After years of working to help the homeless at the Board of Life Mission in Barberton, Ohio, Marie Bruster never thought she could become homeless herself.
But when the Mission’s donation base declined, Bruster lost her job, and she was forced to live out of her car with her two children and their pet guinea pig.
“It was just so cold and I was like, I can’t deal with this anymore,” Bruster said. “I just wanted to end it.”
Bruster and her children, Brianna, 9, and Eric, 16, survived a week without a place to stay. When she saw a sign for the Center of Hope, a food service for low-income people based in Ravenna, she took a chance and decided to walk in. Immediately, volunteers greeted her and offered her food and coloring books for her children.
Within weeks, volunteers and staff helped Bruster stand back up. She got housing, a job placement, and found a community to belong to. Though her bout of homelessness was a dark and scary time for her, she said she’s grateful to have gone through it.
“I was spoiled when I was young, I never had any problems. And my husband, I never had to worry about — I went to work just long enough to mess up the income tax,” Bruster said. “I think I was getting a little too comfortable. I believe that God does things for a reason and I think he gave me a little touch of reality.”
Bruster said she is lucky, and her story isn’t the norm in Portage County. The U.S. Census reports that in 2016, 13.5 percent of residents lived in poverty, and the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing (see chart) estimates over 100 people are homeless in the cities of Kent and Ravenna alone.
Despite the amount of people needing housing, the only overnight family homeless shelter in the county, Miller Community House, has 22 beds. It’s a full house, often with up to 50 people on the waiting list.
“There isn’t a day where we are not at capacity,” Tracie Larlham, the house’s Director of Housing said. “We can house 22 individuals, including children and seniors. . . There isn’t single day where we have less than that.”
And while Ohio’s department of Housing and Urban Development does provide annual funding for certain organizations in Portage, Cleveland Field Office Director Pam Ashby said volunteers are the most effective resource. Anne Marie Nicole, former director of emergency services for the Center of Hope, said she’s working to start a new organization called The Haven of Portage County to provide more beds and resources for the homeless, the lack of which she attributes to lack of funding and facilities.“Volunteerism has been very big and very much needed,” she said. “Have a desire to help and have a desire to be knowledgeable about the homeless situation, and not turn a blind eye to our homeless neighbors. Provide what you can.”
“There really is a housing crisis,” she said. “Even when I was at the Center of Hope, people would come in with no place to go. We couldn’t refer them to the Miller House because the Miller House was full.”
The Haven, which will be staffed by members of Portage Community Chapel and other religious partners, is slated to open in October. The Haven will house up to 62 people in its building located at the border of Kent and Ravenna on East Main Street, nearly triple the amount of beds currently available in Portage County.
“Seeing how many homeless people are out there, and women and children that have been trafficked, I thought, ‘Well, maybe I can make a difference,” Nicole said.
Karen Leah Clegg, who became homeless 20 years ago after getting caught on a drug run, said she would have loved to have a resource like The Haven when she was struggling to survive.
“When my son was 5, I took him on a drug run,” Clegg said, recalling that day. “Inexcusably took him on a drug run. And I got caught. He went to live with his grandma, thank god.”
From there, Clegg moved from couch to couch, to spending four months living in a cemetery, to residing in an abandoned home with no heat and no water. Clegg had to learn to fight for her life with the only resources she had.
“Frozen toothpaste, frozen dog water, ice on the walls,” she said. “I was alone a lot. When you’re alone a lot, you do a lot of soul searching. And actually, I needed that. I needed to be alone and to say, ‘hey, what are you doing? Something’s gotta give here.’”
Clegg entered herself into rehab and got clean, but she still needed food and shelter. She went to Caritas Cafe and Catholic Charities, a meal and housing resource for the homeless, in Ravenna for breakfast, then had lunch at the Center of Hope. Now, she has her own apartment and spends her days giving back to the community by volunteering at the Cafe, the Center, and helping Nicole get things started with The Haven.
One thing that Clegg, Bruster and Nicole can all agree on is there are more homeless people needing services than shown by the CoHH. This number only accounts for people on the streets and in shelters, not those who are “couchsurfing,” staying a few nights here and there at friends’ houses.
“Everyone wants to complain about the homeless, but they don’t want to give to (them),” Clegg said. “Just because they don’t have anything doesn’t mean they’re nothing.”
The homeless population in Portage County is under-reported and under-served. Estimated at over 100 homeless with the county’s only overnight shelter at 22 beds, it’s a housing crisis. Stay tuned for more at https://t.co/cb4s6M8AzL #JMCRPP
— Emma Keating (@Emma_M_Keating) February 15, 2018
Is Portage County doing enough to stop the homeless problem? Shelter employees and recovered homeless of Portage County share their stories. #JMCRPP
-Steven Geer (@StevenEGeer) February 15, 2018
It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood. pic.twitter.com/V56i2twWAh
— WKYC Channel 3 News (@wkyc) February 19, 2018
Emma: map, infographic, interviews of Clegg, Nicole, Bruster and Ashby, written story, links and research
Steven: News Package, Interview with both the Freedom House and Miller House, Pit count research