From the homeless camps hidden in the center of Columbus, Ken Andrews offers hope and a helping hand

On a cool, overcast day in late May, Ken Andrews is eyeing the woods lining a section of the Olentangy bike trail not far from Downtown. He walks along the path for a few feet, peers into the trees, shakes his head and moves on.

Jacquelyn White, a nurse practitioner for Mount Carmel Health System's outreach program, and Steve Roth, a Columbus firefighter and paramedic who works a part-time job as driver and medic for Mount Carmel, wait patiently nearby. Andrews, an Eagle Scout, is the kind of guy who always seems to know the way, so it's unusual to see him stymied. Finally, he spies a break in the woods that suits him and we plunge into the greenery after him. The order is important: Andrews always goes first. We walk down a path as the fluffy seeds of cottonwood drift around us and blanket the trail. "Mount Carmel Street Med!" Andrews yells. "Anybody here? Mount Carmel Street Med!"

Suddenly, the path opens up and we're in a large clearing filled with tents, piles of bricks, piles of small green propane cylinders, clumps of empty two-liter soda bottles and, incongruously, lots and lots of bikes. A cat and kitten roam nearby, and a chained dog observes us warily. Trip lines hung with bells, a low-cost alarm system, guard the encampment, one of the largest homeless camps in Columbus. By my estimate, we're a 15-minute walk from City Hall.

Slowly, people emerge from tents. A young couple in their twenties. An older man who doesn't say much. And Shawanda Roberts, an effusive 18-year-old wearing a Cookie Monster shirt and dark pants who explains she isn't wanted by her parents or a foster family she grew up with, and is in the camp with no place else to go. She's friendly, gregarious, emotional, hurting, a young woman who wouldn't be out of place in any high school or suburban mall.

"It's hard to see myself in the woods," she says. "But you've got to do what you've got to do." At one point, explaining to Andrews how she ended up homeless, she starts to cry. He hugs her and tells her they're going to do everything they can to find her someplace to live.

But later, out of earshot, Andrews has something else to say.

"As Columbus, Ohio," he sighs, "we can do better than this."

At 62, Andrews is one of the city's best-known and longest-serving practitioners of an outreach effort known as street medicine-street med for short-a combination of direct service to people living in homeless camps around Columbus and the delivery of medical treatment through mobile clinics in some of the capital's neediest neighborhoods. It's a kind of guerrilla aid for those on society's edge, a form of extreme charity that exposes corners of poverty most of us rarely encounter.

The camps, often along the river or on wooded property owned by railroad companies or utilities, are nearly invisible, especially in the summer. Some are so secluded that only experts like Andrews know where they are and how to reach them. Others hide within a few dozen feet of popular exercise trails.

Mount Carmel's homeless outreach dates to 1985 when a nun began visiting the Open Shelter, then on State Street in Franklinton, followed later by nurses who did health screenings and blood-pressure checks. About 15 years ago the system purchased its first mobile coach, a small urgent-care facility on wheels that began providing free care to people on the streets. Today, Mount Carmel street med teams visit camps on the first Wednesday of the month and the remaining Tuesdays, and spend the rest of the week with the mobile coach parked in places like a Stelzer Road trailer park, the Bishop Griffin Center on East Livingston Avenue and Holy Family Soup Kitchen on Grubb Street in Franklinton.

The most common ailments the teams treat are high blood pressure and respiratory problems, such as asthma and bronchitis, along with infected cuts, abscesses and lots and lots of rashes. They bring along a portable blood-pressure machine, a stethoscope, a glucometer to check blood-sugar levels, a thermometer and an otoscope, used to check ears. They carry bandages and other supplies to care for wounds, medications for blood pressure and diabetes, as well as antibiotic ointments, oral antibiotics, inhalers and anti-fungal cream. The team will also write prescriptions for medications they don't have.

"We offer them hope," said Dr. Jack O'Handley, the outreach team's medical director. "Try to get them into housing. Let them know somebody cares for them."

There's nothing typical about the homeless you meet in the camps. They each have different stories and different reasons they're living in the woods, a reminder of the fragility of the safety net we all take for granted. As Andrews likes to say, "Some folks make these choices. Other folks have these choices made for them." But once encamped, they tend to have similar problems associated with living on life's periphery.

At the first camp we visit in May, I meet Bobbie Jo Young, a plain-spoken 58-year-old who's sharing a tent with her son, John Young, 37, until they can get back on their feet and, they hope, regain custody of John's two children.

Bobbie Jo sits on a giant wooden industrial spool while White, the nurse practitioner, takes her blood pressure with a portable cuff. Bobbie Jo tells a story that by day's end will sound all too familiar: She grew up in Hocking County, had a house but lost it, stayed with relatives for a while but eventually had to leave, and ended up on the streets, living for a time in Florida, and then back in Columbus. Three months in a women's shelter convinced her life on the land was safer. Bobbie Jo spends a lot of her days getting yelled at by people trying to move her on. "They think that you're not human," she says, matter-of-factly.

One of the first things Bobbie Jo did when she arrived at the camp was clean it up, filling dozens of plastic garbage bags that Andrews secured for her. "I am so proud of you for doing that," Andrews tells her, an expression of support I hear again and again from him that day and others.

A few days later I got an email from John Young-he checks his account, "deathscythe19," at the library-asking when the story might run. I emailed him back to ask what he thought of Andrews. He wrote, "He has done a lot more to help us than a lot of these other places have." Andrews, he said, has gained people's trust and shown more motivation in finding them a place to live than others, "and has been a lot kinder as well."

Last year, the city's emergency shelter system served more than 8,300 homeless men, women and children, including a 16-percent spike in the number of families, according to the Community Shelter Board, which coordinates the emergency housing programs. About one in 10 is a veteran. A decade ago it was rare to see women in the camps; today they're a common sight. The majority of single-adult-women households and family households who seek shelter are new to the homeless system, according to the shelter board, meaning most haven't sought such services in the past decade.

"I've never been homeless," said 37-year-old Theresa Branson, sitting in a tent in a camp north of West Broad Street with her husband. "I've never had any problems." But that was before she lost a place to stay and moved into the woods to allow her grown daughter and grandchild to remain in their own place.

About 1,400 people around the city were counted as not having permanent housing, according to a one-day annual count in January taken by the shelter board as a requirement to obtain federal funds. That included about 180 people deemed "unsheltered," individuals living under bridges, along railroad tracks, on Downtown streets, or in tents or shanties along riverbanks. The shelter board's priority remains moving people off the land and out of shelters and into permanent housing, and it says the rates of people who return to the streets or shelter after placement is relatively low.

Michelle Heritage, the board's executive director, is unequivocal when she says the agency's goal is ending homelessness, not managing it. But in the street-medicine world, even among those who agree with her, there's an understanding that people's immediate needs must also be met.

"What are you going to do?" said Paul Coleman, president and CEO of Maryhaven, which works to move people with substance abuse problems out of homelessness. "There are sick people in the woods."

Andrews grew up in Gahanna, the second oldest of six kids, his mother a homemaker, his father a salesman for F.O. Schoedinger, a Downtown roofing company. He sang in the choir, performed in school plays and was active in scouts-his father was a troop leader.

After high school, he enlisted in the Navy, thinking that would keep him far from action in Vietnam. Instead, he ended up ferrying supplies on Chinook helicopters from the Binh Thuy Air Base to small Army-Navy bases up and down the Mekong Delta, taking occasional night fire along the way. He finished out his four-year enlistment at Quonset Point, Rhode Island, in 1972, then entered the University of Rhode Island. He studied theater but became so active in the anti-war movement that he never graduated, a fact he still regrets.

When he returned to Columbus, Andrews went to work for Apollo Management, a realty company that specialized in renting and managing apartments for Ohio State students. Then, as now, the off-campus blocks along High Street attracted the homeless and needy, drawn by the largesse of students whose excess food and trash often fill Dumpsters.

It was in one of those bins, in the late 1980s, where Andrews encountered a homeless man assembling a sandwich from discarded food. Andrews told him he had to get out, and then noticed the man was wearing a jacket with U.S. Army insignia. He told the man he didn't appreciate him wearing that jacket. The man asked him why, and Andrews explained that he'd served with that unit in his Vietnam days. "The epiphany at that point," Andrews recalled, "was he turned around and he goes, 'Well, I served in that outfit too.' "

Andrews' job also took him to the Open Shelter, where he donated furniture that the realty company would have otherwise discarded. If Andrews' experience with the homeless vet was a catalyst for a career change, his relationship with the Open Shelter was a tipping point.

In 1994, after talking it over with his wife, Alison, Andrews made his decision, trading a job where parents wouldn't blink as they wrote checks for a couple of months' rent for an Open Shelter position coordinating housing for people who weren't sure where their next meal was coming from. Andrews was hired strictly for his real-estate skills, said Kent Beittel, executive director at the Open Shelter, which now sprawls over several rooms it rents from St. John's Church on East Mound Street. But it soon became clear that Andrews' personality-Beittel calls him a "relaxed communicator"-was the perfect bridge between the homeless and the landlords the Open Shelter worked with.

Soon Andrews was going into the camps as the shelter's outreach coordinator, a position he held for the next decade as he became the go-to person for information about how the homeless really lived. As he told the Columbus Dispatch in 2004, referring to the proliferation of camps, "You read about this happening in biblical times, but you never expect it to be going on today." He pondered retirement a couple of years ago when the federal grant funding his position dried up, but instead took a similar job with Mount Carmel. Today, he's usually in the camps Monday through Thursday either with Mount Carmel or its street medicine partners-such as Maryhaven or Southeast Inc., a mental health services provider.

It's hard to say which of Andrews' experiences best suits him for the work he does, but it's clear that if you set about creating a homeless advocate in a mad scientist's laboratory, the combination of aspiring actor, Eagle Scout, Vietnam vet turned anti-war activist and student apartment manager would be a good start.

"High energy, genuine empathy, a positive can-do mentality, and a refusal to give up on people made him a favorite with those down on their luck," said Mary Howard, an Ohio Wesleyan University anthropology professor who has worked with Andrews for years and produced a 2008 documentary, Swept Out, about Andrews and residents of the Columbus camps.

You only have to spend about five minutes with Andrews to see why he's good at what he does. He's got a gift for gab and a sense of humor-think of a milder Don Rickles-that are immediately disarming, traits you appreciate upon entering a camp where one longtime denizen with a history of mental-health problems and run-ins with police habitually carries a machete. "We're going to have to call a canoe livery for you," Andrews jokes to a man he meets one day at the Holy Family soup kitchen, referring to the size of the man's feet.

Andrews' Mount Carmel badge says "Outreach Advocate," which in his case is a little like calling Indiana Jones an "archaeologist." During a full morning of visits to four separate camps Andrews is always the first one in, skirting the edge of the woods looking for the opening-in good Vietnam vet fashion, he dubs it a "spider hole"-before plunging in and announcing the team's presence: "Mount Carmel Med is in the camp!" It soon occurs to me there's more to his method than just alerting residents to the presence of strangers in their midst. If someone isn't happy about Mount Carmel's arrival, the first person they're going to take it out on is Andrews.

Various groups around Columbus have been practicing versions of homeless street medicine for years, but recently there's been an attempt to better coordinate the efforts. The idea is to prevent duplication of services-why should four separate agencies help the same person obtain a state ID, for example-and wasteful overlap.

"There's recognition that all of these people come across many of the same people repeatedly," said Amy Price, the shelter board's director of programs and planning. "How is it that we can go out and address their needs?"

Using city dollars, the shelter board provides $227,000 for the Maryhaven Collaborative Outreach Team to help coordinate the various efforts. Earlier this year, a voluntary memorandum of understanding, facilitated by the Maryhaven team, was signed by agencies including Mount Carmel, Southeast Inc., Capital Crossroads, the Veterans Administration and Star House, a Campus-area organization that works with homeless teens. A secondary partnership agreement tries to coordinate the efforts of various churches that also work in the camps: Vineyard Columbus on Cooper Road, for instance, sends volunteers into the camps on Wednesday and Saturday evenings with hot meals and blankets.

This kind of coordination is crucial to allow the official groups to do their work, said Erika Jones, the city's homeless advocate, adding that visiting the camps is the "service du jour." It's also a basic safety measure: A couple of summers ago, a well-intentioned church volunteer was killed by a train south of Downtown as he visited homeless camps alone.

The last encampment the Mount Carmel team stops by on our May excursion is tucked far back in the woods several miles south of Downtown, populated by several young men, one just 19. "It's like Lord of the Flies," Andrews says dryly, and indeed there's something unsettling about the men barely out of high school who look upon their situation as a kind of lark in the woods, despite the fact that they have no jobs, no place to live and no family willing to take them in. They spend a chunk of our visit doing the same thing other men their age do-wrestling, flexing their muscles, eating, showing off their round-house kicks-except they're doing it a few feet away from tents they call home.

"I see it as camping," 19-year-old Malikki Bennett tells me. "A temporary thing that happens day-to-day." Bennett's parents are split up, he doesn't get along with his father, and his mother lives out of state. He had to leave his grandparents' house on the South Side because they were already housing his aunt and her children.

Andrews and the team spend much of the visit checking on Eric, a 47-year-old former Army Ranger who runs the camp and keeps the young men in check. Eric-he didn't want his last name used-moves slowly and walks with a cane thanks to a multitude of ailments, including aches and pains from a fight he was in recently. Andrews cracks a joke about having to sell Eric for body parts, but his concern for the hobbled fellow veteran is clear.

That's the thing you notice about Andrews, and in fact, about everyone who works in the camps: the enthusiasm for the job. Andrews likes to talk about what he does and the people he serves and above all his respect for the work Mount Carmel carries out. He's self-effacing, but not with the false modesty one senses sometimes in other do-gooders. He knows he made an unusual choice in life, a professional left turn in his mid-forties, and he's darn proud of it.

"I come home and I feel like I did something," Andrews says. "I didn't just sell real estate. I tried to make a difference in their lives."

Andrew Welsh-Huggins is a legal affairs reporter for the Associated Press in Columbus.