News: Looking for Hard Luck

Advocates know where and how to find the homeless

May 3, 2006 at 2:06 pm
Matt Borgerding

For some, home is wherever you place your bag of belongings.

At 4:30 a.m. April 27 the only sounds in the brush near I-71's Reading Road exit are birds testing morning voices, the occasional rumble of passing traffic and cries of "Hello? Anybody home? Outreach. Hungry? We have coffee."

Each of the four homeless outreach groups that spread out from the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless at 4 a.m. went armed with carafes of coffee, Styrofoam cups, breakfast bars, cheese crackers and $5 gift certificates to Kentucky Fried Chicken. They're useful aids for conducting this quarterly count of the people who are sleeping on Cincinnati's streets or under its bridges or in the greenery beside its interstates. Team Green-East is nosing around I-71.

"There's usually paths you can see, and that's how you find them," says Georgine Getty, executive director of the Homeless Coalition.

She and Brad Roberts, an outreach worker for Greater Cincinnati Behavior Health Services, push back the spring growth to show barely discernable muddied paths. Flanking them are Lighthouse Youth Services' Heather Burton and Jennifer Keane. But there are no answers to their calls and no sleeping bodies.

"They might not be asleep yet," Getty says as the small exploring party shines flashlights up steep concrete grades to barely illuminate the ledges just beneath a bridge.

Rejecting bedtime
Especially on a night like this, when it's unseasonably cold at 30-some degrees, those who sleep outside might choose to simply keep moving around, Getty says. That's where the phrase "three dog night" comes from: some nights it takes three canine companions to keep warm.

At first there's no stirring in any of the handful of abandoned sleeping bags.

"That one looks like someone had just gotten up and gone around the corner," Getty says, sweeping a camp with her light. "People leave bedding and stuff, but usually not bags."

Later one of the piles of bedding moves, and the group carefully steps up the incline to a ledge where Ricky Woods has roused himself upright. There's a body-shaped lump in a second sleeping bag behind him and the acrid smell of urine.

"We're outreach workers," Roberts says.

"What time is it?" Woods asks.

It's 5:45 a.m., Roberts says.

"Oh good," Woods says without sarcasm. He hopes to get to one of the local temp services in time for a day labor gig.

Woods accepts a cup of coffee and agrees to answer Getty's survey questions. He's been homeless for about four months now, his second stint on the streets in the past three years. He's 40.

"Would you rather have your own place or stay on the street?" Getty asks.

His own place, Woods says quickly. Getty grants that it was a stupid question, gives him one of her menthol cigarettes and lights up another for herself.

Woods says he doesn't stay at a nearby homeless shelter, the Drop Inn Center, because overnight guests are required to have resident cards and set up bank accounts. Roberts says they got rid of the former requirement and that the latter is only a recommendation.

Woods survives mostly off the $500 a month he receives from Social Security because of a learning disability. When Roberts hands him a couple $5 KFC certificates, the shape behind him rustles and a voice from the bag says, "Y'all are so good, man. Thank you so much, man."

Eric answers the survey questions from his prone position. He is 44 years old and it's also his second stay on the streets in the past three years, this time for six months and counting. He attributes his homelessness to alcohol, bipolar illness and paranoid schizophrenia. He doesn't like the Drop Inn Center because residents must be in bed by 10 p.m., which Roberts doesn't dispute.

As the team take its leave, Eric calls, "God bless you."

Woods walks with them down across the interstate.

"Thank you all very much," he says before splitting off.

"I'm serious, if anyone ever breaks into my house and starts asking me questions about my mental health at 5 in the morning, I'm not going to be that nice," Getty says. "Even if they have coffee and crackers."

Sweeping them away
They find more abandoned camps: clothes on hangers bent into a chain-link fence, a bicycle, a broom, a Bible, two pairs of work shoes, bottles of water and large, empty cans of beer. A man and his female companion camping under the I-471 bridge don't care to talk, so the team counts them with two tally marks and moves on.

It's another hour before they find another occupied camp, accessible only by a well-hidden crawl space. Hung rugs form walls for a semi-permanent cabin. There are lawn and desk chairs, a mop, a strange found-sculpture of three bikes and about a dozen tires, two large cardboard boxes filled to the brim with indiscernible debris and a couple loose piles of trash.

There's also a model sailboat: apparently one of this camp's residents is a pack-rat. The tent's inhabitants wake just long enough to peer beyond a flap of rug and tell outreach workers they could use more trash bags.

All together, the four outreach teams searched Over-the-Rhine, the central business district, the Ohio River bank and some spots on the West side. Team members counted 49 people and completed surveys for 20 of them, according to John Lavelle, civil rights advocate for the Homeless Coalition.

The sweep was designed to be a qualitative rather than a quantitative census, Lavelle says. They want to know how people on the streets are living, why they're homeless and why they're not taking advantage of shelters.

Anecdotal evidence from the survey points to homelessness often created by the loss of a job and the exhaustion of savings and their family and friends' hospitality, he says.

"They have no substance abuse issues, no mental illness, none of the 'typical' factors that often push many individuals into homelessness," Lavelle wrote in a follow-up e-mail. "Their situations are seemingly the result of an economy that is getting worse and worse for low- to moderate-income people."

He notes that the 18 people found sleeping in the Washington Park area is down from the 30 whom outreach workers logged on a very cold January night in the last count.

"We know that the increased police presence in OTR has involved 'sweeping' individuals out of Washington Park and citing them for minor offenses such as open containers and littering," Lavelle says. "Everyone helping with the survey noted how sparse the numbers were."

Beyond crunching numbers and interpreting stories, the survey's real goal was to begin to forge relationships, Lavelle says. For example, Roberts will continue weekly outreach work from 1-9 p.m. Thursdays as part of the federal Project for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness (PATH).

On April 27 outreach workers took one man in for alcohol rehab assessment and referred to the Red Cross another man displaced by a fire. And perhaps Woods found the work he sought. ©