YOUNGSTOWN, Oh. (WKBN) — Ray looks forlornly into the distance, only a twinkle in his eye and his flowing (now-gray) hair reminiscent of the carefree teenager who packed up everything and went to California on a whim.
His hands, rough, cracked, and various hues of black and blue, clutch a cup of coffee. His hair is pulled up into a ponytail, and his beard spills down onto his neck. Deep wrinkles on the Hubbard-native’s face make his claim of being 45 years of age slightly less believable.
Ray does a lot of the things average Americans do: he has a job, a corner office, a bank, and a support group, all in the Youngstown area.
He just doesn’t have a home.
Ray isn’t really Ray. That’s just his middle name, as he prefers not to be identified due to his homeless condition. He is one of a hard-to-see group of homeless in Mahoning County. According to data from the Homeless Management Information System, a joint project between Youngstown State University and the Mahoning Co. Continuum of Care, a total of 2,034 people were, at some point between June 2012 and June 2013, without a home in Mahoning County. Of those, 399 were chronically homeless, meaning without a home for a year straight or had three episodes of homelessness in the past four years.
“Our homeless are more hidden,” said the Help Hotline Crisis Center’s Director of Shelter and Support Services Bob Altman. “We don’t see them laying around like you do in the bigger cities.”
Altman went on to say, “A lot of individuals may come to the shelter at night, but then they’re leaving and they’re going to a friend’s house during the day, they’re going to the library, they’re just not laying around.”
The number of homeless on any given night is probably closer to the 227 reported on the Coalition for Homelessness and Housing in Ohio’s 2013 Homelessness Report. That number, measured by COHHIO one night every year in January, has stayed fairly steady over the past few years: 224 in 2012 and 223 in 2011. Those 227 were part of a reported 12,325 total homeless on the same night in all of Ohio.
Using 2012 homelessness and population data, Mahoning County has the lowest ratio of homeless persons to total population of the eight largest counties in Ohio, with just under one homeless person for every thousand total people. The second-lowest is Franklin County, with a ratio of just over one to ten thousand.
Homeless Management Information System Administrator Michele Schaper is hoping to use the collection of more in-depth data to help fight homelessness.
Schaper is part of a team working to craft the Ohio Human Services Data Warehouse, a collaboration of a number of organizations that work with the homeless across Ohio to pool their data. With this data, the organizations hope to gather more accurate counts of the homeless, identifying chronic homelessness, and understanding movement and service-usage patterns across the state. Ultimately, the goal is to, “develop a more comprehensive strategy toward ending homelessness,” according to a statement on the Ohio Housing Finance Agency website.
“If we could effectively deal with the situation over time, you’re going to save money by (fewer) individuals utilizing services that are costly to the taxpayer,” Schaper said. “You’re going to have less people committing crimes.”
OHFA is the leading organization on the warehouse project, which was begun about two years ago. Schaper hopes the data will be compiled within a year and a half.
There are a variety of reasons people end up on the streets. The top reason, according to data from the Mahoning County Rescue Mission, is addiction, followed by domestic violence, mental illness, and job loss and underemployment. Foreclosure, post-traumatic stress, teenagers’ conflicts with parents, relational brokenness, grief, and despair round out the top ten.
In Ray’s case, he was renting a house when he says the owner got out of jail and decided he wanted his place back. That put Ray back on the streets. Since then, he has been stuck in an all-too-familiar cycle for the homeless: no job means no money for housing, but no permanent address makes getting things like work and bus passes much more difficult.
Mahoning County Continuum of Care Coordinator Angie Paramore and her husband learned more about that reality when they spent a day living as though they were homeless. Their day included a frustrating whirlwind of going to Western Reserve Transit Authority offices for bus passes, finding out they had to go elsewhere to complete the task, long wait times while applying for jobs, walking six miles due to lack of transportation, and the need of a photo ID – which the “homeless” couple did not have.
“That was a great experience,” Paramore said. “It makes me now work more diligently with all the agencies to try to fill in those gaps for those that are homeless that might be experiencing those issues.”
For Ray, that situation is his everyday reality.
Ray got lucky; it’s Wednesday afternoon, and someone dropped off a whole chicken this morning. That means food is off his list of worries – for today, at least. He has a friend to drive him around, which means he can leave transportation off the list as well – a rare occurrence.
But it’s just after noon, which means it’s time to go back to his (street) corner office for his job: begging for money at a traffic light.
With a cemetery at his back, he totes his homemade cardboard sign in a brief staring match with drivers who pull up to the stoplight. “Hungry-N-Homeless,” it says. Except today, that’s only half true, what with the chicken and all.
After a few failed attempts, the passenger of a gray car flutters a few bills out the window. Suddenly, in a chain reaction of generosity, a red hatchback does the same.
He sets his coffee on an electric box, and after a few more cars pass him by, he starts twirling his sign, looking down at the ground dejectedly. But after less than a half hour, Ray has the day’s spoils: $17.
Suddenly, Ray notices his friend’s white truck zoom away. He runs and waves, trying to get his attention, but it’s in vain.
No matter; his friends down by the Mahoning River are waiting for him.
Ray ends up buying a pack of cigarettes a few minutes later. Normally, the money goes into a shared account; shared, that is, among he and his homeless friends. Occasionally, if he earns extra money, it might go towards drugs, he says.
“Let me hit this cigarette a few times,” Ray says. He steps out and does just that, then neatly arranges a loose-hanging air hose for the owners of Sami Quick Stop.
“To be homeless is quite humiliating,” Ray says. “Once you get into a rut like this, it’s almost impossible to get out.”
Homelessness isn’t just a problem for the homeless: it causes taxpayers big money every year.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development shelled out just over $2 million to organizations in Mahoning County, and over $81 million in the state of Ohio, in March of 2013, money those organizations are still spending.
And while that money goes specifically to providing housing, there are a lot of other costs, not the least of which is healthcare. For example, if a homeless person has to use the emergency room at a hospital, that ends up costing taxpayers a lot more than if they had used some type of health insurance to treat their condition while it was less serious, Altman said.
Another cost to the taxpayer is the money criminal just systems spend taking in and housing homeless, or sometimes arresting a homeless person who commits a small crime to spend the night in jail instead of outside.
Altman also said that individuals with their own housing tend to be healthier and cost the community less. Thus, there too, the strategy is to spend money on preventative measures.
“The whole purpose of getting individuals into medical care is to keep them away from the higher cost of the emergency room…which is not necessarily the best place to get (medical care). You get medical care, but it’s more costly,” Altman said.
The outcrop nestled along the Mahoning River, in the shadow of Youngstown Pipe & Supply, which has become a designated gathering place for the homeless, is short on a lot of things.
Food. Adequate human waste disposal. And, most notably, first names.
This is a place where people known simply as Rambo, Stick, and Dirt hang out, a type of happy-hour hangout for the nameless souls who feel like they’ve been cast out of society.
Each one of them comes with a different story. Stick, the most willing to talk, is a former cannon crewman in the army. Jayjuane Hardy, one of the few willing to give his name, claims to have been shot multiple times. Brenda says she had a disagreement with his son over his significant other and decided to leave the house. And then there’s Ray, who bounced between California and Texas before returning to the Mahoning County area, running out of work, and winding up on the streets.
They gather here regularly, sometimes with as many as twenty people present in the summer, to chat, drink, and smoke. Stick breaks out a pack of hot sauce and starts licking away.
The ground is littered with beer bottles. They’ll clean it up once the snow melts, they say.
Being homeless has affected each one differently.
“Hasn’t changed me, just made me stronger,” Brenda says.
The crew will be there a while longer. Once night falls, they split up to find a bed. Some know where they’re going at night; some don’t.
“If you wake up in the morning, you’re blessed,” Rambo says. “I wake up the same every day, ‘Thank you, God,’ with a smile on my face.”
Schaper and Paramore say that more families are showing up on the streets as homeless. While the reasons for that are unclear – Paramore suggests the economic downturn and an increase in foreclosures are possible culprits – they say it shows that homelessness could happen to anyone.
“I think everybody is probably two or three paychecks away from it,” Schaper said. “I think that realization for most people, and just having compassion for other people, should be something that everyone should be concerned about.”
Altman noted that homelessness reflects negatively on the community, and that those without a home have a higher probability of not contributing to society.
The challenge, in his opinion, is to meet the homeless where they are instead of projecting onto them what he and his colleagues as “experts” think they need.
“You may be on the other side there at any point in time. You don’t know when someone you love may come up and have an episode of a serious mental illness and end up on the streets,” Altman said. “Wouldn’t you want someone to be there to help that person?”