability, and equitable food access. However, for many families living in or near poverty there remains a frustrating disconnect from the promise of “healthy eating.”

In practice, household food management is a complex, messy business involving many factors beyond the availability of healthy foods. Some families have persistent beliefs that healthy foods are unaffordable, or hard and time-consuming to prepare. Some are overwhelmed by navigating grocery stores, markets and restaurants, or misled by aggressive marketing and complicated labeling. And in many families, long-ingrained cultural habits and practices, overlaid with day-to-day family dynamics, make it a real challenge to transform dietary habits.

To address this reality,  Community Action Council, a community action agency based in central Kentucky, launched Healthy Meals on a Budget—an interactive family nutrition education program operated as an extension of its Head Start programs and funded by the city government of Lexington. Healthy Meals on a Budget is designed to meet  low income families with small children where they are, paying sympathetic attention to the multiple barriers—real and perceived—that these families may face in household food management.

Through hands-on workshops and open discussion, the program gives families practical education on food selection, purchasing, and preparation, placing equal emphasis on nutrition and household economy. Families are provided with interactive demonstrations of how to prepare a full meal that represents a healthful and affordable alternative to a more common dish. With vivid demonstrations and visual aids, families learn in detail both the nutritional benefits and the cost savings of the meal substitution.

Participants of all ages are invited to ask questions and discuss issues relevant to the meal. Discussion topics have included: responding to food marketing; accessing and navigating grocery stores, markets, restaurants, and other food outlets, with an emphasis on the specifics of the local food scene; reading nutrition labels; safe food handling; interpreting sell-by and expiration dates; avoiding food spoilage and waste; and the availability of community resources and services such as SNAP, WIC, and food pantries that can help families meet their nutrition needs. Finally, families are invited to share the meal in a group setting.

Beyond being fun family bonding and learning experiences, the workshops are designed to serve as springboards for families to transform their own daily habits at home—including improvising their own recipes and routines, as well as having ongoing discussions about nutrition.

Since its launch, Healthy Meals on a Budget has reached over 90 families. Some sessions have been tailored for specific groups. For instance, two sessions have been conducted for a fatherhood engagement group that provides regular education and support for fathers who are seeking to become more involved in their children’s lives; two others took place at Chrysalis House, a residential facility for mothers affected by substance use disorders. Still another workshop was adapted for the Foster Grandparent program, which includes senior volunteers who assist with child development in the classroom. One Spanish-only session was conducted in a Lexington neighborhood that has a high Hispanic population and operates a migrant and seasonal Head Start.

Similar to that of common Head Start initiatives, Healthy Meals on a Budget takes a two-generational approach to education. This approach is based on the understanding that early childhood outcomes are dependent on the entire family context, and children’s needs are best met when their other family members simultaneously receive support in their goals. In the case of nutrition, parents have a profound effect on children’s current and future diet— both directly, through the foods they buy and prepare for the household, and indirectly, through their modeling of dietary behaviors. However, children themselves play a large role in their household’s food economy by expressing their tastes and preferences, by helping in food shopping and preparation, and by sharing their own understanding of “healthy food.” The Council believes that any meaningful efforts to address household nutrition must engage both generations as learners and active participants.

Suboptimal household food management contributes to significant health risks, including malnutrition, obesity and related conditions, and even food-borne illnesses—all of which allow income-based health disparities to persist in the U.S. To address the gap, sound nutrition education will always be critical, as will be community-wide efforts to ensure that all families have access to quality foods. But in order to fully participate in the food economy as informed consumers, families can use guidance that is practical and context-specific and understands their needs. Healthy Meals on a Budget is breaking ground in helping families negotiate food affordability, convenience, dietary quality, and health.