Norine Ciaio was born homeless. Having come into this world with fetal alcohol and methadone syndrome, she was immediately taken from her mother by the state of New York. She never got to know her parents or fraternal twin sister. With no guidance or permanent home, drugs, alcohol and abuse consumed her life.
By the time Ciaio was 40, she had been homeless for 13 years. She was staying at Norma Herr Women’s Center, a homeless shelter in Cleveland, when a case manager at Front Steps Housing and Services came to visit her. From that day on, Ciaio’s life would never be the same.
For the past five years, Ciaio has lived at Front Steps, a nonprofit that provides permanent supportive housing, programs and services to homeless men, women and children.
“I used to get attention by overdosing, but it wasn’t the attention I wanted. I was never praised, and I was begging in the streets for money,” Ciaio says. “I made a complete turn around when I went to Front Steps.”
Founded in 1986 by four sisters from the Congregation of St. Joseph, Front Steps (formerly Transitional Housing Inc.) began with a mission to offer safe, decent and affordable housing for low-income and homeless women. It was one of the first transitional housing programs in the United States for women living alone. In 2013, it opened its doors to men as well as women.
Front Steps’ location, a former motel located at 1545 W. 25th St., features 60 permanent, supportive housing units that serve individuals and families who are mentally disabled and/or economically disadvantaged in Cuyahoga County. Each unit is equipped with a kitchenette and personal bathroom. Residents are referred by homeless shelters throughout the Cuyahoga County Central Intake process.
Sherri Brandon, executive director, began working at Front Steps in 2003 as a program director. She learned the mission of the organization from its founding sisters, Donna Hawk and Loretta Schulte.
“I had the opportunity to understand early the mission and passion the sisters had for the homeless,” says Brandon. “We have gone through so many changes over the years, but I have stayed true to our mission.
“It’s so rewarding to see individuals who aren’t living on the streets, under bridges or in cardboard boxes any more. We give them a warm, home-like environment to live in with their own key. It’s so rewarding.”
Front Steps is about to undergo another major change. On June 27, it is breaking ground on St. Joseph’s Commons, a new $14 million facility located at 2554 W. 25th St. Brandon says the former location will be put up for sale, with proceeds benefiting Front Steps’ endowment.
Thanks to the support and services of Front Steps, Ciaio says she is not planning on moving into the new facility. She wants to free up a unit to give another homeless person the same opportunity to get the help they need to transform their life.
“The last time I overdosed, I was in the hospital, and I didn’t think anyone cared,” says Ciaio. “Then my case manager, Schanavian Adams-Luke, came to visit me. I started crying. That’s the last time I overdosed.
“I don’t want to be the old Norine anymore. I want to be clean and sober. If you want to go somewhere and change your life, get into Front Steps. I’m still alive today because of them.”