EAST CLEVELAND, Ohio — An East Cleveland woman is serving as a beacon of light for area teens who find themselves homeless with nowhere to go. Her nonprofit, Broken Connections, provides a loving lifeline for teens with no options who are desperate to get back on track.
According to the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, last year 4,649 people went through the county’s homeless system. One in four of them was a child under the age of 18. The Cleveland Metropolitan School District recorded 1,717 homeless students in 2021.
They're teens like Kay, who was abused since she was 6 years old and had nowhere to go.
"Me and my momma were going through some issues. Nobody wanted me for real for real," she said.
It’s a problem that Nicole Howell, who started Broken Connections, addresses. She started the nonprofit in 1996 with $13,000 of her own money. The home that was once owned by the business titan and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller is now a shelter for homeless and runaway teens. It's a place to help give teens the tools to reconnect with their families.
"We try to make them feel like millionaires,” Howell said. "We run this as a group home model so we serve kind of like parents. So we say clean your room, don't wear that to school...we teach them how to eat the right things, how to cook."
Howell doesn’t provide them with just a bed. She provides them with love.
"You can't even imagine that there are some kids that we have that never been hugged. We hug them and it's like hugging a rock. they're just tight,” she said.
As a native of East Cleveland, Howell’s mission to help youth in her city is personal and providing hope for them is a priceless feeling.
"I think the most important thing is that I'm allowed to touch people's lives. I mean, I started the program with absolutely no money, I just used my own money and moved in here with everybody and just ran it as my home,” she said.
The fruit of Howell’s genuine effort can be seen in Charlyn, who is out of the shelter with plans to attend college soon.
"She provided amazing advice, she provided helpful tips and life-changing resources we could use. I was able to go back home to my mom and it just like lifted a weight off of me," said Charlyn.
Kay who is still at the home, is getting better.
"I'm learning to be honest and respect myself and not to go down the wrong path," said Kay.
For more information about the program click here.
This story is part of A Better Land, an ongoing series that investigates Northeast Ohio's deep-seated systemic problems. Additionally, it puts a spotlight on the community heroes fighting for positive change in Cleveland and throughout the region. If you have an idea for A Better Land story, tell us here.