Poverty Behind Picket Fences

A list of Northeast Ohio suburbs from Cleveland Magazine's "Rating the Suburbs" issue and the percentage of their populations that are below the
poverty level. Source: 1990 and 2000 U.S. Census.
City 1990 2000
Aurora 2.5 3.6
Avon 5.1 1.9
Avon Lake 3 2.3
Bay Village 2.6 3.1
Beachwood 2.1 4.3
Bedford 4.8 7.6
Bedford Heights 6.8 7.6
Berea 4.3 5.5
Brecksville 2.3 2.5
Broadview Heights 4.8 3.2
Brook Park 2.6 4.6
Brooklyn 5.5 6.6
Brunswick 4.1 4.6
Chagrin Falls 2 3.6
Chardon 4.8 3.8
Cleveland Heights 8.5 10.6
Cuyahoga Falls 6.5 6.1
East Cleveland 27.8 32
Eastlake 4.9 5
Elyria 13.5 11.7
Euclid 7.8 9.7
Fairview Park 4.1 4.1
Garfield Heights 5.9 8.5
Highland Heights 4 4
Hudson 1.9 1.7
Independence 2.8 3.6
Lakewood 8.5 8.9
Lorain 19.6 17.1
Lyndhurst 2.9 2.5
Macedonia 2 1.5
Maple Heights4 4 5.9
Mayfield Heights 5.1 6.3
Mayfield Village 0.1 2.6
Medina 8.3 5.7
Mentor 2.8 2.7
Middleburg Heights 2.4 3
Moreland Hills 2 3.3
North Olmsted 3.1 4.1
North Ridgeville 4.1 3.2
North Royalton 2.5 2.3
Oakwood 9.8 6.3
Olmsted Falls 1.6 2.1
Olmsted Township 3.8 3
Orange Village 3.3 3.6
Painesville 14.7 16
Parma 4.1 4.9
Parma Heights 3.7 7.6
Pepper Pike 4.9 3.7
Richmond Heights 4.2 5.3
Rocky River 3.7 2.3
Sagamore Hills 2 2
Seven Hills 1.9 2.6
Shaker Heights 3.5 6.9
Sheffield Lake 4.8 4.7
Solon 2.5 2.5
South Euclid 3.3 4.5
Strongsville 2.3 2.2
Twinsburg 2.7 2.1
University Heights 2.9 5.8
Warrensville Heights 10.3 11.4
Westlake 2.1 2.5
Wickliffe 4.1 6.5
Willoughby 4.7 5.8
Willoughby Hills 3.2 3.4
Willowick 2.9 4.5
Just after 5:30 in the evening, the line at the Rocky River food pantry stretches past the racks of peanut butter and cereal, past the Heinen's bags piled in shopping carts and, finally, out the door onto the icy walkway. The people waiting their turns, mostly women, have pulled their hats over their foreheads and their scarves around their mouths, preserving their anonymity while beating back the cold.

Only Bethany Marini seems happy to be there. Like most of the others, perhaps, her day has been long and her journey to the food pantry just short of tragic. But she has her health. She has her job at Dairy Queen. She has her 10-year-old daughter, Isabella, pressing against her leg. As she waits, Marini asks one regular whether she received enough food last month for Ramadan. She compliments another on her stylish scarf.

Marini speaks with an upbeat eloquence similar to that of the pantry volunteers, members of the Rocky River Junior Women's Club. She has eliminated from her voice every trace of Bucyrus, her hometown near Mansfield, where she was the daughter of an alcoholic father who once hunted down his family with a gun. No hint of southern Ohio or Florida lingers either, though she spent years of her childhood in those places as well, being dragged to wherever her mother's new husband moved after Marini's uncle shot and killed her father in self-defense. Her personal history is pure Southern Gothic, but Marini herself doesn't fit any stereotype.

Back at home, in the red-brick apartment building where she and Isabella live, water from the radiator drips into a bucket. Marini will not call the landlord; she doesn't want to be any trouble. As an $8-an-hour worker going through a divorce, the 37-year-old mother of two knows she's lucky to live in this ZIP code. She doesn't want to push it.

The leaky radiator, the boxes piled in the hallway, the 1992 Taurus with cigarette burns on the upholstery and 204,000 miles on the odometer — all are trappings of Marini's life now. But she also allows herself small indulgences, such as a cell phone and an occasional trip to the upscale bakery in her building, where she buys cookies to serve during our interview. One tastes like chocolate-chip cheesecake, another like creme brulee

"I always wanted to not be trash," she says. "I wanted to live in a nice place."

For 4 1/2 years, she lived more like a food-pantry volunteer than a client. She and her husband, a construction worker, rented a friend's five-bedroom house on Homeland Drive. They were the only renters on the street. But no one ever made them feel ashamed about it. They and their neighbors went to the same church, St. Christopher's. Their children donned the same Girl Scout uniforms and played street hockey together in the cul-de-sac. But the income gap between her family and the neighbors bothered Marini. Even when she was working two jobs — baby-sitting in her home during the day and working at Marc's at night — her family struggled to pay the rent each month.

One day, while Marini was working the cash register at Marc's, a preppy woman wearing Dockers and a blonde bob came through her line. As the woman wrote out her check, Marini noticed they were neighbors.

"I live on Homeland Drive, too," she chirped.

The woman looked shocked.

"You do?" she answered coldly.

The woman's disbelief cut like a chainsaw through Marini's self-esteem. Those two words echoed in her head for the rest of her shift.

She wasn't feeling well anyway. Her hips ached. Her heartburn was flaring. Every time she bent over, she stifled an urge to vomit. Marini knew she needed medical help, but her husband was between jobs and the family had no health insurance. Then, her stomach started growing despite the fact that she was losing weight. She had to give up baby-sitting because she couldn't lift the babies. Six months after the symptoms began, she finally decided to call a doctor.

Several days before Christmas 2001, Marini had an ultrasound, then a CAT scan a few weeks later. It showed a watermelon-sized mass attached to one of her ovaries. In February 2002, her doctor removed 12 pounds of fluid from it.

He told her it was routine practice to send the fluid to pathology. Don't worry, he told her. It's just a cyst.

Only it wasn't.

It took pathologists three weeks to figure out that she had endometrial stromal sarcoma, a rare form of uterine cancer.

After that, Marini saw specialist after specialist. She had to quit her job. During a second surgery in April 2002, another doctor removed her ovaries, her uterus and layers of abdominal tissue.

All the while, the bills were mounting. Threatening letters from creditors filled the mailbox. Collectors called the house. With an incision stretching all the way across her middle, Marini could barely get out of bed. During that difficult time, she remembers her husband being more of a burden than a comfort. But her daughters helped. Friends from the street and moms from the Girl Scout troop cooked and cleaned for her. One came over five days a week. Another started a newspaper subscription drive that raised $800. Another referred Marini to the assistance program that helps Rocky River residents obtain food and clothes.

When she was well enough, in August 2002, Marini reluctantly drove herself to the food pantry for the first time.

"I was really apprehensive about it," she says. "I thought I'd see people I know. I didn't want to embarrass my girls. I didn't want to embarrass myself."

She did know a few of the volunteers. One lived along the newspaper route Marini had taken up against doctor's orders that summer. But the women didn't make her feel self-conscious. They looked into her eyes, as if she were a friend instead of a charity case. The woman on her paper route laughed with her about the pesky skunk that chased her as she threw The Plain Dealer onto the front porch. Marini acted as if the whole thing was a social call until the volunteers wheeled out a grocery cart filled with bags marked with a "4," for the four people in her family.

"I thought I was going to get to take a bag," she recalls.

They told her to take it all.

"I stood there crying," Marini says. "I wanted to hug all of them."

Rocky River doesn't seem like a community with a poverty problem. Yachts with names such as The Pilgrim and Tax Abatement dock at the marina. Two-million-dollar houses overlook the lake. The average home value is $205,700, and that increases by about $21,000 every three years.

But in the winter of 1983, concerned citizens noticed that children were coming to school without hats, gloves or coats. Community leaders, including members of the Rocky River Junior Women's Club, were appalled "that this was happening in Rocky River," says Kim McCue, the group's current president. So club volunteers began a clothes closet in a member's basement. Eventually, they decided that Rocky River needed a food program as well. In the mid-'80s, the suburb was one of many where the Cleveland Hunger Task Force helped start hunger centers, says Steve Wortheim, a former organizer.

"They were supposed to be temporary, and they're all still in existence," notes Wortheim, now the executive director of the United Way's First Call for Help.

Over the past 20 years, poverty, like many Clevelanders themselves, has moved to the suburbs. Now, it lives in the region's bedroom communities, in its single-family homes near shopping malls and among its cineplexes and cul-de-sacs. According to the Federation for Community Planning's Social Indicators 2003, the percentage of people below poverty in the outer-ring suburbs (see graphic on page 82) increased from 3.2 percent to 3.6 percent over the 1990s. The rise in the inner-ring suburbs was more striking — from 7.2 percent to 8.5 percent.

Poverty's baggage includes delinquent property taxes; depreciating housing stock; increased strain on schools, libraries, and police and fire departments.

"The great American deal was that empty-nesters and wealthier families would help pay for the services accessed by low-income people," says Edward "Ned" Hill, Cleveland State University professor of economic development. "With sprawl came a breakdown of that deal."

Since the 1880s, Clevelanders have been pushing past the city limits. According to The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, they initially fled the city because of political corruption, the crush of new immigrants and the pollution from nearby industries. But while what people were escaping from has changed over the decades, what they were escaping to has remained the same: land; quiet; a safe, uncluttered place to make a fresh start. The population grew outward, first into the suburbs closest to the city, where most people still worked. Then, they moved to places accessible by streetcar, such as Lakewood and Cleveland Hei勤s. When automobiles became commonplace in the 1940s, residents moved farther out, into the "outer-ring" suburbs. After 1970, they relocated to the communities on the perimeter of the county — Solon, Strongsville, Westlake — and beyond.

Suburban poverty grew out of the recession of 1979, says Hill, when demand for low-skill workers fell significantly. By 1983, the area had lost 13 percent of its jobs. Scores of empty working-class homes joined desolate factories and rusting plants on the landscape of the failed economy. Meanwhile, those with the education and higher skill sets required by the new economy moved into bigger, more modern homes in the outer-ring suburbs. The older working-class homes in the inner-ring suburbs grew less desirable. Some converted to rental properties. Many became affordable to lower-income people for the first time.

This trend continued into the 1990s, when the plethora of jobs enabled even those at the poverty level or below it to move into bigger homes in the suburbs, closer to shopping and in better school districts. As the economy faltered in 2001, however, jobs lost, hours were cut and overtime was eliminated. It's likely many new suburbanites found themselves falling into poverty once again, says Claudia Coulton, co-director of the Center on Urban Poverty and Social Change at Case Western Reserve University.

"There are huge numbers of people hovering behind the poverty line," Coulton says. "They are a paycheck behind it, and in a recession they can get hit."

Joining them were longtime suburban residents who found themselves downwardly moving for many of the same reasons. Cleveland's predicament seemed to mirror the situation nationwide. By 2003, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that the country's overall poverty rate had climbed from 11.7 percent in 2001 to 12.2 percent 2002, and three quarters of the newly impoverished 1.7 million lived in suburbs.

Close observers of the Northeast Ohio economy, such as George Zeller, low and falling incomes are the greatest problems. The senior researcher for the Council for Economic Opportunities in Greater Cleveland says that Cuyahoga County lost 7.7 percent of its jobs over the past three years. That's 62,403 workers and "some of these people laid off were in Chagrin Falls and Shaker Heights," he adds.

Just how bad the recession affected the middle and upper classes becomes apparent at the Men's Resource Center on the Lakeland Community College campus. There, unemployed white-collar workers swap stories about how they've managed to get by. All have college degrees and many years' experience. When you're laid off from a good job, they say, you do some or all of the following: You carry the most minimal health coverage you can find. You reduce your life insurance. You pay your bills with credit cards. You drain your savings account. You stop traveling, going to movies and eating out. You shop at dollar stores, tap into your IRAs and take out lines of credit on your home. And, of course, you look for a new job. Some find one in a few months, while others have been looking for years.

The amount of time it takes to land a new job in Northeast Ohio is often directly proportional to how much pride you're willing to swallow. One former marketing executive is considering taking a 10 p.m.-to-2 a.m. job loading FedEx trucks. Men's Resource Center director Jim Shelley recalls a financial-services manager who accepted a position at a rental-car agency. Several others earned $10 an hour as servers for a catering business that recruited from the men's group.

When a highly skilled, formerly well-paid worker has no choice but to take a low-skill, poorly paid job, pride isn't the only thing lost. A little more of the area's economic potential goes, too. The most recent recession mirrors the one in 1979, in that many job losses were in the manufacturing industry, on which this area remains dependent. As a result, the economic recovery being touted in the rest of the country still isn't taking hold here.

"Poverty is soaring right now, dramatically rising," Zeller says. "The level of human suffering in Cleveland and its suburbs is enormous."

Over the years, the Rocky River Assistance Program moved from a volunteer's basement to a church, so it could provide clients with nonperishable food items. In 1991, the program gained a permanent space in the Beech Education Center.

Volunteers have gone from doling out mittens to providing $26,500 of assistance last year. Clients receive a week's worth of food on a monthly basis, gift cards for children's clothing three times a year, and help with emergency expenses. In 2001, the program served 120 people per month. That number had climbed to 160 by the end of 2003. Kim McCue says she has noticed an increase of about 20 families a year.

"We're seeing a lot of elderly people on Social Security — it's just not meeting their needs anymore," McCue says. "Also, a lot of single-parent families."

She and the other volunteers are used to being teased by those who consider the term "Rocky River Poor" an oxymoron. Despite their affluent surroundings, most clients of the Rocky River Assistance Program aren't any better off in terms of income than clients of food programs in Cleveland. To be eligible, they all must prove they are at or below 150 percent of the poverty rate, which for a family of two adults and two children means they earn no more than $27,366 per year.

The poor have become a much larger force, however, in places such as Lake County, where the local Jobs and Family Services office is struggling to keep up with requests for Food Stamps and Healthy Start. In Painesville, the Salvation Army has seen an increase in need from the working poor who must make choices between paying the bills and buying food. In Berea, the Southwest Community Access Network Hunger Center has increased its client base from 35 families in 2001 to more than 400 a month, including busloads of senior citizens. In Shaker Heights, Interfaith Hospitality, a network of churches and synagogues that take turns hosting homeless families with children, has seen a "dramatic" increase in need, says executive director Ed Gemerchak. Out of 500 requests for services last year — which come from all over the region, not just Shaker — it could accommodate only 31.

Despite all the assistance programs in the suburbs, their poor are still showing up in Cleveland, whose 26.3 percent poverty rate continues to dwarf that of most suburbs. (East Cleveland, which has a 32 percent poverty rate, is the exception.) At the Homeless Stand Down, a February event where agencies that provide services to the homeless gather in one place, between 15 and 25 percent of the 500 standing in line for free meals and haircuts typically list their last address as a suburb. And "every suburb has been represented," says Brianq Davis, executive director of the Northeastern Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, which organizes the Stand Down.

Suburban volunteers now tailor their services to meet the specific needs of their client base. The SCAN Hunger Center in Berea, for instance, serves people from six suburbs that include Strongsville and Olmsted Falls. It opens every two weeks for pickups, and it drops off food to one low-income neighborhood monthly. In the cramped, three-room pantry, volunteers greet regular clients by name. On one Friday, 83 clients come and go without much of a wait. By contrast, the larger suburban providers, such as one in Bedford, are beginning to look like their Cleveland counterparts. They have become overwhelming places full of desperate people with complex problems.

"The providers in the southeastern part of the city don't have enough resources for how much poverty is growing in those areas," says Dana Irribarren, executive director of the Hunger Network of Greater Cleveland, an emergency food-distribution network comprising 36 hunger centers and 18 hot-meal centers in Cuyahoga County.

One Tuesday morning in December, poor people from the southeastern suburbs fill the basement of Bedford's South Haven United Church of Christ. They sit close together on creaky folding chairs in the hallway, clutching small sheets of paper with numbers on them, where they wait ... and wait ... and wait for as long as two hours before being called into a small office crammed with refrigerators and volunteers.

The need is increasing, but "I haven't turned anyone away yet," says director William Scott, leaning on a stack of Velveeta cheese boxes after a particularly long Tuesday morning. After three years, Scott, a retired Army intelligence officer, has seen many people who are unaccustomed to asking for handouts, and he doesn't want to make it any harder for them. Clients often say they feel ashamed to be there. They insist it's a one-time thing.

After her number is called, 52-year-old Donna Aljeleel of Maple Heights takes a seat across from an elderly volunteer with a checklist.

"Apple sauce?" the volunteer asks.

"Yes," Aljeleel answers.

"Orange juice?"


"Sweet peas?"


"Diced tomatoes?"


"Powdered milk?"


Aljeleel accepts everything she is offered, including the dried potatoes and the evaporated milk. She stands up, frozen for a moment in the doorway, her arms filled with more grocery bags than she has held in weeks. A thick tear rolls down her face.

Pain is shooting through Aljeleel's chest, back and three fingers on her left hand from a deep-tissue injury sustained at her day-care center job two months earlier. For a few weeks, she couldn't sit or stand. All she could do was roll in her bed. Thanks to twice-a-week physical therapy sessions, she can walk now, but she still can't work. She and her husband have been living off his Social Security check, which made up only a quarter of their income when she was working.

Holding so many groceries hurts her back, but it isn't the physical pain that makes her cry.

"It was gratefulness," says the mother of four adult children. "I didn't expect to get so much food. Then, I felt embarrassed that I was there. I'm usually the one everyone comes to for help."

Each Tuesday and Thursday morning and one Saturday a month, the South Haven basement is full of people who never thought they'd be there either. Some have had minor setbacks, such as injuries that render them unable to work for a short time. Others tell of being stricken with debilitating illnesses, causing them to become dependent on government assistance. Others blame their circumstances on layoffs, reductions in hours or welfare cutoffs. Often, the hard-luck stories have multiple dimensions.

There is Deborah Ferguson of Maple Heights, who was laid off from a job building electric circuit boards, then suffered serious injuries to her back, knees and hands. She supports herself and her 21-year-old son, a college student living at home, on $874 a month in disability benefits. For her, the hunger center is a necessity. The same is true for Dorothy Campbell of Bedford, a breast cancer survivor who can no longer work. She receives only a $674 disability check and $373 in food stamps to raise her three grandchildren and another child.

Things at the pantry, called the Southeast Clergy Hunger Center, have changed since a network of clergy started it in 1983. Three years ago, the pantry served an average of 56 clients a month. Now, it serves more than 1,800. William Scott says he's seen a 400 percent increase just in the past few months.

"I'm at a choke point right now," he says.

In addition to the help he gets from the Hunger Network and 41 area churches, he solicits restaurants, grocery stores and other local businesses for donations. Some give as often as twice weekly. Volunteers arrive at the center with armloads of cooked chicken, fresh fruit and fancy treats they would never buy for themselves. Scott pulls out a chocolate croissant from an upscale bakery in Solon. The price on the wrapper says it sells for $1.59. Some lucky client will get it for free.

Still, the donations aren't enough. He's asked the Hunger Network to increase his $1,500 monthly grant to $3,000.

Bedford Mayor Daniel Pocek is surprised to hear about the increased demand at the hunger center. Poverty isn't ubiquitous in his community of 15,000 residents and 500 businesses, which include a Porsche and Audi dealership.

Although Bedford has aligned itself with the consortium of inner-ring suburbs, Pocek doesn't consider it a suburb. Incorporated in 1837, Bedford is "a small town," he says. "A large city grew up around us." Many residents have lived there for three or four generations. He boasts about Bedford's downtown, its stately pre-World War II housing stock and its relatively stable economic base. But Pocek acknowledges there have been layoffs and high home-foreclosure rates. What's happening in Bedford echoes a national trend toward a narrowing gap between the middle class and the poor.

"The average middle-class family is two or three paychecks away from being poor," he says. "I don't think there's much difference between living in the city and living in an inner-ring suburb today."

As suburbs scramble to educate their children, protect their citizens and maintain other services, they are dealing with more city-type problems than ever before. All are trying to attract new businesses and become less reliant on residential property taxes. There's no doubt that the poor are draining their resources. But there may be an upside to sprawl as well, poverty researchers say. The poor themselves may fare better in the suburbs than they do in the city.

One program of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is tracking poor people who moved to the suburbs. Preliminary results, which were released last year, show that within five years of relocation, people felt safer and healthier in the suburbs, both physically and mentally.

There are more job opportunities and better housing [in the suburbs]," Claudia Coulton says. "The quality of city services [is] better. The education is better. People can improve their situations there."

Bethany Marini says her family is better off in Rocky River than they would be in Lakewood, where they lived for 10 years before they moved so their shy older daughter, Blaike, could attend a smaller high school. Residents' generosity isn't spread as thin in River.

After she went back to work full time and declared bankruptcy, Marini stopped the assistance program for several months. Now, the impending divorce has set her back again. She says her husband has paid her only $495 since they separated in July, and she recently signed up for food stamps and Medicaid. But her daughters have thrived. After graduating from Rocky River High School last year, Blaike enrolled at the University of Toledo. Isabella excels both socially and academically.

A confident fourth-grader with long, dark hair, Isabella says she'll wear the same thing to school every day — she's partial to a hooded Gap sweatshirt — and she doesn't care what the other kids think. Although she seems happy in her new surroundings, Isabella does miss her old house on Homeland Drive — mainly its upstairs, where she used to blare Avril Lavigne, and its basement, where she rode her scooter and her inline skates. She wishes she had a back yard and AOL Instant Messenger like all her friends.

Still, Isabella says she feels lucky because she has a warm, safe place to sleep and a healthy mom who can take care of her.

Here in the suburbs, Isabella also has learned something about charity. When her mother received a form letter from the City Mission seeking donations during the holiday season, Isabella sent in $2 of her allowance.

"I though about what a difficult position we were in and how many more people are in a more difficult position," she says. "People don't have houses. They live on the street. My $2 bought someone a turkey dinner."

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