He comforted her on his birthday in their New Orleans apartment while debris hammered the walls and roof on August 29, 2005.
More than six years after surviving the disaster in his hometown, Cleveland is now living homeless in Rome and striving to inspire others through local and online activism.
The devastating events of Katrina left him with complications from post-traumatic stress disorder but also with a strong will to start again.
Having hitchhiked out of New Orleans, Cleveland eventually found an affordable home in Rome at a mobile home park with his wife Jenni and eight-year-old daughter Kyra, who is autistic and home-schooled.
Despite the new home, economic circumstances began to cause friction. With he and his wife on disability, the family was barely getting by with expenses and rent.
Cleveland said the situation left him with a tough decision. He could stay at home, managing through decreased disability income as a married couple living together, or go elsewhere so Jenni could afford to support herself and Kyra.
“At the rate we were going, the whole family would have been homeless,” Cleveland said. “I wasn’t going to let it get worse.”
Jenni drove him to the local Salvation Army where he found shelter. He said if he hadn’t been able to find a bed at the time, he would have chosen to sleep in the woods. He now lives at the William S. Davies Homeless Shelter.
As he waits for his applications for temporary housing to be accepted, his passion for marine conservation drives him to connect with others around the world. Armed with a laptop and a background in web technology, Cleveland utilizes Twitter and his website CyberWhaleWarrior.com to blog about local and international conservation issues.
“To do something that is much bigger than yourself humbles you,” he said. “It gives you a light at the end of the tunnel.”
He said the activism of marine conservationists inspired him to spread the message of protecting those who can’t protect themselves, from dolphins to children. Whenever he has the opportunity, he shares conservation documentaries with others, including fellow homeless people in Rome.
As a result of his extensive online writing, friends and strangers from across the globe have reached out to give comfort, supplying him with gift cards to local businesses and pre-paid expense cards. He said he didn’t ask for the help, but appreciates it deeply and it further inspired him to help others when he can.
“Every time I get down, somebody picks me up and it’s usually people around the world,” he said.
Cleveland can often be found at the Honeymoon Bakery on Broad Street using a gift certificate which friends and supporters have donated. He said it came as a surprise when people started leaving him certificates.
Tonya Davis, a consultant for the bakery, says Cleveland’s presence is welcomed and that he has spread word of the business far and wide with his Internet postings.
Cleveland’s relationship with the bakery started when he came in one day for coffee and “checked in” his location via Facebook and other social network sites. Without being asked, friends and followers as far away as England, Canada and California started to call in gift certificates up to $120 for him at the business.
“We’re happy he’s here and we appreciate his support,” Davis said.
Using the donations, Cleveland has brought up to 10 other homeless men to have coffee in the morning when the business opens at 7 a.m. He says the business is very supportive and he spends most of the gift cards on others, especially when it’s cold and raining.
“Everyone needs a place to be,” said Davis. “The stigma of being homeless is just that — a stigma.”
Cleveland believes he can lift up those in need with expanding their focus to pressing conservation issues. As a result, he hopes to give them courage to tackle things larger than themselves and speak out about what they care about.
“I’ve got a whole new frontier with the homeless,” he said. “They’re the voiceless.”
For the future, Cleveland hopes to secure housing so that he can have peace and a space of his own as he looks for work.
Click here to read a story about a homeless Chicago woman who became a Twitter celebrity after sharing her story.