CINCINNATI — When Christian Ortiz lost her job last May 15, she saw it as a bump in the road.
Ortiz had enough savings to pay her bills for at least three months, she said, and she had never been unemployed for more than a few weeks.
But this time was different. She wasn’t getting any offers in the luxury housing industry where she had worked, and she couldn’t even get a third-shift job stocking shelves in retail. As she drained her savings, Ortiz began to worry about eviction and losing her car to repossession.
“To know exactly what was coming for me, knowing that I was on the other side now, it was scary,” she said. “It was scary for sure.”
Then a friend told her about Cincinnati Works, and the nonprofit organization quickly enrolled her in a program called Project Lift. Ortiz got checks totaling about $2,000, she said, which was enough to avoid eviction and catch up on her car payments.
“Having Cincinnati Works step in and help me out was a godsend, for sure,” Ortiz said. “There’s a safety net that can catch you in the midst of your fall.”
Over the past year, 573 Hamilton County families have gotten help through Project Lift. The program is a strategy of the Child Poverty Collaborative, an initiative launched in 2015 with the lofty goal of helping lift 5,000 families and 10,000 children out of poverty within five years.
The collaborative’s leaders spent the first year researching Hamilton County’s poverty problem with the help of outside consultants and, importantly, through a series of community meetings where they heard directly from people they wanted to help.
“I can recall hearing people say, ‘Please don’t hire people to fix me. I don’t need to be fixed. I’m working, and I’m working hard, and I’m trying to do what’s best for my family. Then that money to fix me goes to that other person, and the money never gets to me,’” said Sister Sally Duffy, a founding leader of the Child Poverty Collaborative who now serves as chair of the group’s 10 co-chairs.
After some stops and starts with other approaches, the collaborative’s leaders designed Project Lift.
Every dollar raised for the program gets distributed to the people who need it, Duffy said. Families get help through sponsor organizations, which include nonprofits such as Cincinnati Works as well as churches and other community groups. Many of the region’s largest businesses also are involved and support the effort.
“Never before in my time here has there been such a unifying effort between government, United Way, the nonprofit sector, the faith-based sector and the business community, the hospitals, eds and meds, all united around poverty reduction,” said Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley, who has made reducing poverty a priority during his time in office. “After years of talking, we’re doing. And real people and real lives are benefiting.”
That doesn’t mean the Child Poverty Collaborative can declare victory.
'We know we can do it'
Yes, the most recent data released by the U.S. Census Bureau showed that roughly 6,500 people moved out of poverty in Hamilton County, Duffy said.
But financial stability can be slippery, she acknowledged, and often families slide in and out of poverty.
That’s especially true now with the COVID-19 pandemic, when so many people have lost their jobs either because their employers have closed or because they had to leave work in order to care for children who aren’t in school.
“The impact of what we are dealing with in terms of the coronavirus and the impact that that’s having on our economy is going to be significant,” Duffy said. “Are we achieving the goal of moving people out of poverty and keeping people out of poverty? No, we can’t say that today. But we know we can do it. So we have to put our energy, our resources and our innovation in changing systems and structures to address this in the short term and in the long term. And we can do that.”
Even the biggest supporters of Project Lift say the program is just one of many approaches needed to tackle a problem as complex as poverty.
“This is one intervention in the community. There’s lots of different things that are happening,” said Moira Weir, the new CEO of United Way of Greater Cincinnati who helped launch Project Lift when she was director of Hamilton County Job and Family Services. “The more opportunities we have for families and individuals to choose from, I mean that’s a benefit for our community.”
To qualify for Project Lift, adults must:
· Live in Hamilton County;
· Be working or have a viable path to employment;
· Share information about their finances for at least a year;
· Be responsible financially in some way for at least one child;
· Agree to work with a sponsor organization;
· And have a household income below 200% of the federal poverty guidelines.
That is equal to a household income of less than $52,400 for a family of four, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The idea is that families struggle to be self-sufficient until they earn at least twice as much as what the federal government considers “poor.”
The goal of Project Lift is to get participating families up above that level so they can manage without the need for emergency assistance and government support.
The program does that by making sure families have access to all the government-funded programs that they qualify for if they want to use them, Weir said.
If the families make too much money to qualify for the government-funded help – or if there aren’t government programs to meet their needs – Project Lift has private funding that its sponsor organizations can distribute.
“That’s the beautiful thing about Project Lift funding, that it is flexible,” said Peggy Zink, the president and CEO of Cincinnati Works and a Child Poverty Collaborative co-chair. “It gives us the ability to do what we believe needs to be done.”
Even more important, the person getting the help drives what needs to be done, Zink said.
“It’s a privilege to have these funds that are saying, we trust the individual and we trust the agency to make the best choices,” she said.
'We are on the front lines'
Trust is the reason Project Lift has churches and other community organizations involved as sponsors, too, Duffy said.
“They already have the trusted relationships with these families,” she said.
New Prospect Baptist Church has been a sponsor agency since April 2019, when Project Lift launched, and Pastor Damon Lynch III said the program has been a blessing to the people the church serves.
“We are on the front lines. We see people every single day,” Lynch said. “And even if there was no Project Lift, people would still bring those needs to us with the expectation that the church would help.”
New Prospect has four volunteers who evaluate people seeking help to determine if they’re a good fit for Project Lift. It’s a lot of work, Lynch said, but the ladies who do it “see it as a ministry.”
“We were doing it before without the Project Lift dollars. We were doing it with church dollars. It’s just part of the ministry of helping people in need,” he said. “Making sure people have a roof over their head, have food on the table and that their gas and electric is paid.”
Lynch stressed that, as helpful as the program’s dollars are, they won’t be enough to lift families out of poverty.
For that, he said, families must build longer-term wealth rather than being focused on short-term income.
Duffy agreed, saying that’s why the Child Poverty Collaborative also works with employers through the Workforce Innovation Center. The center encourages companies to make policy changes that boost wages and open up opportunities for people who often get overlooked, such as people with criminal records.
Project Lift also has a new transportation initiative called Cincinnati CARS that is working with Mike Albert Fleet Solutions. The goal is to find people in the program who can lease a late-model car at a subsidized rate of $200 per month, said Mary Asbury. She’s the executive director of Legal Aid Society of Greater Cincinnati and has been leading Project Lift’s transportation efforts.
The challenges involved in helping families get where they want to go are as complex as poverty itself.
The key has been making sure that the financial help that families receive through Project Lift genuinely contributes to their long-term stability, said H.A. Musser. He’s the president and CEO of Santa Maria Community Services, which also has been a Project Lift sponsor agency since last April.
Many of the families that come to Santa Maria for help start out with incomes that are about half the federal poverty guidelines, or less than $13,000 per year, he said. Helping them get to incomes four times that amount rarely happens quickly.
Of the 573 Hamilton County families getting help through Project Lift, 120 saw an increase in their household incomes as of the end of February, according to data shared with WCPO. Six families had a decrease in their incomes, and 447 had no change.
Of course, that was before the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything.
'I'm scared for May'
Now Cincinnati Works, Santa Maria, New Prospect and all the other organizations working to help families are hearing about setbacks.
“Families on the edge have very little margin for problems occurring. So everything is tenuous it seems like for them or fragile. You have one medical emergency or a person is sick and if they don’t have benefits, they have this big bill,” Musser said. “This is just one more thing that is a contributor to people getting off their path towards self-sufficiency.”
It certainly has hit Ortiz hard.
In December, she finally got a job. She has been working for Thunderdome Restaurant Group at CityBird in Montgomery.
When WCPO interviewed Ortiz at her home on March 17, she felt like she was finally stable again.
She had moved into her new apartment in Clifton a week earlier. The only thing left to do was to hang up the photos of her three children, and she was looking for just the right spot for those.
“To have my own peace of mind, my own sense of independence and be back on my feet again feels amazing,” she said.
A few days later, she was furloughed when the Thunderdome closed all of its restaurants temporarily as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.
Ortiz said she’s “more than confident” that she’ll have a job to go back to when life gets back to normal.
“I’m not taking it personally,” she said in a follow-up phone interview. “This is not an individual evaluation on my performance up to this point. The whole world is in the position I’m in right now.”
Ortiz has applied for unemployment. She has a case number, she said, but is waiting for someone to contact her just as thousands of other people are across Ohio.
Cincinnati Works has offered her a Kroger gift card to help pay for groceries and gas, she said, and she’s grateful for that.
“I have enough as of now to sustain me though April as far as my rent and my car note,” she said. “May is when I’m scared. I’m scared for May – not just for me but for everybody else. We’re going to see it then.”
Ortiz will be 36 soon. She’s old enough to remember how the world changed after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, she said, and she figures it’s possible that some of the changes that have come with the COVID-19 pandemic might be here to stay.
“If all else fails, we’ve got better weather on the way,” she said. “We’ll make it. We’ll make it.”
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. To reach Lucy, email email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.