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ideastream Focus on Housing: The New Life Community

Tuesday, March 4, 2003 at 1:43 PM

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In her State of the City Address, Cleveland Mayor Jane Campbell promised to build 1,500 new housing units. But affordable housing options in Northeast Ohio continue to dwindle. Advocates say Cleveland has lost 1,000 units of affordable housing over the last three years, and up to 4,000 are on Cuyahoga County Metropolitan Housing Authority waiting lists for subsidized housing. Even scarcer are programs that prepare families for the rigors of finding and being able to pay for a home. One program that teaches women with children to find a job and a place to live, is New Life Community in Cleveland. The program transforms homeless and jobless women with children into self-sufficient, productive members of society. ideastream's Janet Babin reports.

Women in the New Life Community program start each weekday with a group meeting. It’s called a yea, me session. They sit in a circle in a chapel-like room and relate something positive that they did within the past 24 hours. Gloria has been in the program the longest.

Gloria: My yea me is just to see another day.

Sometimes the mornings become emotional, as the women reflect on how much their lives have changed since joining the New Life program, and how much the employees have helped them overcome enormous difficulties.

Gloria: She just wonderful. (crying) she’s like a mother and she don’t even know it… I just wanna tell you… thank you…

The four-month program is intense. Residents stay at New Life rent-free with their children, but must keep their apartments neat and undergo daily inspections. There’s no room for addiction or mental illness. Everyone must be clean for at least 18 months, and submit to random drug testing. New Life Executive Director Donna Asnani says the faith-based program gives women the tools they need to find and keep a job that pays more than minimum wage.

Donna Asnani: Anybody can get minimum wage, but if we expect people to stay employed, it has to be something that comes from the heart.

New Life’s budget this year is just $840,000, with about a quarter of that coming from Cuyahoga County and the state of Ohio. Last year, about 40 women graduated from the program. 100% had full time jobs when they left, and about as many eventually moved on to permanent housing. The average salary the women received was $8.49 per hour. In a review of the 2,000 graduates, after one year, 78% were still employed. Participants often find work in the medical field, social services, community service or banking. 33-year-old Margo McKnight is a New Life success story. On a recent Tuesday, her day off, she’s enjoying a rare moment of solitude in her modest upstairs double in Shaker Heights. Her five boys, from twins aged 18 months to 8 years old are in school or day care. When she arrived at New Life last year, her twins were just four weeks old.

Margo McKnight: When I was in the hospital, they only give you two days, I had a c section, stayed three days and asked to stay another day, cause I didn’t. I knew what it was like taking care of the boys alone, so depressing thinking of what it would be like taking care of all five.

McKnight says the program was hard, but for the first time in her life, she knew how to interview for a job.

Margo McKnight: Not only do they give you job training, in how to look for work and what to do when you find it. I remember being in the interview and remembering everything - what to say, and it worked and it’s just amazing.

McKnight expected to have trouble finding housing after graduation, but didn’t.

Margo McKnight: The place was a total wreck, and I’m like, I’ll take it. So he told me he was going to do a credit check, so I told him my credit is very bad. He called the next day and said I was right, but said he would let me have the place anyway, because I was honest.

But Executive Director Asnani says McKnight’s experience is an exception. She says most women have great difficulty finding affordable housing after graduating from New Life.

Donna Asnani: If you look at national low-income statistics, the fair market rental in Cuyahoga County is $726. That means in order to generate that, you’ve got to make $29,000 dollars a year. If you leave here at $8 an hour, and that’s good money, the numbers are easy to figure out, you’ll make $16,000, not enough. That’s the gap, and it’s very real.

Without the motivation a home of one’s own provides, Asnani fears that the New Life graduates won’t be able to hold on to the disciplines it took four hard months for them to master. Four new families move in to new life apartments later today, and officially begin the rigorous program, Monday morning. In Cleveland, Janet Babin, 90.3.

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