On a snowy day in March, La’Chreasha Wheeler reached her breaking point.
That morning, Wheeler and her two daughters rushed to check out of an Airbnb house in Cleveland Heights. They had spent three days there. The previous week, they had stayed at a hotel just east of Cleveland’s downtown. Before that, they spent two months at an Airbnb a few blocks from the home they were ordered to vacate in 2022.
It had been a year since Wheeler’s younger daughter, Sariyah, was first poisoned by lead paint in their rental home in Cleveland’s Collinwood neighborhood. The level of lead in the toddler’s blood was so high, she was hospitalized for a week.
At that time, La’Chreasha, 41, asked the landlord to clean up the lead hazards in the home. Months passed without work starting, so she sued. A year-long court battle followed, leaving the family exhausted and living week to week, unsure of where they would stay next.
On that March day, the Wheelers gathered around a conference table at the downtown offices of the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland. Three-year-old Sariyah was bright and chatty — and hungry. Wheeler’s 13-year-old daughter, Ashari, pulled her hoodie over and laid her head on the table. Ashari was missing school to help with Sariyah.
Attorney Maria Smith had a cold and was working from home. She consoled the family from a Zoom call. Yet another court hearing in their case, set for that day, had been canceled. Wheeler, wringing her hands, was trying to keep her composure.
“I’ve just had to stay strong,” Wheeler said, her voice strained. “But now, it’s too much for me at this moment.”
Her frustration deepened knowing that all of this should have been avoided.
Preventing lead poisoning
In 2019, city leaders announced the formation of the Lead Safe Cleveland Coalition, a public, private and philanthropic partnership to help pay for and support the massive effort to remediate lead in Cleveland’s aging homes. Later that year, Cleveland passed a series of lead poisoning prevention laws with the intention to make the city safer for children like Sariyah.
At the time, Cleveland’s lead poisoning rate for children was nearly four times the national average. Most often, children are exposed to the brain-damaging toxin in Cleveland’s older homes. More than 90% were built before 1978, the year lead-based paint was banned for residential use.
Fewer have been tested in recent years, but the percentage of children with lead poisoning is still shockingly high. In the South Collinwood neighborhood where the Wheelers lived, 12.5% of children tested had high lead levels in 2021. In Glenville, it was even higher, at 17%. Black and Brown children and children of refugees are most affected. Lead exposure, even in small amounts, can cause learning and behavioral problems.
In January 2022, at his first City Hall press conference, Mayor Justin Bibb announced that the city would invest $17 million of federal stimulus dollars in the coalition’s lead prevention work. Cleveland Clinic also pledged to invest $50 million, bringing the pot of money for lead safe efforts to more than $100 million.
“It’s time to focus on implementation and accelerate the pace of change to truly eradicate the lead paint crisis epidemic,” Bibb said, his fist in the air. “Today is a giant step toward defeating that enemy, and that no child in our city grows up with lead paint undermining their potential.”
But as the Wheeler family would learn, Cleveland’s progress has been uneven at best.
The city is struggling to enforce laws that require landlords to get properties certified as “lead safe.” Just 9.8% of rental homes were in compliance as of March 31, according to the city’s most recent numbers.
And the city and its partners still don’t have support in place to help families displaced after a child is poisoned.
It is not clear how many families this happens to. The city is alerted to hundreds of poisoning cases each year, but nobody keeps track of how many of the families are forced from their homes. Health officials posted public notices and told families to move from about 500 hazardous homes in recent years. Orders to clean up lead are active on 150 more. The Lead Safe Cleveland Coalition has estimated that hundreds and possibly a thousand Cleveland families could be at risk for displacement.
“There’s millions of dollars that have been put into this law,” Wheeler said. “So my question is actually, where is this money going if they’re not actually using this money to help people that are in situations like this?”
A cycle repeats
The Wheelers have been homeless before.
In 2018, the family lived in hotels and shelters for nearly a year. They slept holding their belongings close so nobody stole them. Wheeler, a postal service worker, was hit by a car. Her oldest child, Michael, acted up and got them kicked out of a shelter.
“That was a dark moment for us,” Wheeler said.
In July 2021, the family signed a month-to-month lease for a house on East 144th Street. The house had a large front porch and a small, gated front yard for young Sariyah to play in. It was built more than 100 years ago but seemed sturdy and safe enough to live in while the family got back on their feet.
Wheeler never met the owner, Ronen Hadad, who lives in Israel. Instead, she worked with a local company hired to manage the rental.
Hadad Investments LLC bought the property — one of two it owns in Cleveland — seven months prior for $28,400, after the law requiring lead-safe certificates passed. But like thousands of other landlords in the city, Hadad didn’t comply.
Then, in January 2022, a blood test during a routine checkup showed that Sariyah had been exposed to lead. Wheeler sent a message to the property manager through an online portal. She said she did not receive a response.
Within a month, the amount of lead in Sariyah’s blood climbed to 45 mg/dl, a level so dangerous that doctors immediately hospitalized the toddler for chelation therapy, an intravenous treatment that pulls lead out of the bloodstream. She was hospitalized for a week.
When Sariyah was released, Wheeler had a tough choice to make. She worried the hospital would call county children’s services if she took the toddler back to their house. But moving wasn’t an option. There was nowhere to go.
With a past eviction on her record, it had been hard enough for Wheeler to find one affordable place to live. Finding another home — one proven to be lead safe — seemed impossible.
Wheeler decided to return to the house and handle the lead hazards as best she could until the landlord fixed them. Armed with cleaning supplies and instructions from Achievement Centers, a local nonprofit with a lead safe program, she started a new routine: In the morning, she would scrub the window sills and bathroom floors with hot, soapy water. Then she would flip the couches upward to keep Sariyah from climbing up to peer out of the windows. As the weather warmed, the family spent as much time as possible at the local park to avoid being in the house until dark.
“I mean, that’s stressful because nobody wants to stay outside all day,” Wheeler said.
‘They’re basically ignoring us’
All lead-poisoning tests are reported to the state, which notifies the city’s health department when the levels are high. In February 2022, Cleveland’s health department opened an investigation into how Sariyah was poisoned.
In early March, a health department lead inspector met Wheeler at the home to look for peeling paint and collect dust samples from window sills and door frames. The city’s report stated that the inspection revealed hazardous levels of lead in 21 different places in the home. One of the worst spots was a bedroom windowsill near where Sariyah often slept with her mother.
A week after the inspection, Cleveland health officials ordered Hadad to clean up the lead hazards within 90 days.
At first, it seemed as though the property owner was taking the city order seriously. In April 2022, Wheeler met with contractors who said work on the home would begin in May. When work didn’t begin, the family turned to Legal Aid to file a lawsuit to try and force him to follow the order.
Wheeler’s lawyer asked the court to order the landlord to provide temporary housing to the family.
The court process dragged on for months. Hadad never showed up for hearings. But his attorney argued that his client wasn’t responsible for moving the Wheeler family since they only had a month-to-month lease. He also accused Wheeler of refusing to move to another property. ”One has to wonder how concerned she is with the safety of her children when she refuses to move out of what she claims to be a hazardous environment,” the attorney wrote in one filing.
It was infuriating for Wheeler.
“We’re talking about a small child that received hospitalization due to the fact that there was a lead hazard present on your property and you can’t even appear in court,” Wheeler said. “To me, that says a lot about him.”
In October 2022, seven months after Sariyah was hospitalized and the city first ordered the landlord to clean up the hazards, La’Chreasha Wheeler received a letter from the Cleveland Department of Public Health ordering her to leave the property.
City workers placed a white and red sign on the front of the home. It read:
WARNING order to vacate. This property contains lead hazards and has been declared unsafe for human occupation, especially children under the age of six and pregnant women, as ordered by the Director of the Cleveland Public Health Department.
Wheeler began to panic. The court battle had reached a stalemate. And now they were being forced to relocate but had no place to go.
The family was left to wonder: Where are we going next? Wheeler didn’t understand why the court was taking so long to rule in her case. And why wasn’t the city — or somebody — stepping in to help.
“We should have never been put in a situation like this,” Wheeler said. “They’re basically ignoring us.”