Nonprofit group fights homelessness in Ohio county

EMILY MADDERN The (Newark) Advocate Published:

NEWARK, Ohio (AP) -- Stepping into Kandice Hairston's apartment, it's difficult to miss the writings on her walls.

There isn't a single wall, table or shelf in her home that isn't adorned with at least one message of hope, courage and love.

"Be the change you wish to see in the world." ''Help me believe in what I could be, and all that I am." ''All things are possible if we believe."

It is those words of inspiration that remind Hairston how far she has come in the past 10 months, and they motivate her to continue on the path she has created for herself.

Because it wasn't that long ago when Hairston and her daughter, Isis Daniels, became homeless.

It was Jan. 28. Hairston had been living with her grandmother since she was released from her three-year prison sentence for drug trafficking 18 months earlier.

When her grandmother suddenly passed away, Hairston's aunt -- who was the executor of the estate -- told Hairston she would not support her living there and turned her out of the house.

"I freaked out," Hairston said. "I kept asking myself and God, 'What part of my recovery journey is this?' For the first few months, I was just going through the motions."

The Salvation Army was full that night, so Hairston and Daniels slept at the Budget Inn until beds became available at the shelter. They then lived in the shelter for five weeks before Hairston was able to participate in the Licking County Coalition for Housing's rapid re-housing program.

The coalition provided Hairston with financial assistance for 90 days while she searched for employment and a permanent living arrangement. Before her 90 days were up, she was hired as a seasonal employee at Dairy Queen and a property manager agreed to give her a chance and rented her an apartment.

Today, she is as happy as ever in the apartment. Although she currently is looking for work again, Hairston is focusing on the positives.

"Some days it's hard, like when you don't even have $1 to buy a cup of coffee. But I have a roof over my head and I have my daughter. I feel blessed."

The Licking County Coalition for Housing was founded in 1992 by a group of residents seeking to make a difference in the lives of Licking County residents who had found themselves homeless.

The coalition is a nonprofit organization that serves the housing needs of homeless people and low-and moderate-income residents, providing financial assistance and transitional housing.

At the time of LCCH's inception, the Salvation Army was the only organization in the county that offered emergency shelter. The shelter had three iron bunk beds, providing just six people a dry, warm place to stay for the night.

It was clear to the founders of LCCH that more needed to be done. The organization was able to partner with a local landlord to provide four apartments for transitional housing in 1993. In six years, they added 25 additional units with the help of a grant from the federal government.

"We honestly thought that would be enough," said Deb Tegtmeyer, executive director of the Licking County Coalition for Housing. "As soon as we filled that last unit, we've had a waiting list ever since."

The coalition now has 45 units available for transitional housing; the Salvation Army has expanded its shelter to provide 60 beds for men, women and children; and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul has created St. Vincent Haven, which provides 26 beds for men who need emergency or transitional shelter.

Although the county has been able to significantly increase the number of beds available and provide new resources for people experiencing homelessness, the issue is far from being resolved, Tegtmeyer said.

On one night in January, about 191 people were homeless in Licking County; it is thought that many more were not counted.

In the past year, LCCH has provided assistance to 625 households or 1,300 people. The average age of an adult in transitional housing is 35.

Between October 2012 and September, St. Vincent Haven served 195 men. Thirty-five percent of them were between 18 and 30 years old; 18.58 percent had medical issues.

St. Vincent Haven typically runs at about 85 percent capacity or higher, said Linda Berger, executive director of the shelter. But during the summer, St. Vincent saw so many men looking for shelter that Berger had to set up cots to give them a place to stay.

The Salvation Army also saw an increase in the number of people requiring shelter this summer, but not in the demographic it expected. For the first time since offering emergency shelter, the Salvation Army had more women in its beds than men.

When the Salvation Army built its new shelter, it created 20 rooms for men and 12 rooms for women, which are housed on opposite sides of the shelter. However, with the increase in the number of women and their children who needed shelter this summer, the staff had to swap them.

"Never did we think we would get to the point where we'd have more women than men," said Kaye Hartman, volunteer coordinator for the Salvation Army. "But if you're a woman or a mom down on your luck, there's no place else to go in Licking County."

The Salvation Army sheltered 544 people through October of this year. Hartman was unsure why more women were in need of shelter this summer, and Tegtmeyer said it could be the fact that more people are facing homelessness each year. In Ohio, about 13,977 people were homeless at some point in 2012, a 7.3 percent increase over the previous year when 13,030 people experienced homelessness, according to The State of Homelessness in America 2013 report.

Many Licking County residents became homeless in the early 2000s as the county began to experience the foreclosure crisis before the Great Recession hit, Tegtmeyer said. But the reasons for people becoming homeless are changing.

Continued homelessness arises from the continued disconnect between the local jobs economy and the homes economy, Tegtmeyer said. People who are experiencing homelessness are either not able to find work or the jobs they have do not pay enough for them to afford a home, utilities, food and child care. What the community needs is quality housing that someone could afford working for $10 to $15 per hour, she said.

Substance abuse and medical or mental health issues also remain significant contributing factors for a person experiencing homelessness. Unless those issues are resolved, there is little hope for someone who is homeless to truly get back on his or her feet and sustain themselves, said Linda Berger, executive director for St. Vincent Haven.

"We need to knock down the barriers for these people to become self-sufficient," Berger said. "If you're depressed or have an addiction and there's no way for you to get help, you're never going to get there."

Felony records also have been trademarks of people who are homeless, but Berger maintains those individuals are not in the majority. Just 33.5 percent of people seeking shelter at St. Vincent in the past year had felony records.

"Everyone who comes in here comes from a different path. For some people, that may involve drugs and alcohol, a record, and some may not," Berger said. "There's so many variables for why people become homeless, sometimes it really is just bad luck and living paycheck to paycheck until something goes wrong."

It's hard to overlook Hairston's record. Even she admits it's terrible. But it's a record of who she was, not who she is now.

"You sold drugs, you go to prison, you get out and start over. That's how I thought life was, but then I realized it doesn't have to be," she said.

Since getting clean and leaving prison, Hairston has started a support group for women overcoming addiction, become a volunteer for Mental Health America of Licking County, and used her experiences to try to help others who are overcoming homelessness.

"Before going to prison, I felt like I was tearing this community down. Now, I'm helping to make it better," she said. "I feel like an activist, that's my passion right now, and I feel like Licking County needs it."

It's that kind of passion that is needed to continue the fight against homelessness, Tegtmeyer said, and not just from those who have found success but from the larger community. The reality is that the stereotypical homeless person who is lazy, has a criminal past and is just looking to feed some kind of addiction is flawed, she said.

"Don't let that (image) cloud your judgment," Tegtmeyer said. "Most people really want to work hard and do work hard, they don't want to be homeless. They have jobs or they are looking for jobs, and we need to support them in that."

More than 80 percent of people who were in LCCH's transitional housing program successfully moved into permanent housing; 40 percent of those leaving the St. Vincent Haven left with a job and more than 50 percent left with permanent housing.

The programs are seeing success in transforming Licking County residents who are experiencing homelessness into successful, productive members of the community, Berger said, they just need a little help to get them started.

In order to continue that success, leaders in the fight against homelessness agree that more resources are needed to address the underlying issues that cause people to become homeless, such as mental health and drug addiction. But with a decrease in federal dollars to assist these programs, the community needs to make an investment in the programs, Berger said.

"We're only as strong as our weakest link, and we can't forget that," she said. "We might have a society where people can become millionaires, but if there's someone sleeping under a bridge, how can we be successful?"

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Information from: The Advocate, http://www.newarkadvocate.com