We believe in the power of storytelling and the importance of investing in the future by sharing those stories – whether they are stories of successful community ventures or lessons learned from stories of things you wish happened just a little bit differently. These are the stories of communities working together for the common good. This article is part of “We Are Here: Housing Insecurity in Cincinnati,” a series produced by Women of Cincy and originally published at womenofcincy.org/housing.
Interview by Hillary Copsey. Photography by Angie Lipscomb. Note that this interview contains some strong language. |
Mike Moroski is full of jokes.
He jokes about his tattoos and formerly long hair. He jokes about being the token straight white male in many of the rooms in which he works. He jokes about his Cincinnati credentials, or lack thereof.
“I’m not from here. I grew up in Atlanta. I moved here 21 years ago, so I’ve lived here more than half my life. And I married a German Catholic girl from the West Side. So even though I’m not from here and I will never be a ‘Cincinnatian’ in some Cincinnatians’ eyes, I’ve done everything I can to ingratiate myself,” Moroski laughed, sitting in the common room of his downtown Cincinnati apartment building.
“I’ve been here. It’s home now.”
And he’s serious about that. He’s serious about his home, and he’s serious about the work he does here. The Cincinnati Public Schools board member has spent the last two decades working to help kids and families living in poverty and facing housing insecurity in the city – as a volunteer and educator, as the executive director of UpSpring, and most recently, as the partnership and policy manager for Cradle Cincinnati.
Tell me about your work with Cradle Cincinnati.
Cradle Cincinnati seeks to end infant mortality. Ohio is one of the worst in the nation, and Hamilton County is one of the worst in Ohio, which means we’re one of the worst counties in the country. We have an infant mortality rate that’s worse than a lot of third-world countries. There’s a number of reasons for that and also, no one knows. It’s this very complicated, complex thing.
So Cradle has a team of people who do community health programs: We have a woman who runs our learning collaborative with all the other learning hospitals; we have a data person; we have a safe sleep person, and we have a community organizer who works with moms. I’m the token straight white male. Partnership and policy management is what I do. I focus on the social determinants of health. No hospital stuff. All I focus on is housing, transportation, education, and work.
In the medical field, there’s increasing focus on these social determinants. If you think about it, it makes sense. If you think about how many times you go to the hospital by the time you’re 18 versus how many times you’re in a car or bus versus how many times you go to school, obviously, those last two are much higher. So doctors and professionals, especially regarding infant mortality and asthma, are asking, “Why are these worse in these places but not these?”
So they hired me to manage partnerships with Hamilton County Job & Family Services, SORTA, CPS, and Cincinnati Metro Housing Authority to try to create new systems, specifically geared toward combating infant mortality and promoting good birth outcomes for women of childbearing age. What doctors know – [there’s] this whole idea of infant mortality being a good indicator of the overall health of a community. If you can impact this one thing, then organically many other health systems are going to get better.
How does housing affect health?
I’ll start with moms. The Health Policy Institute of Ohio – really good people – they published a 233-page report on these four social determinants and came up with 127 policy proposals. For housing, one of the things they say is that women who rent, particularly black women… Black women, period are at a way higher risk for poor birth outcomes. Our new strategic plan at Cradle is going to tackle a lot of this implicit bias, particularly in the healthcare delivery system. (The term implicit bias kind of makes me roll my eyes. Racism is what I like to call it.) But anyway, the Health Policy Institute of Ohio makes the statement that women who rent are at higher risk of infant mortality. I hesitate to use that, because the thing I’ve learned quickly about infant mortality is that people on both sides will use that issue to push through whatever agenda they have, because – pardon me for being cavalier with it – it’s a pretty easy thing to use to push through something you want. “We want babies to live and women who rent are – this.” I don’t like that. But the question becomes: Is it because they’re renting and don’t have stable housing? Or is it because they’re black and communities like Hamilton County and Cincinnati are racist and have discriminatory housing policies?
Meaning, the housing these women are living in is substandard?
Correct. And there’s mold or lead. Yes. So that’s part of it. Is it because their rental units aren’t up to date? What we do know is that if you’re lower income and black, your risk of infant mortality is very high. If you’re lower income and white, it’s kind of high. If you’re black, it’s probably even higher than lower income white. So people right away say, “Oh, it’s a poor person problem.” It’s kind of a racism problem. Something about being black in America isn’t working. It’s literally killing babies.
But anyhow, the housing: It’s interesting we’re having this conversation now, because I spent the morning going through a bunch of housing proposals for the policy committee I created for Cradle. I asked Councilwoman Amy Murray to be my chair – she speaks Columbus-speak much better than I do, and she’s a reasonable Republican. … With some of the things we’re looking at regarding housing, most have to do with affordable housing. … There are also some proposals around studies, which kind of make my head hurt; there are some incentive-based [policies].
I like incentive-based policies. Incentives work. Paying people to quit smoking; paying Cincinnati Metro Housing Authority [CMHA] to prioritize housing for pregnant women. For example, let’s say you live in CMHA Section 8 housing and you have a baby; then you have another baby. Currently, they make you move like that [snaps fingers]. That’s stress. So, one low-hanging piece of fruit that I think would have some impact is how could we incentivize a way to get more housing so you don’t need to force people to move so quickly? I understand it:They want you to have the right amount of rooms. And that’s nice and that’s well-intentioned, but that’s stress. When I talk to moms in this housing, they’re already so stressed out. They might have a shitty job; they might have an abusive partner; they might not have transportation; their car might have just broken; all of these things – and now you’ve got to go. They feel as if they’re being punished – their words – so I’m trying to figure out how to loosen that stress.
I see all these things connected. If your car breaks down, you can end up in a homeless shelter. When I’m talking about these policies with them, Republicans want to know, “Well, how is this going to end infant mortality?” And I can’t answer that. So I need to be careful in this policy work to present things they can wrap their brains around. They’ve already said to me: “What are the top three things that will impact infant mortality?” And literally, the smartest person on the planet can’t answer that question. So you need to figure out a way you can genuinely say to these politicians that these things will help.
So, I’m going to give you an example: the earned income tax credit. The earned income tax credit is great. That’s where I’m going to start to bring Republicans and Democrats together over this. Because the earned income tax credit is going to give people more money, to spend more money, to get more sales tax, blah blah blah; pull up your boot straps, all this crap. In Ohio, it’s non-refundable, which means whatever your tax liability with the state, that’s all you get. With the federal government, it’s refundable, which means you can get upwards of $6,700 – who gives a shit what you owe. Because they know if you have that money, the chances of getting their money back is greater, etc. So getting Ohio to switch to refundable is low-hanging fruit. And you can make the case pretty easily to Republicans that if these moms had more money, they can buy more cribs; they can buy more pacifiers; they’ll be able to participate in the economy; it’s great for everybody.
If women get that earned income tax credit, how do you see that affecting infant mortality and poverty here in CIncinnati?
For one woman – say she already has one child – it would help her get a pack-and-play; help her get access to educational materials; help her to feed the child; help her get formula if she couldn’t breastfeed. When she has her next child, when the child’s an infant, she’ll have a safe-sleep environment for it. Maybe even save some money and move into a better housing situation. That’s how I see it playing out. At the end of the day, one comment I hear periodically is: How do you know this person is not going to blow the money on drugs or alcohol or something? I don’t have every person’s story, obviously, but for all the women I know who are poor and live at Bethany House or with an aunt or an uncle or a grandma, all they want is to not be stuck and to be able to buy something for their kids. There are ladies in Lower Price Hill who decide whether or not to wash their kids’ clothes or buy them food. Having more money is never a bad thing if you have kids.
You said: If your car breaks down, you end up homeless. Is that an actual thing you’ve seen?
Yes, it is.
When we talk about housing insecurity in this city, what have you seen? Who are we talking about? What kind of family life do they have? Are they working, not working?
In Cincinnati, homelessness looks like a woman, under age 30, with two kids under 6. That’s what homelessness looks like. Homelessness doesn’t look like the Drop Inn Center; it doesn’t look like tent city, like Lytle Park out there in the morning when I walk my dog and homeless people are sleeping on every vent. That is part of it: the single guy with gray hair and a cardboard sign. But most homelessness is a single woman with two kids.
What I’ve seen is most people who are homeless or housing insecure also work. They can’t get enough money to get out of their situation. Or they do get enough money and something happens. Some crisis, like the car.
So when I talk to groups of teenagers or college kids, this is how I word it to them: If you’re poor, you’re like my friend Paul, who’s got a shitty job, a couple shitty jobs, and your car breaks down and you can’t get to that shitty job – which doesn’t really care if you’re there anyway, because you’re literally filling a role that anybody could do if you’re remotely able-bodied – you miss a day, an hour, you’re gone. And then, you don’t have any income and can’t get your car fixed. The Metro bus system needs serious investment. You don’t know how to apply for another job. You may have a conviction – it might be a misdemeanor – but you’re poor, and poor with a misdemeanor is like a double whammy, and next thing you know you’re on assistance, and you’re looking for somewhere to turn.
When you’re poor, your problems are interlocking. All your problems are interlocking. When you’re middle income, your problems can be somewhat contained. If you have wealth, you can control your problems. You can have six cars, so if one breaks down, it doesn’t matter. In the middle, you can kind of keep things contained. “Okay, the car broke down, but I can have my husband or my friend take me.” But here, at the lowest income level, it’s all connected.
School is a big part of that, too. If that happens to an adult, what happens to a kid? Most adults I know that this happens to, who have kids, the first person they want to take care of is their kid. I don’t say that as any kind of Pollyanna. Life’s beaten that out of me. They really want to make sure their kid can stay in their school even if they’ve got to move all the way across town, and of course because of federal law, schools have to make sure the kid can stay in school. It’s tough. But your kid might be out of school for a while or have to change schools. When I was an assistant principal at Purcell Marian, I had a kid who had been at eight grade schools in eight years. Summertime is one thing that breaks continuity, but if you start every fall in a brand new place, you either learn coping skills – which end you in the assistant principal’s office frequently – or you just tune out. It’s not always that black and white.
But those are the problems that could occur.
Yeah. And then that kid gets caught up in that interlocking cycle of problems and it just festers. Literally, kids born into generational poverty, their brains are different. There’s a lot of neuroscience that’s coming out, which is interesting to me. You see a kid born in Indian Hill, a kid born in Lower Price Hill; from the get-go, they behave very differently. And I’m not talking about drug babies – that’s the other thing: People always want to assume lower income kids are heroin babies or whatever. That’s not really the case.
How did you end up working with homeless kids and families here in Cincinnati?
I answered yes to an email. Like a lot of good stories, somebody said, “Do you want to do X?” and I said, “Sure!” And the next thing you know, you’re on the school board.
I moved here to go to Xavier, studied English and secondary ed; graduated, and my plan was to work a year then move back south. So I got a job at Moeller High School. I knew so little about the Catholic school system here. … I got this job at Moeller and I didn’t even know it was an all boys’ school. On my first day – true story – all these boys show up; we were in the band room, and I asked one of the boys where the girls were. That’s how little I knew. That first day, there was an email that came from the campus ministry department that said, “Does anyone want to take these kids down to Over-the-Rhine, to ReSTOC?” I didn’t know what an Over-the-Rhine or a ReSTOC [Race Street Tenant Organization Cooperative] was, and I said yes.
The super quick version of that 11-year saga was that it went from taking them one Saturday a month, to two, to three, to four, to acquiring entire buildings, to raising quarter- to half-million dollars on the side, to renovating buildings for affordable housing, to opening a nonprofit coffee shop, to being on the Drop Inn Center [board], to representing the Drop Inn Center to the city and 3CDC. It just kept mounting and mounting, and ultimately it created, quite literally, a full-time job I wasn’t getting paid for. So, I proposed to Moeller that they create a whole new department, not campus ministry, not service learning, but all that plus…
All of the sudden, I found myself – even with [long hair] and tattoos – I found myself in these rooms with people who have lots of money and who were making lots of decisions. I wasn’t really sure how I got there, but I was there. I look at everything as language, and I was like, “These people are speaking a language I don’t understand.” I was starting to get to the point where I could ask people for a quarter million dollars. I was getting to the point where I could ask people … to save X plot of land in their plans for affordable housing as the neighborhood gentrified. I realized I could get about halfway through these conversations on my gift of gab and my ability to bullshit and make friends, and then the last half of it was total bullshit, because I had no idea what I was talking about.
So I went to Notre Dame. I got an MBA in nonprofit and educational finance so I could learn their language. I learned how to golf; I actually learned how to golf because I wanted to, but it turns out that that’s a whole language, too, in and of itself. And they look right through tattoos and long hair if you can golf. It’s true.
Why do this work? What drew you in so much that you end up doing multiple full-time jobs?
I think it’s how I was raised. My parents, and especially my dad, raised me with a serious distaste for bullies, or people who think they’re better than other people. That came from his family. They’re Polish people. My uncle fought in the Solidarity movement with Lech Wałęsa. My granddad was a union railroad guy and a boxer and a badass. They just kind of raised me that way.
To psychoanalyze myself: I didn’t do great in high school; I didn’t get good grades; I almost got kicked out a couple of times; I didn’t do much service stuff. I used to hang out at the old folks home near my house, just to hang out, not to do service hours. It was just something I did for fun. But I think there was something about when I started learning more about poverty – in that neighborhood, specifically, and what it looked like when I moved here in 1997 – I came to in some way. I was always a little pissy and had a little chip on my shoulder about politics and about structures where people were given an unfair advantage one way or another. In a lot of ways, I was, as well. My dad was super poor growing up. Right place, right time – in the trucking industry in Cleveland with a lot of Polish people doing a lot of organizing work, my dad ended up doing quite well for himself. I was given a whole helluva a lot that he certainly never was. So, with that also came this insistence that I do something with that.
I came to see poverty as structural abuse and structural bullying. I’ve also since come – the older I’ve gotten and the more I’ve done, and certainly being on a public school board – I’ve come to see the way our entire country is operating under a system of systemized child abuse. That’s where I am at age 40 and kind of where I’ve elected to put my talents. And I joke about being a straight white guy. The fact of the matter is, being a straight white guy even with tattoos, I have a degree from Notre Dame; I’m allowed in rooms others aren’t. If I’m going to be in those rooms, I’d rather push those people in those rooms to start changing some of these systems.
I realized at age 21 or 22 that in this city, with a little extra effort, you could make a significant difference and gain access to decision-makers. Then I started seeing how you could do that in Hamilton County. Then once I started piecing together how important Hamilton County was to the state, to the country, I was like, “This is a really good ground zero place – if you want to put in the work.”
Tell me about what you saw in OTR when you first worked there and how that relates to the idea of structural bullying.
What I saw – and this isn’t unique to Over-the-Rhine, really – all over inner cities throughout America, when white flight happened after Vietnam, and people left the inner city, everything was just sort of allowed to devolve. What I noticed, too, was the only time anyone ever really seemed to care about what was coming out of there was if it leaked into the suburbs. I knew the Moeller kids had the same drugs – if not better drugs and worse drugs – than the ones downtown, but no one really cared about what was going on in Over-the-Rhine unless it impacted a person who looked like me or came from some kind of wealth. I saw schools get disinvestment. Schools get torn down.
Also, significantly I think, the year I started doing all this work was 2001, when Timothy Thomas was murdered. So, I was down there when that happened – not literally, but that year – and when the curfew was announced, my friend and I cleaned out that alley where Timothy Thomas got killed a couple days later – so like, this whole city is exploding. And in some ways, I think a lot of people would have said, “What the fuck. I’m going to leave.” But for whatever reason, I was drawn to it. I got to know people like Bonnie Neumeier and Mary Burke and all these different activists who helped teach me. When I’d go to City Hall, nobody cared. Nobody cared at all what was going on in Over-the-Rhine.
About the deteriorating buildings?
About the deteriorating buildings. About everything. And then you had the news stories about ReSTOC and how we were keeping the area poor. But nobody was coming down to help. And then when somebody did come down to help, it was a complete overhaul. It was almost as if nobody was there already doing work. This happens in every neighborhood in the city. I don’t want to get too broad, but I think it’s important. I find myself in rooms where conversations take this turn, and I have to be cognizant of it, because at the end of the day, I am a person of means with two master’s degrees who’s sitting in rooms without the people we’re talking about. It’s incumbent upon leaders to check their shit when that happens. Which is why I’ve mentored every week at Oyler for five years. I’m a classroom aide at Rothenberg. It’s on you to keep yourself grounded. Nobody’s going to make you go back to the community. But the thing that 3CDC did, and that we do in all of our neighborhoods, is kind of go in and assume that we know what’s going to make things better. Or that there aren’t people there already trying to make things better. There were a lot of people in Over-the-Rhine who were trying to help the neighborhood and make it better.
As an educator, you worked with kids in these neighborhoods where families were dealing with homelessness, with moving constantly. How did that affect them, not knowing where they’re going to live next month?
At UpSpring, every one of the kids we worked with was experiencing homelessness, and at Cincinnati Public, about three-quarters of our kids come from economically disadvantaged households. Probably anywhere from 10 to 12 percent of the kids experience homelessness each year. The sense of stability is really important to a kid’s development. We take it all the way back to little kids, because typically the cycle starts and then festers. So, if you’re talking about a little little kid – 0 to 5 – the sort of reptilian part of their brains, the fight or flight, is not developing well. And even more profound, their limbic system is being stunted from the second they open their eyes. Which means by the time they’re 5, we’re way behind – way, way behind. Preschool Promise was good, I think, to try to reach out and get kids to a somewhat level playing field. That’s nice and I love it.
But the real issue comes in summertime. For the kids who don’t have housing security, summertime is where the biggest hit to their education takes place. With kids who have means or who have housing, even in the summertime, they’re doing learning of some kind. I love to use this example: My mom ran a lot of errands in the summertime, stay-at-home mom. Every single place I went with my mom, she was best friends with everybody. She was best friends with the pharmacist, best friends with the bank teller, best friends with everybody. I saw that, and it absolutely rubbed off on me. Everywhere I go, I’m making friends. I learned that with my mom.
Or if it’s going to a museum, or even just going to see a dumb movie or hearing words – kids who are experiencing housing insecurity aren’t getting any of that. So they fall behind at least two or three months a summer. By the time they get to third grade, even if they have preschool, these kids who are facing housing insecurity are two to three years behind in school. By the time you get to high school – I’m not a fatalistic person, so I hesitate to say anything is too late – but it’s kind of close to too late as far as it comes to instilling a love of learning in somebody.
Unless that summertime piece is figured out, the summer learning loss that’s happening to these kids facing housing insecurity is really what’s keeping them back. Summer programming like what we had at UpSpring, the CRC [Cincinnati Recreation Commission] programming – CRC does a great job, but CRC can’t be expected to take on babysitting in the summer – the library, but then the library’s concern is that they come to us at CPS a lot and say, “We’re not your after-school daycare.” We get that, but the library, CRC, and CPS all talk a lot.
But at the end of the day, we’re not these kids’ parents, and it’s tough. It’s tough. The kids can get to school. CPS – I’m going to brag for a minute – we do a good job of that. We transport even all our high school kids. We’re the only urban district in all the state of Ohio that does that. We don’t have to do it by law, but we do. Our kids can get to school if they want, but after that… We do what we can while we have them.
Why are you convinced that schools are the tool that can make society more equitable?
Education gives you cultural capital. And we live in a system where cultural capital is how you get things done. You can say whatever you want about a college degree. Yes, part of it is knowledge, but at the end of the day – I, in a cavalier, joking sense, talk about my Notre Dame diploma, but that matters. More than my Xavier diploma, in some rooms. I work for Cradle Cincinnati and Cincinnati Children’s. In some rooms it benefits me to say I work at Children’s; in others it benefits me to say Cradle Cincinnati. This stuff is how it’s structured. So when I talk about systems of abuse – that system of cultural capital, that sort of passport that you need, is only set up for a very small portion of the population. The rest of the people are stuck. To me, that’s abusive.
Are there things happening in Cincinnati that you think are effecting positive change in regards to housing affordability and poverty?
I’ll start with the schools. I’m biased. But I do think that CPS’ community learning center model is maybe one of the best things we have going on in this city, particularly the two schools that have the health centers: Oyler and AWL. AWL’s isn’t finished yet, but it’ll be there soon. At Oyler, there’s a pediatrician, vision, and dental in the school, and it’s not just free for the kids. It’s free for the entire community. Anybody in that neighborhood can go to Oyler and see those doctors. It’s pretty great. It was the first in the country. AWL is the second in the country. We have people coming to visit us all the time to look at it.
Something that’s not written about at all, and I think it’s one of the sexiest things that’s happened in Cincinnati in 2018 and one of the best things ever: zoning. … One of things we did right after we all got sworn in, the school board and the new City Council, was get with City Council and discuss re-evaluating the zoning laws regarding our community health centers. We got City Council, pretty easily, to change our health centers to the same standards as schools. So now our community health centers in city zoning code are viewed as schools, which gives us a whole new ability to expand schools. Say we want to tack on a clinic, we can do that, because we already own the property; it’s a school; the zoning exists. Boom. It gives us a lot of autonomy to go into these neighborhoods that could benefit from these partnerships with hospitals.
One other CPS thing: It’s one of the only urban districts in the country, certainly the only in the state, that has a mental health professional in every building. That’s a really big deal. All of these things are super upstream things for the housing, but I think they’re important.
We always ask people about a woman who has inspired them. Do you have a woman who has inspired your work around poverty and with children?
That’s tough, because there are a lot. I would have to go with Mary Johnson and Georgia Keith. Georgia is still living. Georgia lives in that last building we rehabbed on Republic, and Mary lived across the street from her.
When I first started going down to Over-the-Rhine, when I had no idea what I was doing or what was going on, I met these two ladies. I’d pick up trash in the alleyways, and they’d always come out to talk with me. The dope boys were on the corner of 14th and Republic where there’s now some restaurant, and they’d come out, these two ladies, and they’d yell at these guys and they’d tell them to get the fuck off the block.
This old lady. She wasn’t scared of anybody. She’d sweep that sidewalk. That little sidewalk from 14th to 15th Street – the pride she took in keeping that place clean. That’s really what stuck in my craw, when I talk about getting nervous about people going to neighborhoods assuming there aren’t already people there trying… When I’m in a room and I start to think about it, I get a little emotional. I think about her. There were these people there; there are people in all these neighborhoods. Georgia is still there.
They were nice to me and they talked to me and they didn’t make me feel like an outsider. And I very much was, in a lot of ways. Whatever it is that you want to try to make better, in whatever community it is, there is always somebody or a group of people there that is already trying to make it better. All they need is for someone who has that access to help give them that same access.