By Katie Sobiech
The Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority (AMHA) is a public agency chartered by the State of Ohio that began in 1938.
The main purpose of this agency is to serve Summit County by providing housing for low income families. This includes everyone from the elderly, to people with disabilities, to young families and singles. Anyone whose income is below the amount that has been set by the Federal Government qualifies.
The AMHA is currently in the top 3% of top-performing housing authorities in the country.
As of right now they have close to 5,000 units of rental housing that they own and operate in Akron and 10,000 units total in Summit County, which includes more than 20,000 people. Not to mention their average waiting list of about 3-4,000 in need of housing.
Public Housing Misconceptions
These are large statistics, but the AMHA hopes to drop them by getting more people in and out of the housing as soon as possible. They do this by connecting residents to community resources, advancing education, and program incentives.
One misconception that people may have about this organization is that they just house people. Not only do they house those in need, but they offer services and have been in the process of conducting research on what the best practices are for helping low income families become self-sufficient.
Their newest endeavor is the early childhood education initiative in hopes to greatly diminish generational poverty and the need for public housing altogether.
Why it all began
“The program started in the middle of the Depression. Public housing was really created to take care of slum and blight conditions, as it was referred to in those days,” Anthony O’Leary, Executive Director, said.
“Public housing actually started as a jobs created program under President Roosevelt. The idea was that unemployed people could be put to work building public housing and then people who were low-income, virtually homeless at the time, would have a decent, safe and sanitary place to live,” O’Leary continued.
It wasn’t until the late 50’s or 60’s that services were recognized as an important factor to go along with housing.
The Importance of Services
“We started to realize we could house people that have a lot more needs than just housing. There’s educational and food needs. People need help paying utilities, there’s health services…” O’Leary said.
Therefore, AMHA was one of the first public housing agencies in the country to establish a Social Services Department. Dorothy Jackson, former deputy mayor of the city of Akron, was the first director of social services in the late 1960’s.
“It started very small with a couple of people who were just kind of social workers doing good to help people who may have crisis conditions in their family,” O’Leary explained.
“We’ve evolved from that to where we are today. We actually have about 25 people working in what we call ‘Resident Services’. This includes everything from licensed social workers to people like Chris (Yuhasz) and her staff who are providing early childhood education services for children living in many of our public housing developments,” O’Leary continued.
Things that Matter
Early childhood education and job training are both a big focus when it comes to AMHA’s services.
“We’re trying to use public housing as a temporary means to get people on their feet and hopefully advance their education and become employed themselves and move back on the private market,” O’Leary said.
“Some services we provide ourselves, but most we actually link up with other community agencies so we’re not duplicating services that are already available. A good example is the mental health system. There’s a whole network of services in Summit County for people with mental health issues,” O’Leary said.
They also work closely with the United Way and organizations it funds.
“We really try to network with the rest of the community,” O’Leary said.
AMHA not only has a great track record in the city, but is getting national recognition.
“Our track record has been that we use money wisely and make things happen,” Chris Yuhasz, Community Relations Director, said of their organization.
“We learned about a year ago that we were 1 of the 9 recipients in the country of a 4 million dollar grant. Ours was the 4th largest award in the country,” she continued.
With this funding they plan to build an early childhood and adult learning and job training center which will be attached to the Summit Lake Community Center.
“It’s really amazing. Really exciting,” Yuhasz said.
The Importance of Early Childhood Education
“One of the more interesting, challenging and fruitful programs we’ve started recently is early childhood education,” O’Leary said of their most recent venture.
“Basically we’ve found that if we’re going to try to reverse the cycle of poverty, you can certainly help the conditions that people have to live with by offering social services and help, but that kind of goes on long-term. That’s ok; some people need that – the best example being an elderly person – if they need ongoing help to be able to live independently. On the flip side you have a young person who is in their 20’s, 30’s or 40’s and they’re here because of economic hardship, they lost their job, or house, and now have to live in public housing. We want to intervene with that family and help them get back on the path of self-sufficiency,” O’Leary said.
“That’s a hard process to go through. About 5 years ago we started to look at different things that we might do to change that poverty cycle and early childhood education really came out as the best solution,” he continued.
With this key piece of the puzzle, they continue to move forward with it as a main focus.
Stay tuned for next week’s story to find out more about the importance of early childhood education, what AMHA is doing to improve it in Summit County and how this is impacting the community! http://www.akronhousing.org/