Today’s is the fifth part in a series of stories that published this week in Richland Source on the unhoused.
MANSFIELD – Susan Beard runs a section of short, brown hair between her index and middle fingers, stopping short about an inch from the ends. She angles her scissors and snips, then takes another section and continues her work.
Beard has been a hairdresser for more than 40 years. She owns her own salon, but spends every Tuesday morning cutting hair at Crossroads City Center, a church campus in downtown Mansfield.
Contemporary worship music plays in the background as Beard chats with her client, a middle-aged woman who speaks of her time living on the streets and struggling with the voices in her head.
Beard listens, nodding occasionally as the woman speaks about how her faith saved her — not just spiritually, but physically and mentally, too.
It’s not unusual for clients to open up to Beard; her motherly presence welcomes all without judgment. She’s been known to offer advice at times and often prays with clients at the end of their appointment.
Beard typically has three or four clients a week at the City Center salon. Haircuts are free, as is the hot coffee and breakfast that a volunteer brings for each visitor.
City Center isn’t a typical church campus. There are no sermons, no worship teams and no stained glass windows. The services aren’t worship services, they’re human ones – including laundry, haircuts and meals.
The campus is designed to serve Mansfield-area residents who may be unhoused or struggling financially.
“Our goal from the beginning has been to not duplicate what’s already being done in the city,” former campus pastor Jesse Rider said.
“There’s so many different layers and obstacles and difficulties people face. There’s not going to be one organization that comes in to save the day. It’s going to be a community effort.”
One of Richland County’s largest churches, Crossroads, opened its City Center campus in 2017 at 29 N. Main Street.
Among its most well-known services is the free laundry program. The program serves many members of Mansfield’s unhoused population, as well as low-income individuals who may not be able to afford a trip to the laundromat.
“If you are making the choice between ‘Do I buy groceries, pay bills or go to the laundromat?’ the other two usually trump the laundry,” Rider explained.
Crossroad’s laundry ministry started as a way to help meet an immediate physical need, but it ended up being about more than clean clothes.
“What we found was that they wanted community,” Rider said. “They wanted people around them to pray for them, to encourage them.”
Those conversations helped volunteers better understand the lives and stories of the people they served.
“We saw how many people did not have access to washers and dryers, sinks, bathrooms, even running water,” Rider said. “We realized just how big that number actually is — how many people don’t have a place to call home.”
At its onset, the machines were open all day, two or three days a week. Rider estimates that the center did about 100 loads of laundry a week during that time.
The demand eventually overwhelmed volunteers and contributed to crowding issues in the adjacent alley.
Today, City Center uses an appointment-based model to prevent crowding and safety issues. Volunteers will wash, dry and fold one load of laundry per person, per week.
“We were working with some of the young single moms and they didn’t feel safe coming down here because there were so many people in the alleys,” Rider recalled. “We want this to be a safe place.”
Switching to an appointment-based model also freed up resources and volunteers, allowing the center to expand its services. Visitors can now make appointments to take a shower, pick up diapers or access free clothing.
City Center is one of a few organizations in the community that does not require identification to receive services. In fact, the center now has a “troubleshooter” who can help guests figure out how to replace lost or stolen identification documents. Some need help filling out forms or a ride to the appropriate government agency, others need money to pay fees.
Sometimes, a client doesn’t know where to start.
Program coordinator Diana Moss said individuals without secure, permanent housing often have important documents lost or stolen.
“A lot of the people we see are in transition,” she said. “You can’t get a place to live, a place to work without an ID, like a social security card or birth certificate.”
Jesse Houser, who took leadership of the City Center campus in February, estimated that about 10 people utilize the ID service each month. Unlike other services offered at City Center, this program is limited to those actively seeking employment.
The troubleshooter also connects clients to other community resources, like medical care and counseling. City Center has a licensed counselor from Family Life Counseling onsite once a month, but also makes referrals to other agencies as needed.
“A lot of people who are in difficult situations don’t know the resources that are in front of them,” Rider said. “We’re kind of that networking piece.”
By offering out-of-the-box services, Crossroads has been able to make a big impact in the lives of unhoused and low-income individuals. In 2021 alone, City Center did 924 loads of laundry and provided 214 clothing appointments, 1,225 diapers and 109 free haircuts.
In October, City Center began offering free showers. There were 20 sign-ups in the first three months alone.
Leaders said the building is now “at capacity” in terms of the services it can offer, but City Center staff are considering how the campus may expand its impact in the future.
The goal is to continue helping clients build stability and growth in their lives.
“We want to work with the people who are ready to make some of those changes,” Houser said. “Not everyone’s going to be there immediately. Sometimes it takes people longer to get there than others.”
Whatever the next chapter of City Center’s work entails, leaders say compassion and relationships will remain key to its mission.
“We need more awareness of the fact that most people don’t choose to live this way,” Moss said. “There are some, but most people don’t choose this life.”