Ending homelessness is a challenge everywhere. Like most Ohio counties, Summit has an organization that helps coordinate services for the homeless. Summit County’s Continuum of Care each year conducts a head count of people living outside and in shelters. In the past decade, the homeless population’s highest number came in 2011 when it totaled 857. Last year, the count was 546 people living without homes.
It’s not yet sunup on a recent winter morning when social workers began hitting the streets, heading for places Summit County’s homeless lay their heads – by railroad tracks, under bridges, in woods near the river and in downtown doorways where the brick foyers of Akron’s old buildings block the wind.
It’s the annual point in time (PIT) - a HUD-mandated head count of the homeless. It’s led by the county’s
Continuum of Care, an organization of more than 30 agencies that provide services for the homeless.
Community Support Services case manager Michael Harhager woke a man sleeping in a downtown doorway.
“You from CSS?” the man asked.
Harhager said yes, it’s PIT day. The man chuckled.
Harhager was visiting outdoor homeless encampments with CSS residential services administrator Steve Trecaso. Other workers were counting homeless people in shelters.
CSS teams are out in the field a couple times a week, not just PIT day. Their goal is to build relationships, to build trust to get people into homes.
Under a railroad bridge near downtown Akron the men visit another site.
A man there told them about members of his camp who have moved on.
“Ray got housing,” he said.
“What about Dan?” they asked.
“Him and Rob are out in a hotel,” the man said. “I don’t think he’ll be back. Plus he’s got toes they’re talking about amputating.” The CSS workers were momentarily stunned.
“He sat out here and got frostbite one night,” the man explained.
Sleeping in a doorway downtown is Bill. He’s lived outside for years.He illustrates one of the reasons homelessness is such a challenge.
When Harhager asked if he was ready for housing, Bill firmly replied - no. His reason for not needing housing?
He told the social workers he has attorneys working on his behalf in Africa, where he owns gold.
“That’s what I’m waiting for to come through,” he said. “And if it does, I’ll be off the street the next day.”
CSS offers mental health services, which are considered vital for the homeless population. Trecaso says impaired mental health makes the work a moving target.
“You know one day we’ll be like, ‘we have an opening we can help you out’ and they’re like ‘no, no, no’,” he said. “Two days later we have an opening and they’re like ‘that sounds like a great idea’.”
CSS is a member of the Continuum of Care. CoC members say the organization has not been well understood. But that could be changing: it hired its first manager, Mar-quetta Boddie, about two years ago. She recently got an office in the CSS homeless outreach center.
“I was working out of my car, working out of my home,” she laughed.
Boddie said the PIT count is vital because it determines how much money the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) awards the county to divide between 12 CoC agencies that provide specific services to the homeless. Last year, the CoC was awarded about $5 million.
That pays for programs at places like the Battered Women’s Shelter and United Way, which operates the 2-1-1 phone line. 2-1-1 connects people with help for housing, utility bills and food.
CSS Residential Services Manager Tim Edgar says the money doesn’t go far because homeless people need an array of services and support to keep them from returning to the streets.
“For every dollar we get, I’ve got 10 guys in need of something,” he said.
The cost of homelessness is not well understood, he said.
“It is much, much, much cheaper to house someone and give them the services they need than to leave them homeless, and get their needs met or all their interactions are through ER, police or crisis centers," he said. "It just makes sense to get people indoors.”
Boddie counts as a success the placement of about 40 homeless people who lived in a tent encampment in East Akron. The city closed it down last year after months of hearings.
“I see resources available for everyone for the most part when it comes to youth, veterans there’s always some type of program available,” she said. “We’re running a lot of by-name list work groups now for veterans, for youths, for different populations to talk about people by name and see what kind of help they need and slot these people into housing.”
The COC recently took another big step - it got its nonprofit status.
“We are up and coming,” Boddie said. “We’ve just become a 501(c)(3) [nonprofit]. We literally just opened a bank account. This is really, really new for us. The CoC has been here for many years but we have not established our own entity until just now.”
Boddie says that’s important because the CoC can’t rely on HUD dollars alone.
“That makes us look into maybe raising private funds and looking into different grants and different pots of money to help serve some of the people who are currently underserved here in Summit County,” she said.
Edgar says it’s important to remember – the homeless are people.
“They’re someone’s kid, they’re someone’s sibling, someone’s partner,” he said. “This isn’t a life that anybody chooses for themselves.”