They exist in every community. We pass by them without noticing. They may ask for money, with or without a sign that says “please help.” And like all societal problems, our reactions are a mix of pity, irritation, embarrassment, sympathy, and bewilderment. Homeless people. In the most prosperous country in the world, our giving, vibrant community has homeless people on our streets.
Numbers Tell the Tale
According to the Toledo-Lucas County Homelessness Board (TLCHB), in 2016 there were 599 homeless individuals in the area, both sheltered and unsheltered. The Point-in-Time report, a snapshot of the homeless community taken over one night, the majority of these individuals were sheltered by local organizations during the night of the survey.
“When it comes to counting the homeless population, it often matters what time of year you are talking about,” says Max Lambdin, Sr. Vice President of Mission Advancement for Cherry Street Ministries. “Certainly there is some seasonal fluctuation, but there are always situational issues. Our new facility serves 1,000 meals a day. We provide meals three times a day, seven days a week to anyone in need.” Meals are now served in the new Mac Street Cafe, located inside of the Life Revitalization Center on Monroe Street (formerly Macomber High School).
Besides meals, Cherry Street provides nearly 230 men and women with emergency housing nightly and partners with local churches and ministries to provide transitional housing as well. “It is our belief that hope starts with something as simple as a meal. We leverage every seat in our dining facility to provide a message of hope for our guests. If a person has a mind to get better, we can help them.”
Successes and Setbacks
According to survey analysis, since 2012 the number of homeless in the Toledo area has decreased, from almost 1000 in 2012 to 599 in the most recent survey. This tracks with national trends. In 2010, the Department of Veterans Affairs announced a comprehensive plan to eliminate Veteran homelessness. According to national surveys, Veteran homelessness dropped 17 percent last year alone. In collaboration with the VA, two states (Connecticut and Delaware) have ended Veteran homelessness.
The TLCHB also tracks homeless people whom they serve, reporting 3,223 clients served throughout 2016. “In both reports,” states Mike Badik, Executive Director of the TLCHB, “we have seen a decrease in the homeless population. However, it is important to note that most of those who are homeless in our area are actually sheltered, rather than on the street. And sheltered doesn’t mean housed permanently. Although being sheltered is a better condition, it is not a good condition. Studies have shown that a person with housing even without other social services, show great improvement in physical and mental health.”
Despite a significant drop in the “chronic” homeless population, there has been a steady increase over the last 3 years in the homeless population who suffer from substance abuse or serious mental illness, bucking the overall downward trend.
“Homelessness is an outcome of poverty,” states Lambdin. “It is simply poverty without an address.” He explain, “Poverty isn’t as simple as running out of money. When individuals begin to isolate themselves from constructive and connective relationships, this becomes a prime mover in the homelessness cycle.”
According to the State of Ohio Development Services Agency 2017 report, poverty is on the rise in our community. Lucas county is one of 12 counties in the state to have greater than 20 percent of its population living in poverty. The numbers for the City of Toledo are more staggering. The percentage of Toledoans living below the poverty line have increased from 18% to 28% in the last decade.
“We may not see homelessness everyday,” claims Lambdin. “But we do see poverty everyday. Poverty is at the core of individual instability, from food assurance, employment, housing, and most importantly, connection to the community. When an individual cannot stabilize these basic things, they disconnect and become candidates for homelessness.”
Badik sees deep issues with homelessness as well. “There is tremendous loss of human capital when someone is homeless. We lose these individuals from our community as workers, volunteers, and most importantly neighbors. In addition, the simple act of moving someone from homeless or sheltered into a permanent living arrangement reduces our community cost for providing services like physical and mental health assistance along with a reduction in the cost to the criminal justice system. Permanent and secure housing is fundamental to restoring these individuals to our community.”
The solution is to deal with immediate concerns, like food and shelter, then work on larger issues surrounding poverty. According to Lambdin, to truly end homelessness requires a broad front of education, professional counseling, mental health services, addiction recovery, and relationship restoration.
“We start with meals and perhaps a bed,” states Lambdin. “Our facility is an open, welcoming place where an individual or family can come and eat with others. It is the beginning of a connection to another human, which is vital to the healing process.”
Lambdin also feels the weight of the broader issues. “We seek out best in class people to help us with the homeless problem. Homelessness is driven by poverty and poverty isn’t decreasing. The best way to decrease the homeless population is to recognize its cause. By working together as a community to break the cycle of poverty and provide food assurance, employment, housing, and above all, community connection, we arrest poverty. We stop homelessness before it even starts.”