Editor’s note: This is the first segment of a mini-series profiling one of Akron’s homeless citizens. This series will follow one man’s day, from sun-up to sun-down, and will chronicle his journey around downtown Akron on a brisk November day, where his main goal was to find a warm place to stay. Visit Akronist next week to read more of Matthew Garner’s story.
Matthew Garner squeezes in line between figures wearing thick coats, eager to sort through a jumble of clothing littered across a line of folding tables. He smiles as he recognizes the man beside him and pats him on the back. The two men laugh and exchange pleasantries.
It is around 11 a.m. on a cloudy Saturday, and Garner, along with about 50 other homeless men and women, has made his way under the All-American Bridge to pick out free clothes and enjoy a free meal. The event is put on every weekend by the Peter Maurin Center, a local outreach ministry. Garner is a regular attendee.
“I’ve been on the street for the past five years, trying to survive,” Garner says between sips from his paper cup.
His voice is gritty, with just a hint of a southern drawl. Although he is 46 years old, the faint wrinkles on his face give him the appearance of an older, wiser man. The scruffy gray of his mustache contains only trace amounts of black hair. In boots, light blue jeans, a faded brown coat and a black skull cap, Garner towers above almost everyone else.
He turns back to the stack of underwear, socks and blankets that will keep him alive through the winter. As one of more than 860 homeless people in Summit County area, he knows that the frigid November morning is only a preface for what is to come. (Read more of the 2013 Homelessness Report here.)
The previous night, to escape the cold, Garner hiked up the formidable hill on Howard Street to sleep in the Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Crisis Center on Frederick Avenue. Here, he slept on a dark blue cot on the floor of a plain white room stuffed with other clients – mostly homeless men. The hard cot is just long enough for his tall body, but too narrow to allow for much movement to one side or another. The plastic coating is designed specifically to be easy to clean in case a client soils him or herself.
“In order to stay warm last night, I drank a few beers so I could actually get in,” he says, admitting that he drank more than he should have the previous night.
“Our drop-in service is a 23-hour observation unit for the inebriated individual who needs to come in and have a safe place to stay while they recuperate,” says Christopher Richardson, the program manager for the Crisis Center.
Garner has battled alcoholism for years, and is determined not to repeat this act tonight.
“I try not to stay there at all ’cause I don’t like drinking,” he says, his voice leaping an octave defensively. “I’m just not gonna do it. I’ll find somewhere to stay so I don’t have to drink.”
Garner would have gone to Haven of Rest, a homeless shelter on Market Street, to avoid the sub-freezing temperatures. But during the time we spoke with him, homeless individuals were only permitted to sleep here five nights a month, and Garner had used up all his nights.
Occasionally, he spends his nights sleeping in abandoned houses, his most frequented spot being a house in the North Hill neighborhood, which his grandmother-in-law owned before passing away.
“They got it all boarded up, but one of the back basement windows is loose,” Garner says. “So if I need to, I’ll crawl in there. I got blankets and stuff to, you know, keep me warm through the winter.”
This night, Garner will sleep in his friend Mark’s tent, which is set up in the woods north of downtown Akron. Many of Akron’s homeless live out in the woods, keeping the location of their tents hidden, always wary that intruders will steal their belongings.
“The fewer people who know,” Garners explains, “the better chance you have of keeping what you got.”
Visit the site next week for Part II.
Editor’s note: Due to the sensitive nature of this article, no photos were taken. The cover image for this story is not Matthew Garner.