Sunday, June 02, 2002

Working for the homeless

Drop-Inn Center's director of employment programs knows something about turning a life around

By Jim Knippenberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Claudette Ellison made a decision 21 years ago:

        Lying in a hospital bed with three bullets in her spine, a victim of domestic violence, she prayed: “Please God, let me stay alive to take care of my kids. I promise I will not be a bitter woman. I will not be an angry woman. I will use my energies for positive work.”

        Twenty-one years later and using a wheelchair, she's good to her word.

        As director of the year-old Transitional Employment Program at Over-the-Rhine's Drop-Inn Center, this one-woman employment agency daily focuses 10 or 12 hours of positive energy on training homeless men and women to re-enter the job market. In most cases, they're people who have graduated from substance abuse programs and haven't worked in many years. If ever.

        And nothing, least of all a wheelchair, is going to stop her.

        It didn't stop the 47-year-old Forest Park mother from raising her two kids, now 29 and 25.

        It didn't stop her from schlepping off to hospitals in the middle of the night, two, three, even four times a week, when she worked as a domestic violence and rape counselor for Women Helping Women.

        It didn't stop her from meeting the man of her dreams and marrying him five years ago.

        It didn't stop her from earning two degrees. The first was a computer degree in 1992 from Southwestern College of Business. “I had to do it with no financial help because BVR (Bureau of Vocational Rehabilitation) said a degree wouldn't help me.”

        The second was from the College of Mount St. Joseph in women's studies with a concentration in social work and a 3.4 grade point average at her 2000 graduation. “Even after I graduated from Southwestern and applied again for money for the Mount, BVR told me I couldn't do it.

        “At graduation, I got an award for overcoming more physical, emotional, mental and financial challenges than anyone else in the class,” she says with pride.

        “And later, I did win scholarships and got grants, so I finally got some help.”

        Now, she's the one giving help.

        Operating out of a tiny, cluttered office at the rear of the Drop-Inn Center's first floor common room, the Transitional Employment Program is a six-month program for residents who are serious about becoming independent and self-sufficient.

        The key word is “serious:” “The program is very structured. I tell them there are rules and you must follow them. Think of this as a job, and I'm your boss. You will take it seriously and you will remain clean and sober or you'll be terminated from the program.”

        Ms. Ellison took on six clients to launch the program. Five of them graduated Friday night at a formal ceremony at the Drop-Inn Center — “speakers, certificates, cake, everything.

        “I'm so proud of them. They're clean, sober, not relapsing, working, turning their lives around. One is a warehouse supervisor at the FreeStore. One is a chef, one works in a factory, one is in college and working here doing data entry and one is working at a dry cleaners.

        “Now I have my second class, nine people. I think I could handle 10 or 12 and I probably will because the program has a waiting list.”

        The way the program works is Drop-Inn staffers refer clients for the program. Ms. Ellison reviews the information and picks potential trainees. Their names and information then go to a committee which makes the final selection.

        Participants then get 20 hours of training and counseling a week and work 20 hours a week, usually at the Center or one of its facilities. They get paid $7 an hour for 40 hours.

        The training phase includes a lot of individual counseling and on-the-job training. The 20-hour work phase, usually in a job Ms. Ellison found for them after phoning all over town, is a continuation of the training.

        It's 40 hours for the clients, but a good deal more for Ms. Ellison, and it doesn't leave a lot of time for other interests. Nevertheless, she and husband Solomon are all wrapped up in fixing up their first house, a chore made all the more challenging with Claudette's wheelchair and Solomon's 17-year battle with multiple sclerosis forcing him to use a walker — “he refuses to get in a chair. He's too hard headed to use one.”

        She's also taking courses in alcohol abuse counseling — “I do it all the time, every day informally, but I want a license so I can be a registered counselor.”

        In the meantime, she and Solomon are also busy planning a July cruise to the Bahamas to celebrate their anniversary. “I love cruises, but you have to be careful. We did one to the Virgin Islands and it wasn't great, because it wasn't very accessible.”

        Her digs at the Drop-Inn Center are highly accessible. “Oh sure, it's easy getting around here. Plus, a lot of the residents come in and talk to me, and I try to help them with whatever the problem is. Then they help me out. A lot of times, I have an entourage when I leave here at night.

        “I really do love it at the Center. I love helping the people I can help, even if they aren't my clients. But my long-term goal is to open my own shelter for women in crisis — homeless women, battered women, women with alcohol or drug problems, any kind of crisis. It would probably cost millions, but I keep hearing the money's out there, it's just a matter of finding it.

        “Failing that, I'd like to expand my program into a full-time employment office for the whole Drop-Inn Center. We have 200 men and 50 women here, and I would like to help them out.”


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