Homelessness in Medina County may not always be easy to spot, but it does exist, says Deborah Boehmke, program manager and life coach for Employing Medina County.
“Our homeless are not standing out on the corners panhandling,” Boehmke says. “If you don’t see it, you don’t know it and that is a challenge. Reaching out to community leaders and affluent business leaders who don’t realize that there are these issues and letting them know about the problem is the best way to create more awareness.”
The poverty rate in Medina County, which has a population of more than 176,000, is 7 percent, according to the latest figures from the Census Bureau. That is lower than the poverty rates in Summit, Stark, Wayne, Portage and Ashland counties.
But that’s still a lot of people who most nights face some very painful questions: What am I going to eat? Where am I going to sleep?
“That’s 12,000 people in Medina County who live at or below the poverty level,” Boehmke says. “And 24 percent of those people are under the age of 17. So we have children going to school hungry and without proper clothing.”
EMC, which is operated by United Way of Medina County, is attempting to get as many of these people as it can back on their feet.
“Many of them have the motivation and the desire to be employed,” Boehmke says. “But they are facing a lot of barriers that prevent them from getting regular employment, including lack of transportation or child care and/or not having the adequate skills to be successful. So this group of about 20 people got together and determined there was a gap in services and resources that were available to our low-income households that didn’t typically qualify for traditional government assistance programs.”
A team approach
EMC has faced its own challenges finding its role and approach in the community. Boehmke was hired as the program’s first life coach in September 2015.
“They had found that the way they were doing the program just wasn’t fitting the needs of the clients who were coming to them,” Boehmke says. “The clients who were coming to them tended to have more challenges than they even anticipated. So EMC did some research and looked at other places that had similar programs. They found that life coaches were being used. So in September when I came on, we shifted our curriculum and we now use a life coaching model.”
Boehmke reaches out to other agencies in Medina County, as well as churches, to find solutions for her clients.
“We have a church that is working with one of our clients right now and he doesn’t have any transportation,” she says. “So they take turns driving him to and from work with us assisting as well. So at least he can have a steady income while he tries to save for a car. We really are relying on people that we know.”
Finding housing is a more difficult challenge. Waiting lists for government housing are closed, so Boehmke’s team will hit the road to see what might be available.
“We’ll drive up and down little neighborhoods in Medina County looking for signs for rent to help people with that,” she says.
Boehmke does feel that EMC is making a positive difference.
“We have served about 70 clients since September,” she says. “About 50 percent of them are employed. There could be some underemployment there, but at least 50 percent of them are seeing some type of employment.”
Counseling and life coaching is a large part of what Boehmke does with clients.
“We do short-term and long-term goals,” she says. “There are people who we’ve sat down with and put goals on paper to figure out what they want to do. We’ve helped them find housing and gotten them out of some bad situations and get a job or enroll in a trade school. I’ve seen clients whose self-esteem has grown. ‘I can provide for my family. I can be a good example to my children.’ I’ve seen these people become happier as they know they can be self-sufficient and don’t have to rely on assistance to be successful.”
Other cases take a little more time, effor and unconditional love to get on a better path.
“We’ll find a job and we know it’s not the best in the world, but we tell them, ‘Just stick with it for a while and we’ll look for another job,’” Boehmke says.
“But they’ll quit after four or five weeks because it was too cold or another employee looked at them funny. That’s one of the things we’re trying to understand and work through. We will call them and say, ‘We’re not happy with you about this, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to drop you.’ We will keep at them and keep trying to teach them that work ethic and let them know that no matter what, we’re still here.”
Boehmke understands that she can’t do it alone and so she spends a great deal of time spreading the word about EMC’s mission and trying to build new partnerships to help chip away at homelessness in Medina County.
“People are becoming more aware of EMC and we don’t have to search for clients or businesses to help us,” she says. “They are coming to us.” ●
How to reach: Employing Medina County, (330) 725-3926 or www.unitedwaymedina.org