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Ohio homeless advocate, first responders create mobile hygiene unit

A call about a man walking barefoot in the snow led to an idea with an old RV


Homeless Hookup founder Dean Roff, right, and his 15-year-old son, Hunter. Dean, a Navy veteran who experienced homelessness after returning home from service, founded Homeless Hookup, a Cleveland-based, 501(c)(3) nonprofit, in 2014 in an effort to serve and assist homeless individuals and communities.

Photos by Zach Mentz,

By Zach Mentz

CLEVELAND, Ohio — It was early 2018 during a winter storm when Dean Roff received a call from Lakewood Fire Department Chief Tim Dunphy asking for assistance.

Dunphy caught word of a man walking barefoot past LFD in near-zero-degree temperatures and knew the department had to do something to help. So he called Roff, the founder of Homeless Hookup, at the suggestion of Roff’s brother, Billy, a contractor Dunphy was working with at the time.

“‘Hey, we got a guy walking barefoot past the fire station, can you help?’” Roff recalls Dunphy asking. “I thought it was really cool that the city (of Lakewood ) was calling me for help. So, true to our name, we hooked this dude up. I went to Goodwill and bought him a good pair of winter boots, but we had everything else: sleeping bag, coat, all that.”

Afterwards, Roff mentioned to Dunphy how he dreamt of having a bus that he could convert into a mobile hygiene unit to bring to homeless communities and individuals around Cleveland . Dunphy, without hesitation, offered an old RV he and his family had owned for years but rarely used anymore.

“He goes, ‘My family has an old RV we’re not using. It’s yours, you can have it,’” Roff said. “He loved the mission, loved the work, had done a little homework on us. I was in tears, I almost fell over. I’m stammering, trying to figure out what the next step is.”

The following day, Dunphy called Roff and immediately offered assistance – and he wasn’t the only one who wanted to help. Over the next two days, more than two dozen LFD firefighters and other community members volunteered their time to renovate the inside of the donated RV. Lakewood Firefighters Local 382 helped cover the cost of materials and made donations to Homeless Hookup, helping bring Roff’s dream to life.

“We gutted out the living room and we made it into a barber shop,” Dunphy said. “And a bathroom and a little ‘store’ area where people could come in and pick up a fresh set of clothes. It was a big team effort.”

Six years later, Homeless Hookup has expanded beyond simply a mobile hygiene unit to now include five layers as part of its outreach program.

Homeless Hookup hosts monthly mobile hygiene bus events where homeless individuals can receive free haircuts, food, a hot shower, toiletries and clothes. Each week, Roff also drives a distribution vehicle around Cleveland offering clothes, hygiene supplies and care packages to homeless individuals and communities. Homeless Hookup also organizes an emergency care package program in the winter, an annual toy drive, and is a 2-1-1 triage to respond to homelessness emergencies across Cuyahoga County.

Homeless Hookup, founded by Roff in 2014 and established as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization in 2017, has a straightforward mission.

“Restore dignity at every chance we get,” Roff said. “That’s been the mission, it will always be the mission.”

Humble beginnings

Roff, a Navy veteran, served two years overseas from 2000 to 2002. However, he had a drinking problem, and he knew it, and it led to his earlier-than-planned, “Other Than Honorable” discharge from the military.

After Roff returned home to Ohio, he struggled with both alcoholism and homelessness. He later became a professional fighter in the North American Allied Fight Series, a now-defunct, Ohio-based mixed martial arts promotion, from 2006 to 2011. He finished with a 6-7 record in his fighting career, admitting that he relapsed at times, which negatively impacted his athletic performance.

After years of struggling with alcoholism, Roff ultimately committed to sobriety and has been sober since May 16, 2008.

In the wake of his newfound sobriety and his ability to find housing, Roff sought to rebuild himself and to retrace his family roots. He went searching for his dad, only to discover he had died as a homeless alcoholic himself. The devastation of that discovery led Roff to temptation, and he admits he planned to have a drink in honor of his father. Fortunately, with the support of friends and family, he decided against drinking and continued his sobriety.

A few days after discovering his dad had died, Roff learned more life-altering news: He himself was going to be a father. His son, Hunter, born in February 2009, is now a 15-year-old freshman at North Royalton High School.

Roff credits Hunter as his source of inspiration for launching Homeless Hookup, stressing that he knew he had to alter the path of his family tree.

“My dad died homeless. He died as a John Doe; he didn’t have a wallet or anything on him,” Roff said. “My grandfather died drunk, my grandmother died drunk, and this was the legacy I had to leave (Hunter). It’s eradicated our entire family. I had to do something to change that because he was too important.”

And so, the seed for Homeless Hookup had been planted. Motivated by his own past experience with homelessness, Roff sought to extend a helping hand to those who needed it most.

After his fighting career ended, Roff became a trainer. He launched Homeless Hookup in a small, grassroots manner by placing donation bins in boxing clubs and gyms all around Cleveland, requesting clothes, hygienic supplies and basic necessities. After the bins filled up, he would drive around Cleveland and distribute the donations to homeless people across the city.

“I saw people coming to the fights and they were spending like $50 on the ticket and $50 on booze and food and merch. The least you could do is bring in a pack of socks,” Roff said. “And from there it just snowballed. The bins were filling up faster than I could get them out, and that was awesome.”

Roff would often take Hunter along for those donation drives around Cleveland.

“He’s been here since day one,” Dean said of Hunter. “He was there for our first clothing drive. I had to stop taking him out for donations when he was a little kid because we would run out of supplies and it would just bother him for days. Kids are empathy sponges and there’s only so much they can take in. So I stopped taking him out for a while, but the seed was planted.”

Fast-forward to present day and it’s clear that Dean’s empathy and dedication to serving others has made a lasting impact on his teenage son.

“My dad is one of my biggest heroes,” Hunter said. “He’s helped more people than I can count, and he’s also made me realize that if I see someone struggling, I don’t just wish that person the best, I do my best to help that person.”

Hunter recalls a time in seventh grade when he noticed a classmate had holes in his shoes on a rainy day and his feet were soaked. He saw the student had his head down on his desk and was crying during class. Hunter, taking after his father, didn’t hesitate to help someone in need. He asked his classmate what his shoe size was, and the student replied size nine.

“‘Great, that’s my size,” Hunter told him. “‘If you want, we can switch shoes. I’ll wear yours and you wear mine until I can get you some new shoes.’”

After his classmate politely declined, Hunter went to the school bathroom and made a phone call to the person he knew he could count on: his dad. Dean, just as when had Dunphy called him during that winter storm, didn’t hesitate to help someone in need.

“I went and picked Hunter up from school that day and we went and bought (his classmate) shoes,” Roff said. “We bought him a pair of gym shoes, we bought him a pair of snow boots.”

“We bought him a couple of pairs of shoes,” Hunter added. “Everyday shoes, a nice pair of shoes.”

Roff said instances such as that “reaffirm what you’re doing,” despite the challenges that come with launching a grassroots nonprofit organization.

Early on, Roff’s family expressed concerns that he – then a father to a young boy – was spending a lot of his own time, money and resources building Homeless Hookup. Despite that, Dean remained undeterred in his mission to help others.

“I just knew to stick with it,” he said. “I knew we were doing something good, and people just kept asking us to come back out.”

Roff soldiered on with Homeless Hookup’s outreach, but even then, he still received criticism from some in the Greater Cleveland community.

During the early days of Homeless Hookup, Roff would often do livestream videos on social media to showcase handing out donations on the street. He said the livestreams were meant to bring attention to the homelessness crisis while also showing those who had donated they were making a material impact in people’s daily lives. He has always been adamant about not showing the faces of his “friends” – that’s Roff’s verbiage referring to homeless individuals – in any of the livestream videos.

Nonetheless, some saw the videos less so as altruism and more as self-promotion in search of praise. Roff scoffs at that notion, though he notes he doesn’t do the livestream donation videos as frequently as Homeless Hookup has grown over the past decade.

“If I weren’t doing this, nobody would know. I wouldn’t be getting the help I would need and we wouldn’t be where we are today,” Roff said. “There is a thing called advocating, and I believe I was advocating early on.”

Wheels on the road

Roff first got the idea for Homeless Hookup’s mobile hygiene bus when he caught inspiration from LavaMae, an Alameda, California -based mobile shower service that closed in 2023. He instantly knew he had to bring the concept of a mobile shower service to Cleveland.

When Dunphy donated his family’s RV to Roff and Homeless Hookup in 2018, both parties knew it was a temporary solution as the vehicle had more than 50,000 miles under its belt.

Fortunately, Roff soon met an executive from Optum, a healthcare services company headquartered in Minnesota, who was attracted to Homeless Hookup’s mission and wanted to partner with the organization. Roff mentioned that the aging RV donated by Dunphy was consistently in and out of the shop, which required repair funds that could have otherwise been used to assist those in need.

So, the executive asked Roff to submit a budget request for what Homeless Hookup absolutely needed to keep going. He sent a request of approximately $100,000, and the budget was approved. The funds were used to purchase Homeless Hookup’s current mobile hygiene bus as well as a distribution ambulance in 2019, giving new lifeblood – and wheels – to Homeless Hookup and its mission.

Homeless Hookup’s mobile hygiene bus, which displays the logos of both Lakewood Fire Department and Optum on its rear passenger side, sets up shop at different locations around Cleveland on a monthly basis.

“The mobile aspect of what we do is imperative because our clients don’t have transportation to make appointments,” Roff said. “It’s up to us to get to them until they can. That’s just the reality of the problem.”

The bus serves “friends” by offering them a haircut from volunteer barbers, who are often from local salons or cosmetology schools. After getting a haircut, they are served food in the kitchen. After a meal, they are allowed privacy in the back of the bus, where they can close a separating door and take a hot shower with a timer that is set for 15 minutes.

After taking a shower, friends are given all the toiletries they might need – toothbrush, toothpaste, floss, deodorant, combs, Q-tips, etc. – before picking out new clothes from from a catalog of donated items in the back of the bus.

“The idea is you’ve gotten your haircut, you’ve eaten, you’ve showered, you’ve cleaned up, you’ve got a brand new set of clothes,” Roff said. “You come on (the bus) looking homeless, you’re going to come off looking like you’re ready to go to a 9-to-5. You’re fresh.”

Roff said he sometimes doesn’t even recognize his friends after they exit Homeless Hookup’s mobile hygiene bus. He recalls one specific instance while downtown in 2023, when he approached a homeless man on the street and told him about the services Homeless Hookup was offering that day. Later that day, the man approached Roff – who admits he was busy and not paying full attention – and asked him if he knew who he was. Roff, a bit puzzled, said he did not recognize him.

“‘I’m that guy on the sidewalk you woke up over there,’” the man said, Roff recalled. “‘I just wanted to say thank you.’”

Dean was flabbergasted and impressed by the man’s clean-cut appearance.

“He was wearing a purple polo and brand-new jeans. With a fade,” he said. “My heart gets full thinking about that stuff. That’s what Homeless Hookup is.”

As for Homeless Hookup’s distribution ambulance, Roff drives it around Cleveland most weekdays from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. to hand out care packages and clothes to homeless communities and individuals. He starts on the city’s East Side before heading westward by way of downtown.

“We start in the Buckeye neighborhood, I work my way downtown to 2100 Lakeside Avenue, then I cut across downtown,” Roff said. “I go to Superior Ave, wrap around Tower City, go down East 18th one time, head over to West 14th near St. Malachi, drive around that area for 20-30 minutes and sweep that neighborhood, then I head over to West 117th, spend 20 minutes there, I head to West 140th, and that’s usually where I end my route.

“It’s not a small route. We cover a lot of ground,” he said.

With five years of wear and tear on the distribution ambulance driving all around the city multiple times per week, Roff says the vehicle probably has one more winter left in it and will have to be replaced sometime in 2025. In order to purchase a replacement distribution ambulance, Homeless Hookup relies on funds from two grants – both of which are expired and awaiting renewal – as well as from past fundraisers and PayPal donations to the organization.

“I might be the wheels on the road, but our supporters are the engine behind this,” Roff said. “These grants cover very little, and I’m very proud to say that Cleveland still funds and runs this organization.

“We’re lucky Cleveland is a very philanthropic city,” he adds.

To show its appreciation and give thanks to the Cleveland community, Homeless Hookup participates in a number of community events across Northeast Ohio throughout the year.

The next event Homeless Hookup will participate in is Homeless Stand Down at the Cleveland Public Auditorium on April 20 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The annual event, overseen by Business Volunteers Unlimited, will include 400 volunteers, local businesses and 80 service providers to provide goods and services to more than 1,000 individuals experiencing homelessness in Cleveland, according to a news release.

One new initiative for Homeless Hookup this year is its inaugural Driving for Dignity charity golf scramble at Tanglewood National Golf Club in Chagrin Falls on August 10. Registration is currently open for individuals and groups of golfers, as well as sponsorship opportunities for companies and community organizations.

For those who can’t afford to donate financially to Homeless Hookup, simply advocating on behalf of the organization can go a long way.

“Advocate. Tell people about Homeless Hookup,” Roff said. “If you can’t make a donation, but you tell somebody about it that can, you have a 50% stock in that donation. You made that happen. Advocate, spread the word, let people know that we’re out here.”

Roff, who admits he is a talker, has long advocated on behalf of Homeless Hookup, but it’s always helpful and rewarding when community supporters such as Dunphy continue to advocate for the organization, too.

“When you donate to Homeless Hookup, you know that 100% of your effort is going to helping people,” Dunphy said. “Dean is a direct pipeline to helping homeless people.”

Going forward, Roff hopes to continue to grow Homeless Hookup by continuing to partner with community organizations and schools. One of his favorite parts of his work with Homeless Hookup is delivering keynote speeches at local schools and partnering with school and youth programs.

“Empathy can be taught, and it has to be,” Roff said. “We’re in a very what’s-in-it-for-me society, and it’s up to us to foster empathy in the next generation because I think we’re losing it. It’s building a foundation.”

While Roff can’t say for certain what the future holds for Homeless Hookup and the homelessness crisis, he can say for certain that he will be there to meet whatever challenges lie ahead and assist those in need. His altruistic attitude stems from his unshakeable belief that good deeds beget positive results.

“When you’re consistently doing the next right thing, good things just happen for you, man. I don’t know how or why, it just does,” Roff said. “We just keep building. I don’t know what’s going to happen next. I’m just going to keep doing the next right thing so we can keep helping more people.”

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