Jason was asked to be a guest columnist as part of our ongoing Unhoused series. He was given the following writing prompt:
“You have been open about your struggles with homelessness in the past. What do you wish people understood about your experience, and how it has shaped your life?”
I’ve been plenty open about stories on how I became homeless and almost froze to death. How I was an extreme alcoholic and found out I would have seizures if I stopped drinking cold turkey.
How I slept in my car until it was towed and then lived in a tent on a porch and even in the woods during the winter. At one point I wandered my way in the middle of the night from the hospital to a men’s shelter that may have a bed for me. That’s the story that changed my life.
But I guess what I really wish that people understood is how hard it is to be homeless and get real help. Also I don’t think people understand the amount of homeless we really have here in Richland County.
To be “housed” is one thing. I was housed a lot of different ways, but most of them were temporary in nature as far as I understand them. You can be housed in a shelter or jail. Detox and rehab facilities house you while you get treatment.
You can share housing with someone but if you’re not on the loan or lease you can be removed at any time.
When you move into/buy a house, you make it yours by decorating it, painting, etc. thus making a house a home. When you’re homeless you want somewhere you can call home. Temporary housing is needed, but a home is the goal. At least for me it was.
This is where it gets extremely difficult and varies greatly from one person to the next.
When I became homeless, I was not handed a book that says where to go and what to do for my given problems in Mansfield, Ohio.
Where are the shelters if any, What are the requirements for the shelters, where to sleep if the shelters are full, where are free meals given out (if any), where to stay away from, where to use the bathroom, is panhandling legal, where the best places for help for addiction or mental issues?
The list could be never-ending, really.
When you’re not homeless you don’t think of these things — they are not part of your daily focus, not part of your routine. When you are, they are your life, your very means of survival. It’s a whole new way of life you must learn.
These were my first steps to overcome, and they were the most confusing and dangerous.
For me and many others, when you become homeless the odds seem impossibly against you. If you’re sleeping on the streets that means your family and friends have given up on you, or at least don’t know what else to do with you.
You have nowhere else to go. It’s a sad, lonely feeling that only grows and expands the more time you spend there.
For me, I stumbled my way into Angie Henke’s Reaching Out, Richland County’s community-funded men’s winter shelter and was given a chance to change my circumstances.
I can’t do Angie’s story any justice without messing it up and the countless amount of people she helped before me. But trust me, it’s more than an inspirational one, just ask around!
This is really the next step in the process.
It is simply impossible in my experience to start to resolve the matters that lead to becoming homeless without some sort of foundation, to get out of the weather elements, sleep, eat, shower, be safe, seek help for addiction (in my case), be able to make and get to needed appointments, and more.
This is the step that leads everyone seeking help in many different directions depending on their personal needs, histories and goals, and what most definitely shaped my life.
As you can imagine, this all takes some time and comes with its own set of challenges. It’s a lot more than the infamous “get a job” refrain. You must change your entire life, yet again. You have to beat all the odds against you.
Can you imagine all the different things people have to fight, from addiction to mental health, legal issues, financial, personal relationships, transportation, finding employment and long term-housing?
Affordable housing alone in Mansfield (like many other cities) is a very limited resource. Having stable housing — a place you can call home — is the key, in my opinion, to having a stable life.
Remember above where I said this is the step that leads everyone in different directions and what most definitely shaped my life?
While I was at Reaching Out struggling with my own issues, I saw Angie’s approach to helping people including me, and it became very apparent we weren’t just a file in her computer.
She wasn’t after our government credit card number (social security and government insurance information). In fact, she never asked for insurance information.
She gave us the basics we needed: Shelter, food, clothing, etc. that had all been donated by the community and the tools, information and contacts we needed to succeed if we chose to. She never judged us or looked down on us. It was up to us what path we took and it gave us a real chance to become “un-homeless.”
I had been to those “help” places that just wanted your billing information, to prescribe something, add you to their file list and statistics sheet and could never remember your name. This was something different and what changed me.
Once on my way to becoming sober and taking care of my issues, I started to help others more and more at her shelter. I could relate of course, and this began to shape my future.
I most certainly had setbacks, but it was and still is part of the learning process. Wanting others to do well motivated me to do better.
This was how I was going to change my life, by helping others who choose to help themselves as well. Those who are “Stronger by Choice.”
After some years, it came time for Angie to retire and I was asked if I would like to take over the shelter … my response? “Yes, of course please!”
The name was changed from Reaching Out to Stronger by Choice for legal reasons and operates under the same principles as before: Provided by the people for the people. The people of Richland County/Mansfield donate everything to keep it open, from the finances to pay the utilities to the meals, down to the blankets and soap.
Why? Because it’s their family, friends and loved ones who use it. It only exists out of necessity. If they had somewhere else to go, they would be there.
Last winter alone, over 100 different men stayed at our little shelter. This winter’s number will be similar. Did you even have an idea that many homeless existed in our community?
And that’s just men on the streets; I can’t give you numbers on women, children, teens and those doubled up, sharing housing with others.
We don’t have “tent cities” here or see huge groups of homeless under bridges here, it’s certainly not what it looks like in the movies. It’s more of a hidden problem here that causes a whole different set of issues for the city and the community.
But the idea here is to share a tiny bit of insight and information on my experiences with homelessness, and how it has forever and will continue to change me.