ASHTABULA, Ohio — We see it so often here — panhandlers on the freeways, homeless camps in the dead of winter.
There are often two reactions to it — your heart hurts, seeing someone struggle like that. Or sometimes you wonder, "why can’t they just get a job like the rest of us?"
The last time there was a count of the homeless here in Ohio was prepandemic, on a day in January 2020 — 10,655 people without a place to live.
COVID-19, we know, has only exacerbated the need.
For David Scott, a winding path led him to live in an abandoned home — a busy street, peeling paint, bullet holes in broken windows.
“Didn’t nobody know about it. I creep around, while everybody was sleeping,” Scott said.
What you can see inside makes your skin crawl.
Scott isn't alone in living like that.
There are two sides to Ashtabula County. The largest in Ohio by size, but less than 100,000 people call this place home. And then, there are those without. Homelessness in Ashtabula County isn’t what you see in big, crowded cities. It’s more subdued. The people, less visible, found hidden in places not meant for human habitation.
“Abandoned buildings, in the woods, park benches, sometimes automobiles,” said Steve Sargent.
Sargent has dedicated his life to helping.
More than thirty years as the executive director at Samaritan House — the county’s one and only emergency homeless shelter.
Homelessness, he says, has changed.
“It’s more chronic and the problems are so compounded,” Sargent explained. “It’s not just one thing, like 'I lost my job.' Yeah, you lost your job because of this and this and this and COVID just made the cup overflow.”
Drug addiction, mental illness, the devils that lurk behind not being able to keep a roof over your head, keep a job to go back to.
“But I want to get help,” Scott said. “I want to better my life and if i can do it, other people in Ashtabula can do it.”
Franklin Frye got knocked off his feet when COVID hit — stuck in the Philippines for 14 months when the borders closed. His life, his finances, his home, all gone by the time he returned. He used to be a chemical waste specialist. Now, at 66 years old, all his belongings fit in this tiny shared room at the shelter.
“An adventure every day, an adventure,” Frye said.
Homeless people often hear others say things like get a job, you're lazy.
“But, if you have other issues that serve as a barrier to you just going to work everyday getting a job is nearly impossible,” Sargent said. “And they may hire you because people are desperate, but you won’t last.”
“OK, well when that person goes for a job, what are they putting on their application for a home? How are they going to be contacted to come into work?” said Jim Timonere.
Timonere is Ashtabula born and bred — and proud of it. City manager for the last decade.
As homelessness becomes more apparent in his city, he says he sees two opposing forces on how to deal with it.
“Some of it very good advice, like ‘how can we help, how can we provide shelter, how can we provide meals’ to the other extreme of, ‘you shouldn’t be feeding people, you should take all the benches out of the parks, shut off electricity everywhere, don’t provide bathrooms,'” Timonere said.
He believes the answer lies somewhere in the middle — the city partnering with nonprofits like the Samaritan House and Catholic Charities, creating a task force.
“We do strongly believe we have enough resources and enough help that if somebody does not want to be homeless, they do not have to be homeless. We can provide,” Timonere said.
As the trees go bare, we know what comes next.
Winter in Ohio. Brutal and biting.
“This is most definitely not for me. I’m standing here, freezing. I’m cold,” Scott said, standing in front of a vacant, dilapidated home. “If I would have stayed in there this winter? I would have froze to death in there.”
Now, Scott has a safe and warm place to lay his head — a room at the Samaritan House.
Frye has been at the shelter for five months and is waiting for his next, more permanent, move.
Sargent keeps moving forward, helping as many people as he can.
“I’ll tell you what keeps me coming back is those people that you help. The success stories you see. The ones you know you made a difference in their life,” Sargent said.
The ones, like Frye and Scott, who are choosing a different path.
"Cause, I got tired of going in that circle, circle, circle. Come on now. The circle’s gotta break. The glass has gotta shatter. The sun has gotta shine,” Scott said.