Cynthia Johnson

Like so many who work in service in Cleveland with LMM, Cynthia Johnson has her own story, but hers started on the right side of the counter. Then came the fall that would take everything away from her…but would also replace what she lost with toughness, faith and a compassion she now uses to help the people she serves.

From 1999-2007, I worked at the Halfway House, Harbor Light of Salvation Army. I enjoyed that kind of work. I was the person in charge at the time and they were the residents. I remember one of the residents there asking me, ‘CJ, how you walk around here smiling all the time?’ I said ‘You know what, because you never know what side of the counter you’re going to end up on.’

Well, I ended up on the other side of the counter when I did something that landed me in prison. I caught my case in ’07. After my time in jail, I became one of the residents at Oriana House, another halfway house.

I’m extremely shy, to like the crazy point. You might not realize it because, you know, I wear the big hair and different things where you think I’m outgoing, but I’m really not. Sometimes I be in situations where I’m scared to death. Can you believe that?

Being on both sides of the counter

Being on both sides of the counter got me to where I am now. Where I can cope, understand, have compassion – all the things that the people I’m dealing with need. Because I’ve been there, I really have. I did two years in prison and while I was there, my husband died. I have the compassion for people, but I’m also firm. It’s because I know that whatever situation there’re in right now, it doesn’t have to stay that way.

It doesn’t have to stay that way

When I went to prison, I had got my hair braided, had contacts in, but they stripped me of all that. They said, ‘Not here.’ So, I walked around with little plats on my head and glasses; a totally different person than when I came in. It helped me though. It made me know that I didn’t even need that stuff. It doesn’t take all that, you know?

My family was really ashamed, you know? But hey, it’s my testimony, that’s how it feels like. That’s my little story. It’s short. I’m 62 years old and I caught my case at 47. I’d never been in any type of trouble. It had been decent up until then. I’ll tell you what happened: my husband had a brain aneurism, so I became the sole provider for 3 kids. I did some wrong things that I won’t do again.

I was in the federal prison. It was smooth sailing. After you get used to not being around your family, it’s okay. I needed it, you know what I’m saying? It was crazy. It was like, this was something that had to be. It really was. I accepted it like that. I met God there. God would just come to me, and he would talk to me, you know what I’m saying? It had to be, even with my husband. He was sick and I was laying in my bed one night, worrying about how to take care of him when I get out. Then he came to me in a dream and told me, ‘When you come home, we aren’t going to go through this.’ The next week the people from the prison office came and said my husband had passed away.

Even with work… It’s a good story and there was an order to it, like it had to be. I got out of Oriana House on April 5th of 2010 and started working here May 9th. I’ve been here ever since. 12 Years!

When my husband passed away, they gave me a furlough and they let me go home to the funeral. I was a good citizen, a good prisoner, so my sister came and picked me up. I went to the funeral, spent the night and went back to prison the next day. It was like Andy of Mayberry. One lady at the funeral came up and sat next to my daughter. She whispered, ‘Where’s your mother?’ My daughter said, ‘She’s right here.’ But they’re looking for shackles and police! Instead, I just had this piece of paper from prison that I had to show if anyone stopped us. That was it, they let me go home. That was good, I had a lot of blessings, I would say.

Did racism play any role in your conviction?

No, I was wrong! Even my friends said, ‘They just did this to you?’ I was embarrassed and said, ‘No they didn’t. It was me.’ The only stereotype put on me, in the halfway house I had to go to AA meetings even though I’d never done drugs in my life. There’s a lot of things in life we don’t want to do but because of the situation, we have to. And I had to do it.

At the end I stood up in the class and said ‘I just want to apologize for any part I played in drugs getting to the streets.’ Because there were people in the class who were crazed by drugs in the past, people who admitted some terrible things like they ‘sold the baby.’ I apologized for any part I’d played, of drugs getting to the streets that could have hurt them in their lives.

What’s your position at Family Overflow?

Supervisor. I’m kind of tough. Yeah, I’m a tough person. The women I work with can be master manipulators. Like this one lady and her kids, she has returned 4 times. So, I say, ‘Hey, there’s too much help out here for this to keep happening.’ I think before we try to help somebody we should address the underlying problems which is drugs, mental health, trauma – different things like that. Before you can put an addict in her own home you got to help her with this problem because she’s not going to pay her bills, take care of her kids. That problem is bigger than anything.

Before This….

I worked with Terry Vaugh at 2100 in Central Intake and Rosie Hart in Gateway dorm. Then I worked with Bill Walker in Emergency.

What did you see in the Emergency dorm?

Cynthia replies strongly without pause: I saw a lot of scared people, scared to change. People who’d been there for years and was real comfortable. I think the only thing that got them out of there was when COVID came and they had to be put in hotels. They wanted to carry all their bags with them. I think they were so used to this life that they were scared to change.

And Then COVID

Switching gears, where did you work during COVID in 2020?

During COVID I was over at the Travel Lodge in Lakewood as the Supervisor. We had to ‘de-congregate the shelters.’ Now that was an experience! I liked it but it was different though. A lot of them scared. I’ve been in that situation. I don’t show it but I be scared to change, just change. Like when I was assigned to work at the hotel last year, I was mad that I had to relocate. I be yelling, ‘Why do I have to move, take so and so and put her there!’ But the biggest thing, I was just scared. I would never say that. But once I got there I was okay, I was okay.

So, I understand those people who was comfortable being in Emergency dorm…scared, you know?

That’s your compassionate side.

But then again, (laughing), I get angry at them! When I first went over to the hotel I told clients, ‘Come on, they’re going to do a housing application for you. We’re going to put you in EDEN.’ I was trying to impose what I wanted for them, on them.

But some were telling me it’s not what they want.

But I was saying, ‘This is how I live; this is how I feel. You should want your own place, your own car.’

But everyone doesn’t want that. You’ve got to listen to the people, and see what it is they want. I’m there now, but, at first, I wasn’t. Force them to go to an apartment, it will be trashed because that’s not the life they want to live. Even in those hotel rooms. In some people’s rooms you could take a shovel to get the trash off the floor. One man told me, ‘Hey, they made me come here. I live in the park. And (laughing), he went back to his park. He likes living outside. I don’t understand it, but then again, I don’t want to understand it!

Suddenly Cynthia tears up…an entirely different tone.

I’m sorry about the little tears, I’m talking just honest stuff. I like everyone here. It’s like my little family, my indirect family.