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

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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 womenofcincy.org/housing.

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.”

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