At Faith Mission's emergency shelters for homeless people, every imaginable space is being used to house one, two, three more people who might otherwise spend the night in the brutal elements of a Midwestern winter. Meet some of the people who call Faith Mission's shelters home, at least for the time being, and the people working to get them back on track.
In an old 3-story building tucked between a church and an empty storefront on Long Street Downtown, a woman, dressed comfortably in jeans and a loose sweater, her thick hair pulled into a tight ponytail, pushes a rolling mop bucket across the tile floor. She rests the back of her hand against her forehead as she waits for the large common room to empty of the women who had filled it, sitting around tables or lounging on couches set in front of a small TV. Her face is restful, but her eyes are worried. One by one, 40-some women file up a narrow stairway, some entering directly from the cold November air in puffy coats, stomping their feet to shake the chill. Sounds of idle chitchat and laughter grow fainter with the footsteps that carry the women upstairs. On the second floor, snug dormitory-style rooms contain bunk beds, small closets and cubbies to share. Suitcases are shoved under beds. Overstuffed bags, often filled with the owner's every belonging, are tucked into corners. The doors remain open as shelter employees count those who will stay overnight.
It's just before 8 p.m., curfew at Nancy's Place, a homeless shelter for women. The 24-hour emergency shelter, run by Faith Mission through Lutheran Social Services, is always at capacity. Year-round, the shelter houses 46 women, though that number increases in winter when they squeeze additional mattresses inside to accommodate more people. This year, they added six beds. If a resident doesn't show up to claim hers by curfew, it's given to another woman on a waiting list that's kept at adult homeless shelters throughout Columbus. There are always names on that list, which grows longer as the weather grows colder. Chores, like sweeping the floors and cleaning the kitchen, are divvied up among residents at Nancy's Place. Tonight, it's Shalanda Jones' turn to mop.
If this were a typical night just two weeks earlier, Jones wouldn't be mopping this floor. She'd be cleaning the apartment she shared with her husband and 12-year-old son in Clearwater, Florida. Mere days ago, she slept in a bed in her own room, where she hung her clothes in a closet. She cooked meals for her family in the kitchen. She could leave her makeup on the counter in her bathroom, beside her toothbrush and hairbrush. She had privacy. Now, on this cold near-winter night, Jones is homeless.
She's been in Columbus only nine days. She says she and her husband were enticed by an opportunity to make more money in a less expensive city. Her husband's uncle lives in Columbus and "knew a guy" who could get her husband a job in a warehouse that paid more than his factory job in Florida. The job, the uncle said, paid $16 an hour. So the couple used what little money they had saved up to buy one-way plane tickets to Columbus. They left their son with Jones' mother in Florida. They each brought a suitcase of clothes. Her husband would start his new job, and she'd find a job as a nurse's assistant like the one she had in Florida. They'd find an apartment, and then their son would join them.
A knock on the door just five days after they landed threw a wrench in that plan. A stranger delivered the news: The uncle had an outstanding warrant for his arrest and had been picked up by the police. He was headed to jail. His landlord let the couple stay the night but told them they needed to leave the next morning because they weren't on the lease.
"I felt like my stomach dropped down to the floor," Jones says, leaning against the mop. "We were basically thrown to the wolves. We're stuck here. No place to go, no return ticket."
A neighbor told them about Faith Mission, which also operates two men's shelters, two community kitchens and a free medical clinic Downtown. Her husband was placed in an open bed at one of the men's shelters, just a few blocks from Nancy's Place. Jones slept on a mattress on the floor the first night, but a bed opened up the second. It's hers for the next 30 days-longer, if she needs it.
This was reality for more than 12,000 adults and children in Franklin County last year: One night they had a bed to sleep in, a place to call home. The next, they were homeless, with no one to turn to and nowhere to go. For some, homelessness is a temporary setback. For others, it becomes an unbreakable cycle, the new normal. And the problem is worsening.
While national rates of family homelessness have been steadily decreasing since 2010, according to estimates the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development released last fall, the number of homeless families in Columbus has increased. The city's homeless shelters are a valuable stopgap, providing temporary emergency housing to those in need. Faith Mission has been providing shelter and food to homeless people since 1966, when three churchgoing men saw other men sleeping outside and invited them inside for soup and a place to sleep. Since then, the mission has grown to include three adult shelters and a kitchen that serves three meals a day, every day of the year-the only shelter in Franklin County with the resources to do so-to anyone, no questions asked. From the day they enter the shelter, residents work with caseworkers to find an apartment, land a job and get back on track.
With winter upon us, we wondered what life was like inside the old, brick buildings that serve as Faith Mission shelters, for both the homeless who depend on them to stay safe during the harshest months of the year and the employees who keep them running. We spent time inside these crowded, busy havens-in the quieter hours of morning, during meal times, before bed-and got to know the people inside. These are some of their stories.
As snow and ice coat sidewalks and benches and bitter winter wind whips through highway underpasses, the need for safe shelter heightens. Faith Mission responds by squeezing more beds into their shelters from mid-October through mid-April. "We don't get any more space," says executive director Sue Villilo. "It's about using the space we've got." They bunk more beds. They lay extra mattresses on the floor. "It's tight," she says. "By February, we're all a little tense. We're just ready for spring."
This winter, Faith Mission added a total of 76 beds. The women's shelter increased its beds from 46 to 52. The men's shelter on Sixth Street added 70 beds, increasing their count to 180. Another men's shelter, on Eighth Street, maintains 110 beds year-round. That means during the colder months, Faith Mission can shelter 342 people. Still, it's not enough.
"There's a certain pocket of folks who just don't make it in shelter for a whole variety of reasons. Often it has a lot to do with mental illness and just being paranoid and fearful," Villilo says. "Last year, we actually let people sleep in the lobby at night because it was so cold. The rules were: Nobody can hurt anybody."
Walking the half block from Nancy's Place to the Sixth Street men's shelter, Villilo greets everyone she sees. Most are men, huddled in a circle, smoking and schmoozing. Others are women headed back from lunch, which is served nearby in Faith Mission's main building on Grant Avenue. How are you? Did you get something to eat? Some she addresses by name. How did that job interview go? Did you shake that cold? They all seem to know who she is and have something to say. She listens intently and genuinely to everyone.
Inside, she bumps into Chuck, a middle-aged man in an oversized Ohio State jacket who's been living in the shelter for three months and counting-too long, he says. Today, he's particularly vexed. Yesterday, a man came by in a pickup, recruiting laborers to lay asphalt. A 12-hour day of backbreaking work should earn him at least $100, Chuck thought as he climbed into the truck bed.
"They gave me $30," he says as if he still can't believe it.
This type of scam is common, Villilo says. Faith Mission often works with employers to place men and women in jobs. If she or other staff members see unauthorized people on the property, trying to take advantage of residents, they ask them to leave. They can't stop them all, though.
"They're grown men," she says. "If they want to go work, we can't stop them. Sometimes $30 in your pocket is better than nothing."
Chuck and his caseworker have been trying to get him a steady job so he can find housing. But it's hard, he says, because of his history; he spent time in jail (he doesn't elaborate on the details). He won't be leaving Faith Mission anytime soon, though. His bum knee has finally demanded a replacement. Post-surgery, he'll be bedridden for as long as six weeks, out of work and probably still homeless.
"We say we're a 30-day program," Villilo says. "We want to have an average length of stay of about 30 days." But it's case by case. "For folks who might need a little more time based on the work they're doing, we can extend their stay beyond 30 days," she adds. In some cases-the best cases-people are in and out in no longer than a week.
As soon as someone is assigned a bed at Faith Mission, he or she is connected with a caseworker. The caseworkers, employed by a third party and referred to as navigators, guide clients through job and housing applications and help them access disability or Social Security benefits.
"They've gone through a lot to get here," Villilo says. "When they come in, we want the next thing on their mind to be, 'What do I need to do to move on?' " Staff members play an important role in keeping residents on track. They get to know them and ask about their pasts. They keep them motivated when they grow weary. They're a friendly face, someone to talk to after a rough day. They listen, and they care.
For shelter manager Henry Bryant Jr., providing a positive voice in a hole of negativity is the most important thing he and his staff members do.
"This is not the greatest situation to be in," says Bryant, who manages all three shelters. "So us as staff, we need to keep them motivated and boost them up."
After years of working in homeless shelters, more than a decade at Faith Mission alone, Bryant has learned homelessness doesn't discriminate. There are men and women who struggle with drugs and alcohol and go broke as a result. There are people whose houses burn down who must start from scratch. There are people who get laid off and can no longer afford their mortgage.
"There are a lot of different things that can put you in this situation, and it can be tough to get out," he says. "But we have people like myself, our staff that lift you up, bring you out of that funk. To say, 'You can do it. You're down right now, but you can come out of this.'"
When you're in the thick of it, it's hard to see the light on the other side. Once the pieces of Cheryl Bell's life began to fall like dominos, there was nothing she could do. Now, she spends her days at Nancy's Place-waiting.
"It's depressing," says Bell, her walking cane leaned against the chair where she sits. "I'm ready to give up."
She moved to the homeless shelter on Van Buren Drive in September after her house near Clintonville was repossessed. She grew up in the house, and later, she raised her disabled daughter there. It's where she cared for her sick father until he died in 2013. Soon after, she lost her job as a medical assistant at a nursing home and couldn't afford to pay the property taxes. All her belongings remain locked up in a home she can no longer enter.
Her daughter, who was born paralyzed from the waist down and has developmental disabilities, lives in a home for disabled adults. Now that Bell's father is gone, she has no family-at least none who will talk to her.
"They all turned their back on me when my daughter was born," Bell says. "They didn't like her father." Her daughter's father, Bell's now-late ex-husband, was abusive.
Since she had a small stroke a few months ago, she's had difficulty speaking and remembering and needs a cane to walk. She's not confident she'll be able to work again, and she still hasn't received the disability benefits for which she's applied. Until she can find a way to pay what she owes in property taxes-about $2,500, she estimates-she'll be living in the shelter.
She sums up her outlook in one word: "Helpless. It's really hard to stay positive."
It's not all bad, though, she points out. Some women in the shelter become friends, look out for one another. She goes to the kitchen three times a day for warm meals. And the coat she's wearing-a warm Eddie Bauer puffy coat-was given to her today after a church group donated a truckload of winter coats to Faith Mission.
"So there are good things that happen," she says.
During dinner one night, Lawrence Crummie buzzes around the cafeteria like a host at a party. He makes light conversation with other diners as they chow on pulled chicken sandwiches, green beans and macaroni and cheese. He clears tables, tossing used plates in the trash. He delivers doughnuts left over from breakfast, set out with dinner, to raised hands before volunteering for after-dinner cleanup. He's not one to stay idle.
Back at the shelter, 20 or 30 men congregate around a large TV playing an episode of "Family Feud." An energetic Faith Mission staff member riles them up, shouting her guesses and egging others to do the same. Hypothetical bets are made. Gloating ensues. This is her intention when she flips the TV set to the game show reruns each night. It's a way to engage them; they can forget their troubles for a while.
"I'm not a revolving door," Crummie says from a folding chair in the back of the room. "A lot of people in here are revolving doors. They're content with it. Me, I can't be content with this type of living environment."
Crummie has been at the men's shelter for about a week. He says he moved here from his hometown, Buffalo, New York, where he worked for the Buffalo Sabres hockey team for 13 years. After work one night, he returned to his one-bedroom apartment near downtown to find the building had caught fire. His third-floor unit was destroyed, and so were most of his belongings. But, more significantly, photos of friends and family. Certificates he had earned volunteering for a youth football team. His high school diploma. Pictures with Sabres players. "A lot of stuff that meant things to me, all that is gone," he says. "It hurts every day."
The Salvation Army could have put him in a hotel for a few days, "but then I'd still be in the same predicament." He decided to move to Columbus, where his grandmother lives, for a fresh start in a city with more opportunity than Buffalo, he says.
Though she offered room in her house, Crummie declined. His grandmother is retired and lives on a fixed income. He didn't want to be a burden, he says.
"In life, you have to make your own choices; you have to make your own decisions," he says. "I feel I can do things on my own instead of having to depend on other people."
Crummie's caseworker is helping him search for a job. He doesn't plan to be in the shelter long, he says. In the meantime, he's fighting to stay positive.
"A low point is the best point of your life," he says. "When you're down and out, you appreciate it when you get to the top. That way, you won't fall back down again. That's what I take it as. I keep my spirit up. No matter how I feel, my spirit is always high." He says this is his first experience with homelessness, and it has changed his perspective. While he used to plan six months down the road, he now takes life day by day. He doesn't take anything for granted.
"I just take it one step at a time," he says. "It'll be an experience that I treasure for the rest of my life. That's something you can share down the road with somebody."
Working in a homeless shelter is draining-emotionally and physically. The environment is hectic, and it can get tense. It requires a lot of effort for a little pay. Suffice it to say, the job requires a certain kind of person. And Delores Bland is just that kind of person.
A mother of eight who lost her husband when her youngest was only 4 years old, Bland has more patience in her pinky finger than most do in their entire body. On any given day, you'll find her managing the front desk at Nancy's Place while, all at once, the phone is ringing endlessly, someone is buzzing at the front door, a resident is begging for her assistance and she's trying to place another in an empty bed. Unfazed, she continues to talk in her calm, slow-as-molasses voice.
"It's amazing, isn't it?" Villilo says. "I multitask all day long, but I don't do it the way [staff members] have to do it. Everything they do is immediate. It's like, right now, 16 things."
Residents will tell you Bland has eyes in the back of her head. Judging by her ability to always know where everyone is and what they're up to, she just might. Her love of people has kept her working in social services her entire career. She's been with Faith Mission more than nine years with no plans to retire, though she's 72.
"You have to love people. If you don't, you ain't going to keep with it," she says without looking up from her paperwork. "Even on your hardest day, you still have to love them people."
Hours before the sun rises, while most people are still sound asleep, Charita Cash is in the kitchen at Faith Mission. She's been the cook supervisor for three years and is responsible for preparing breakfast and lunch for hundreds of people each day. (In total, Faith Mission serves an average of 750 meals a day.) Her day starts at 3 a.m.
Cash is Christian, so the first thing she does is read the Bible to draw inspiration for the day ahead. Then she takes a look at what's in the pantry and freezer. She'll check to see what's been donated since yesterday. Food donations come from schools, families, church groups and elsewhere. They're sporadic and varying, but they're always in abundance in the winter.
In fact, about 70 percent of the organization's annual donations-not only food but also clothes, hygiene products and other supplies-come in the months leading up to the holiday. "The trick is stretching it throughout the next year," Villilo says.
Cash develops menus on the fly. "It's just like opening your cabinets up and saying, 'What do I got?' You got to get creative." On really cold days, she tries to serve hot meals, like oatmeal and eggs for breakfast or beef stroganoff for lunch.
Women and families eat first, followed by men. Anyone can eat, no questions asked. The kitchen staff cooks until every mouth is fed.
"We don't run out of food. We get low, but we're not going to run out," Cash says. "I don't want them to be hungry. I'm going to do my best to keep something in here for them."
She knows what it's like to wonder where your next meal is coming from. Cash was homeless herself for a short time about 10 years ago, when she moved to Columbus from her hometown of Kansas City, Missouri. She doesn't share the details of her circumstances but says it was by choice, adding she "wasn't into drugs or anything like that, but God brought me out and I stayed out." She stayed at Nancy's Place before moving into an apartment of her own. Understanding the experience of those she serves gives her the strength to get to work early and stay late-up to 16 hours a day during the holidays.
"There's days I say, 'Oh, Lord, please, I'm too tired for this,' " Cash says. "But these guys have their own thing going on. If I can put a warm smile on their face, it makes me feel great."
Faith Mission is the only place Villilo has ever worked, she says, where everyone-both the staff and the people they serve-is working toward the exact same goal.
"Coming into work, there's this team all focused on getting people housed and stable and on with their own lives," she says. "We see 1,000 people a day here. To feel like that group plus 100 or so staff members are all working toward one goal, that's very rewarding."
That goal, and the goal of the other homeless shelters and prevention programs in Columbus, is to put homelessness in the pasts of the people they serve and to make a life of success and stability their new normal.