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Akron, Youngstown Prepare For Their Homeless Counts Amidst Debate Over Criminalizing Homelessness

Tonight, Ohio cities will be conducting their annual count to determine how many homeless people are out there. It’s the first count since Akron and Youngstown each considered legislation aimed at reducing panhandling. Opponents said they were actually thinly veiled attempts at criminalizing homelessness. WKSU’s Kabir Bhatia reports on where each city is at today in helping its homeless population.

Skip Barone is a popular guy at Our Community Kitchen in Youngstown. He’s a retired salesman who started volunteering at soup kitchens more than a decade ago. Now, he runs a cafeteria-like space near downtown, which serves hundreds of breakfasts and lunches – for free – every day.

“Today, they get a Philly steak sandwich, salad, green beans and some chips. And we give ‘em dessert.”

Youngstown officials point with pride to the operation, which opened last year just as City Council was considering a bill to curb loitering. Opponents said the bill would actually criminalize homelessness. Mayor John McNally says that was never the intention.

“When this was all going on, my police chief and I had walked two blocks away over to the lower end of a local parking lot and there’s a sort of shaded area. There was 12 people just sort of hanging out one day in the middle of the afternoon: beer cans around, probably smoking cigarettes; smoking marijuana. We told them, ‘Look you can’t just hang out; you need to keep moving along.’”

Those problems have died down since last year, when Youngstown City Council passed a less-stringent version of the law in the face of a warning from the ACLU that the loitering ordinance wouldn’t hold up in court. Cleveland State University Law Professor Joe Mead worked with the ACLU on the effort and says criminalizing homelessness isn’t effective.

“When we’ve studied the history of areas that have aggressively policed the homeless, and they find no reduction in the homeless population. All they have are huge bills, and a homeless population that doesn’t trust the government  and is wary of seeking services.”

Investing instead of arresting
Mead sees a national trend of investing in more services instead of arresting people – and that’s where Skip Barone and his new community kitchen in Youngstown come in.

“When we first started designing this, it was going to be a prototype for maybe other communities. We’re looking at maybe going into Trumbull County [and] Columbiana [County]. We designed a kitchen. We’ve designed a community room back there where have access to computers.”

Barone and Mayor McNally both say that Youngstown has achieved a kind of symbiosis between the number of homeless people and the amount of help that’s offered. The city did see an increase in the homeless population over the past five years, based on the “point-in-time” count that cities in Ohio do on the last Tuesday in January.

Short-time need
In Akron, the number of homeless people over the past five years is down.

“The system is definitely working," says  Keith Stahl with Akron-based Community Support Services.

“People are homeless for shorter periods of time and those that have been long-term homeless -- those numbers have dramatically reduced. And talking with the Haven of Rest, which is a great community partner, they’re seeing that.”

Haven of Rest is a privately funded mission, which Stahl acknowledges may not be for everyone due to its religious affiliation. There are other factors that make shelters of any kind a bad fit for some homeless people, such as those who are convicted sex offenders. But Stahl points out that offering them some housing might be a good idea.

“Would you rather know where that person is, you know, be able to access and give them services or would rather not know where they are?”

And there are some people who simply will not go into shelters because they prefer the outdoors. Paul Herman is one of those people. Until recently, he was living in a tent on Summit MetroParks land – land which is now being used for the park’s Freedom Trail. So earlier this month, he had to move, but he’s still not interested in a shelter.

“One of the things that we have is our freedom. It’s rather demeaning when you have to be such and such place at a certain time for whatever and you’re very restricted on your movement.”

Herman would like to see Akron set aside a plot of land for a sort of tent city. Akron officials had considered that a few years ago, but were concerned about safety and sanitation issues. Instead, the city has been adding shelter space in an effort to curb homelessness. But Helen Tomic, Akron’s planning manager, says there will always be people who prefer to stay out of shelters.

“They may not choose to use those beds, but we need to have beds available. But ultimately it is choice. We can offer them opportunities, we can offer them different housing options, but they have the choice of where they want to stay.”

Tomic says Akron is also looking at offering a jobs program for homeless people, something that hasn’t been offered in a decade. And she says the county’s Infoline – available at 2-1-1 – continues to be available to direct homeless people to the services they need, when they are ready for help.

Teams went out yesterday morning for the "point-in-time" count and finished up early this morning. Joe Scalise was leading some of those teams. He's with Access Services, which runs the city's InfoLine, and he says Akron's homeless population continues to decrease.

Joe Scalise on homeless count

"In 2014 when we did this count, we had 61 homeless veterans. It was the start-up of the Supportive Services for Veterans' Family program -- which is rapid re-housing for veterans to be able to get them out of the shelters and get them housed. Last year, in 2016, that number was seven homeless veterans."

Scalise says the rapid re-housing funds have been crucial to reducing homelessness. The money goes toward short-term programs that help people move from shelters into their own apartments, with city officials providing rental assistance and case management.

"Rapid re-housing programs are assistance programs that don’t really fit the model of what everybody believes about being on assistance for their lives. This is short-term assistance designed to get people out of the shelter, into their own apartment where they sign the lease. And then giving them case management and rental assistance that decreases as they become more self-sufficient."

Teams hit about two-dozen sites throughout Akron, some of which are offering meals to bring out homeless people for the count.

Kabir Bhatia is a senior reporter for Ideastream Public Media's arts & culture team.