Homeless people out in the cold

On Tuesday night, a Free Press reporter was driving on 71 South and began descending the Greenlawn Avenue exit where the now shuttered Thurns’ butcher shop is directly to the right. As some know and often see, on the left side of the exit in a narrow area of gravel is a male houseless person and his dog. For several years now they have set up a make-shift artist camp here.

His paintings and sketches ask for kindness and a handout in a quirky loving way. As one recent sign stated, “Needing a Space Ship to leave Earth.”

The Free Press reporter rolled down his window and asked: “We’re you not able to get a bed tonight at a shelter?”

The artist quickly replies: “No! They don’t take pets.”

His plight in bone-chilling temperatures is just one of several stories to emerge this week showing how chaotic and challenging it is to protect the community’s houseless from severe cold. Some houseless refuse to leave their tent at night fearing their belongings will be taken. Houseless couples refuse to be separated, as warranted by some shelters. And there is one warming center which does allows pets, it is on the Eastside.

The suffering extends far past the street corner where the houseless are most visible. There is illness at the shelters and sometimes fights break out. And those houseless who are missing limbs most likely lost their arm or lower leg to frostbite after spending a night outside in below freezing temperatures.

Longtime affordable housing activists are now asking, “Was the community prepared to take in the increasing numbers of houseless during freezing nights once again?”

Activists say the answer is “a hard no.” They also told the Free Press they are hearing stories of a houseless man who may have frozen to death.

On Tuesday night, Reverend Gary Witte, a local houseless advocate, helped find overnight housing for thirty or so at Columbus Mennonite Church in Clintonville at 35 Oakland Park Avenue. According to a post from this church, the houseless told them the Community Shelter Board (CSB) said the shelters were full and there were no hotel rooms left, either. Rev. Witte says the CSB is afraid to tell the truth. That there are not enough resources in the community to provide for the increasing numbers of houseless, and worse, there is no will to help.

“Stop lying to the public that the issue is handled. It’s not,” said Rev. Witte. “We saved 30 lives last night and the CSB says ‘we got it handled.’ They failed their mission. They have no will because people in poverty don’t give campaign money and other favors. There is a concerted effort to remove poverty and the poor out of downtown, and it’s pushing the problem into neighborhoods.”

CSB on its website states it “leads a coordinated, community effort to make sure everyone has a place to call home.” Their funding comes from the City of Columbus, the Franklin County Board of Commissioners, The Columbus Foundation, Nationwide Foundation, American Electric Power Foundation, Battelle, among many others.

There are warming centers open during the day, such as Columbus Metropolitan Libraries and City rec centers, but they close at night, many at 9 pm. More churches and nonprofits chip in as well, such as the Trinity Episcopal Church on Capitol Square as their warming station saw about 60 people. There are also warming centers which offer beds to stay overnight, says the CSB.

CSB spokesperson Sara Loken says the CSB is hearing complaints their emergency hotline, managed by Netcare Access, has told the houseless to “go buy a hamburger in an all-night fast-food restaurant,” and they are looking into it.

Loken insists, “No one will be turned away.”

“Those beds have filled up really quickly,” says Loken about the warming centers with beds. “The whole idea of a warming center is a much smaller footprint. You’re talking about 30 beds to 40, and they did fill up. But there are still beds open in the traditional shelters.”

Loken says the CSB documents the number of beds used each night and the number that go empty. She says the CSB tallied 35 open beds for Monday night (January 15th).

“When we see or hear these complaints, we want to talk to anyone who says they were turned away because we need to correct that,” she says. “Even if that last bed had filled up overnight, whether it’s the warming center beds or traditional shelter beds, what happens next by protocol is that a motel room is secured. No one is to be turned away. No one is being turned away.”

Former mayoral candidate and affordable housing activist Joe Motil disputes what the CSB is claiming. Motil was also at the Columbus Mennonite Church in Clintonville this week.

“I have an audio phone recording from Monday evening of an employee of the Homeless Hotline telling one of our guests that ‘unfortunately we are not able to get you into a shelter tonight,’” said Motil.  

The Homeless Hotline is under CSB’s responsibility, but as mentioned, manned by Netcare Access (open 24 hours a day 614-274-7000).

“The City and CSB have had a full year to prepare for this winter’s freezing weather after last year’s failure,” said Motil. “And although it is slightly better this year, it is nowhere near accomplishing what is needed. Our unhoused need shelter after 9 pm. Two unhoused men told me that a man froze to death a few nights ago. Myself and others are tired of Columbus’s establishment holding public events with panels of homeless ‘experts’ to hear the same song and dance. If Columbus wants to hear the truth about what needs to be done, to address our unhoused and affordable housing crisis, then these events need to include boots-on-the-ground advocates and our homeless residents.”

CSB could not confirm whether a houseless person passed away this week after being outside all night. Loken says the CSB has been working all year for such a weather event. Last year’s Point-In-Time count, as required every January by the federal department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), showed a 22 percent increase from the previous year.

“That was really alarming to us. Things are moving in the wrong direction. It speaks to the affordable housing crisis,” says the CSB’s Loken. “We really are advocating, at all levels, for our homeless system to scale with the size of the community. That’s something that has not happened. There are other communities of like-size and like composition, other cities and counties, that have invested more in housing than we have.”