A number of support services are available to homeless people who have mental health or addiction problems, but what about those who are homeless but don’t have these accompanying issues? Marc Anthony, who is homeless, posed this question during a recent community discussion.
“If you’re a single male, with no drug problems and no alcohol problems, you’re more or less stuck,” said Anthony, who has been homeless for a couple of years and faces a number of barriers in his attempts to get ahead. For one, local employers such as fast food chains will not hire him because he has no place of residence to write on his job applications. Many tell him to come back when he has a place to live, which keeps Anthony in a Catch-22 of sorts.
About 20 representatives from area nonprofits, faith-based charities and schools met at the Akron-Summit County Public Library’s Main Library in downtown Akron last week to discuss the pressing issues surrounding homelessness, including solutions for an ideal future for our community.
The discussion was co-hosted by Akron Community Foundation, the Akron Area Eutopia Report and the Akronist, and was moderated by Emily Watanabe, community investment officer for Akron Community Foundation.
Defying negative stereotypes
Many of the meeting’s attendees pointed out the numerous ways that people who face homelessness defy the stereotype of dirty beggars and panhandlers.
For example, one attendee noted that the national average age of homeless people is 9 years old.
Greg Milo, a teacher at Hoban High School, suggested a propaganda campaign to help residents rethink the image of homelessness.
“The one stinging thing that continues is the stereotype of homeless people being dirty and bad, as it was when I was a kid,” said Milo, who takes students every week to hand out food and clothing to local homeless people for the Project HOPE program.
“Many homeless people don’t look like homeless people,” said Anthony. “I had a perfect job at one time.” In fact, he added, “Some of (the discussion attendees) are one or two paychecks away from being homeless.”
The image of the homeless person holding up a cardboard sign on the street corner also can be misleading, said Anthony. “There are so many people who are on those corners that have homes, that are not in the situation they say they’re in,” he said, adding some panhandlers are simply supporting a drug or alcohol habit.
The local government should place more regulation on the panhandling licenses they hand out, said Anthony.
To properly address homelessness, it’s important to define the problem. But even definitions vary, from chronic to situational homelessness, or even people temporarily living in homes but whose residency is tenuous.
“Many of us around the table are part of the Continuum of Care for the homeless, and we have to work with (the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s) definitions,” said Sue Pierson, director of Info Line. “The latest document that came out defines homelessness in 125 pages.”
“We’re seeing a very large swing into chronic homelessness,” said Wendy Ley, from the Salvation Army. One individual who recently checked in has been homeless for about 20 years, she said.
Among attendees, one topic was clear: the solution to this community-wide problem can likely be found within the family unit.
“Domestic violence continues to drive homelessness,” said Pierson, who added that a lot of older residents, from ages 55 to 65, are showing up in the system.
Debra Manteghi, the district homeless education liaison for the Akron Public Schools, said, “Family breakdown is a large factor in family homelessness. There are more single mothers and single fathers.”
A bad economy combined with lack of family support is placing many entire family units on the street, said Manteghi, who added she would like to see a greater emphasis placed on family. “Our fathers and men need to be more involved.”
Along with people like Anthony, who often get overlooked among government-funded support services, men, as well, should not be overlooked, said Eliza Williams, development and marketing associate for ACCESS shelter for women and children.
She said a number of area men are victims of domestic violence, but they may not have the same support network available to women.
Pierson said government funding for homelessness is undergoing a huge change, focusing on housing first instead of transitional shelters.
When asked what they would like to see happen locally to address this issue, the responses were as varied as the definitions of homelessness.
Williams said she would like to see more programs focused on cognitive behavioral patterns, as generational cases of poverty are difficult to address.
Anthony pointed out the high number of vacant homes throughout Akron due to foreclosures. Why not let some homeless people move in to these homes to get them off the street? he asked.
Many attendees agreed that the homeless support groups should forge a better relationship with local government leaders to give more priority to this issue.
Milo said that other communities have homeless boards and coalitions, but “if there is any sort of board, it has to have recognition from those in power.”
He added that some of the most effective organizations are on the “front lines,” in the “messiest parts of town,” like South Street Ministries, which helps out men who are released from jail, along with other transients, in order to build a stronger community.
Many religious-based groups are at these front lines, said Colleen Koladzinksi, from the Chapel. “The religious base should be more present at meetings like this.”
An annual event that exemplifies community support is Project Homeless Connect, which took place at the Chapel in May, and brought out 600 volunteers, who provided much needed services for about 1,000 homeless people.
“It’s such a complex issue,” said Manteghi. “There’s no easy fix.”
Stay tuned for podcasts, videos and reports from this event.
(Editor’s note: Chris Miller is an employee of Akron Community Foundation and editor of the Akronist.)