One Ohio town’s new approach to homelessness: coexistence
Coffee Amici has been a fixture of Findlay’s main street for more than two decades. And, throughout that time, owners John and Lynne Calvelage said they’ve become used to homeless people coming through their doors, looking for more than just the coffee they serve.
Those visits have increased in the last couple of years, Lynne said. And the shop works hard to be welcoming.
“It's part of the reason why we're here,” Lynne said. “If you can't get hot water and soap, you can here.”
But, Lynne said they have a lot to clean up after some of those visits. They sometimes find syringes in their bathroom. And there have been times when they find people asleep on their doorstep.
“We try to be as accommodating as we can, but we can't be a daytime homeless shelter. So there are limits,” John said.
The number of unhoused people in Findlay is growing. Housing advocates say the pandemic and a shortage of affordable housing has led more people to live on the streets. And as the homeless population in the city grows, more businesses like Coffee Amici are grappling with those limits.
So, the small northwest Ohio city is preparing its downtown business to coexist with unhoused people.
The number of homeless people is increasing, but there are also fewer places for them to go. City public safety director Rob Martin said, within the last year or so, the town has torn down multiple unsafe abandoned buildings. All of which once served as homeless encampments.
And though Martin said the demolitions were necessary, it’s made the town’s housing issues impossible to ignore.
“We were essentially moving the problem or moving the population, if you will,” he said. “The people that were underneath the MLK Bridge or in the train depot. Next thing you know they're against the building, their bags of their belongings lying next to them, as people are driving in and out of downtown in the morning.”
And as the number of people on the street grew, so did concerns in the local community.
The police department, and Martin himself, were bombarded with calls. Most of them came from people working in or patronizing downtown business.
“When people usually call me they start out by saying, ‘I'm a good Christian person, but,’” he said. “The reality is, I think, people want to help, they don't know how to help.”
A new response
Many business owners don’t know what to do, for instance, when an unhoused person is having hallucinations at their business, or blocking the front entrance to a store, Martin said. So, the city is creating a new resource for those downtown businesses: a number to call in these situations that’s not 9-1-1.
“It's not against the law to be homeless, and nor should it ever be,” said Kathryn Bausman, director of the City Mission, Findlay’s homeless shelter.
Many times, people who are homeless are also struggling with severe mental illness, Bausman said. And even just the sight of a police uniform can create more tension.
So, instead, dispatchers will send a team of peer support specialists to the scene. The response team will be entirely made up of people who have experienced homelessness before, or are recovering from addiction or mental health issues.
“When people usually call me they start out by saying, ‘I'm a good Christian person, but...The reality is, I think, people want to help, they don't know how to help.”Rob Martin, Findlay public service-safety director
“So there's going to be a lot less of that ‘us and them’ in these conversations, which is what we want,” Bausman said.
The city is advertising the new hotline with a flyer campaign. It includes the number, plus training sessions on the homeless experience and best practices on how to interact with unhoused people.
The city plans to launch the hotline in the next couple months. Coffee Amici owner Lynne Calvelage is looking forward to participating in the program, but, at the same, she’s skeptical of how many others will do the same.
“They can't even get enough employees. So you want to talk about homelessness with them? That's not on the top of your list [as a business owner],” Lynne said.
An ongoing issue
Like many cities in Ohio, Findlay has an affordable housing crisis. Around 99% of its housing is occupied, according to the Findlay Affordable Housing Alliance’s most recent data.
It’s impacted people like Dominic Jao, who has been staying at the City Mission for the last three months. Before that, he slept on friends' couches and on the street for a couple of nights. Now, he has a job at a local restaurant and is hoping he can save up money for his own apartment.
“But, rent is crazy high for apartments,” he said.
Still, Jao is staying in Findlay because he really likes the community. He said it does a good job at taking care of its people. Bausman said regardless of whether someone is in a home, in a shelter or on the street, they are an important part of the town. And, she said, those who end up on the street should be seen as more than just an obstacle to doing business.
“The reality is they are part of our community, and they are part of us,” she said.
Bausman says affordable housing alone will not solve the homelessness crisis. And it won't be fixed overnight. So preparing businesses to handle it – and handle it compassionately – is the best they can do in the meantime.