Friday, January 29, 2010

Volunteers find more homeless in Summit

In bitter cold, a group of people scours woods and beneath bridges to locate those living in homemade shacks, tents and on the streets

Jonathon Magdon had a warm fire burning Tuesday night.

The temperature outside his home hovered around 23 degrees.

''Come on in and get warm,'' the 38-year-old man said to his guests.

A group of nine people, out counting the homeless, accepted his offer and stepped into Magdon's dwelling — a homemade shack.

Hidden from the world, often living in a tent or a homemade structure, in a thicket of trees and snow and ice, Magdon and others who live under bridges, in doorways or tents or lean-tos, were counted this week.

''What are you guys walking around the woods at this time of night for?'' Magdon asked the group leader, Keith Stahl, 37, of Akron, director of residential services for Community Support Services, a nonprofit that serves the mentally ill population in Summit County. Stahl was involved in his 10th homeless count.

The census, conducted by about 100 volunteers, occurred all day Tuesday and aims to quantify how many people live in shelters or on the streets so that Summit County gets its share of federal funds to serve the homeless population. About $3.3 million in federal funds comes into the county each year for homeless services.

Susan R. Pierson, vice president of services for InfoLine and chair of the Continuum of Care for the Homeless, said that unofficially about 214 people were discovered to be living outdoors — in tents, under tarps at camps, under bridges, in doorways or inside abandoned buildings and vehicles. That number includes those who were counted at various locations during the day and those discovered during the count Tuesday night.

Last year's figure was 163.

Pierson said this year's number may be higher because the count was more effective but there also could be more people living on the streets.

The counters Tuesday night, she said, found people ''deep, deep, deep into the woods.''

In addition to the numbers gathered Tuesday, Pierson said, there are about 900 beds available in the community at shelters for homeless people.

Dave Lieberth, Akron's deputy mayor for administration, described the issue of homelessness in Akron as ''a much more complicated and vexing problem than many people would admit because of the mental illness component of it.''

Some people ''who are sleeping in uninhabitable places do suffer from schizophrenia,'' he said.

There are many agencies in the area working to make sure that everyone who needs a place to stay has a place to stay, Lieberth said.

But, he said, ''many of those people could have a place to stay if they chose to or if they were matched with the right resources.''

During the day Tuesday, volunteers like Kris Keniray and Lauren Green, who both work for the Fair Housing Contact Service, collected names at various places around the county as part of the Point-in-Time Homeless Count.

''The impression is there is a huge need that is not being met that requires financial resources and requires systemic change that needs to happen in our area and around the country to meet the needs of folks that need housing,'' said Green, who counted homeless people with Keniray at the Akron-Summit County Public Library's main branch.

Shack in the woods|

Magdon built his shack, located in some woods just north of downtown Akron, out of wooden pallets and covered it with tarps and other material. Inside, several quilts were hung on the walls to provide insulation. There were a couch and a bed inside, and a fire burned in his homemade stove.

Outside, clothes were hanging on a line in the frigid air.

There also was a solar shower hook up that apparently was used in warmer months.

Magdon said he had lived in that spot or near it for ''about 10 years but had been on the streets for almost 20 years.''

''The only thing I need is a lantern,'' he told Stahl.

He said he had plenty of food inside his dark home.

''I've got steaks and shrimp,'' he said. ''I'm living pretty good.''

''Do you need any blankets or toiletries?'' Stahl asked him.

''No. I'm OK.''

Magdon said he appreciated the group coming out to check on him and said he had been trying to get out on his own.

''Do you want to get an apartment?'' Stahl asked him.

''Nah,'' Magdon replied.

When the visit was over, Magdon urged the group to be cautious on their walk through the icy woods.

''You guys have a good one,'' he said. ''Be careful getting out of here. It's slippery.''

30 tents and 10 people|

After four hours of searching the near-downtown area, Stahl and his group found more than 30 tents. Most were empty. They talked to 10 people.

The group found evidence of people living under the All-America Bridge: three bedrolls laid out and blankets used to block the wind. A box of granola bars was left inside an abandoned rail car on track over the Little Cuyahoga River near Eastwood Avenue.

At one spot near Akron's Grace Park, the group found 15 to 20 tents and talked to six or seven people.

One man who was at a site of about five tents said the others in his camp site were in jail.

''How did you find us?'' one man asked Stahl.

The experience of walking through the woods to find the homeless moved Bruce Oberlin, 53, of Coventry Township, who works at Cornerstone Free Methodist Church.

''Life circumstances knock people down,'' said Oberlin, who was in Haiti during the earthquake on a mission trip with the Clear Blue Water Project.

''There are good people that bad things have happened to,'' he said. Seeing so many homeless in Akron ''absolutely breaks your heart.''

Another member of the group, Sherri Scheetz, deputy director for administration at Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority, said that during training, ''we were told our role was to be a vessel showing the community cares. I hope we accomplished that.''

Also, she said, ''the experience underscored the need for permanent supportive housing options in our community.''

Camps secluded|

Stahl said the homeless camps are so secluded, they are difficult to find. In the summer, he said, when the trees and bushes are filled in, it is nearly impossible to find them.

''You walk 10 feet and you can't tell'' anyone is living in the area, he said.

Going out in the dark and cold at night and meeting homeless people, he said, shows ''the human side of it. They aren't just some person you drive by, but when you talk to them you start to understand they are just a person.''

The homeless, he said, ''are just people. You wonder what happened in their lives.''

Homelessness is not a choice, he said.

''Logical choices do not include being homeless on the street when it is below freezing. . . . It's circumstances in life, for whatever reason, whether they have mental illnesses, alcoholism, a veteran with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, something has caused their thinking to be distorted to the point where they accept this as normal.''

Not too far away from Magdon's place, the group found a tent.

A man, who asked not to be identified or photographed, said he was born in 1957 and had been homeless about five years.

He had a resume online and was trying to find a job, Stahl said.

''It was a struggle for him to accept public assistance,'' Stahl said.

At the end of their meeting, the man in the tent let the group know he appreciated that they stopped by to see him.

''Thanks for caring,'' he said.

Another tent spotted|

At another site in the same wooded area, not far from Magdon's shack, another tent was spotted.

''Hello!'' yelled Stahl, as he approached the tent.

A head popped out.

Stahl identified himself and told the man about the count.

The man said his name was Gregory Flint, age 47.

Stahl gave him some McDonald's gift certificates and Metro bus passes.

''Do you come to CSS?'' Stahl asked Flint.

''I take a shower and wash my clothes there,'' he answered.

The volunteers carried a few coats and gave Flint a large man's coat.

''We apologize for interrupting you,'' Stahl told him.

Flint said he had been at his camp site since last summer and had been located at another camp site in town, but he and others had to move last year.

''Is it warm in there?'' Stahl asked.

Flint said he was plenty warm. He said the nonprofit group Springtime of Hope had given him five sleeping bags.

Stahl gave him a bag of chips and Flint thanked him and the group for their concern.

''This is a blessing,'' Flint said as the group prepared to leave.

''God bless you my friend,'' Stall said as he walked away.

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