Thursday, January 13, 2005

Notes From My Knapsack 1-16-05
By Jeff Gill

Been Homeless Lately?

Quite a few Licking Countians (a quarter? a third? half?) have recently known, at least in part, what homelessness feels like, from the inside.
Sure, it was an ice storm, and you knew the utilities would come back (they would, wouldn’t they?), and that you’d return to your home (but when?), but the experience was still there.
You didn’t want to go, you weren’t sure where to go (sorry, we’re full up tonight), and you were making stressful decisions under difficult circumstances (why didn’t we just go to cousin Jean’s instead of Aunt Bertie’s?), which probably didn’t always show you at your best.
For folks who work with the ongoing housing and homelessness problem in Licking County, this all sounds very familiar.
What’s been different is that people from Utica to Buckeye Lake, from Toboso to Pataskala had the experience – and are talking about it.
Actually, in any given year, people from that many different parts of the area, from about as many economic backgrounds, run into a slower motion crisis that results in the same impact as the ice storm: where do I go? How do I get heat and water for my children?
There’s quite a bit we know about homelessness. We know that the emergency shelter on East Main in Newark run by the Salvation Army, with 18 beds, has been operating at full capacity for over two years now. We know they are forced to turn away people because of capacity and fire code issues: 68 were turned away between Jan. 1 and Jan. 12 just in the start of this year. And we know the average age of a homeless person is . . . 9 years old.
How do we know things like this, that the average age of homelessness is 9? Local groups like the Salvation Army, the Licking County Coalition for Housing, the American Red Cross, or Moundbuilders Guidance Center all are expected to keep careful records for the state and federal funds they receive, such as through FEMA. They want to know more about the how and the where and the who of homelessness, not to mention the why.
They work together, too, such as in a recent meeting at the Reese Center on the OSU-N campus, comparing notes and dreams, and making plans.
Next week, these groups are preparing to work together to try to do a "one night count" of both unsheltered and sheltered homeless people. Teams with training will go out between 10 pm and 1 am on Wednesday night, Jan. 26, and check their assigned area for people sleeping out and around. They will carry some items to give out that might be of use to those in that situation (gloves, blankets, flashlights), and they will walk away from anyone who doesn’t want to be bothered.
That’s not what happened last year, the first time this was tried in Licking County. From I-70 truck stops to railroad overpasses, most wanted to talk and appreciated the effort to find them and tell their story.
So if your own recent brush with homelessness makes you want to help, you can be trained this Tuesday, Jan 18. Show up from either 1 to 3 pm or 6 to 8 pm, your choice, at the MRDD Office at 565 Industrial Parkway in Heath, just east of Rt. 79 (think behind Wendy’s).
Last year they counted 97 homeless people in Licking County on that one night. We hope this year is lower, and suspect it’s higher. But why talk more about it, when we can go out and count, and talk to those folks who really know what it’s like.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and occasional preacher around central Ohio. You can contact him for more information about the "1 Night Homelessness Count" through

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