The Open Shelter Finds a New Home, Continues Mission Helping Homeless Central Ohioans
Nearly two years after the death of its charismatic founder, the resilient nonprofit finds a new home on the South Side.
Of all the discomforts and indignities that come with being homeless, or nearly so, walking around in rain-soaked pants sits high on the list for Rodney Hawkins. “There’s something about having your blue jeans get wet and heavy all the way through,” he says, not long after taking a warm, dry seat inside the Open Shelter. “It does not feel good.”
Hawkins waits out the rain on a recent spring morning inside the Open Shelter’s roomy new home, a 10,000-square-foot storefront along Parsons Avenue on the South Side. The move, after 15 years in a cramped second-floor space inside St. John’s Evangelical Protestant Church, is a big deal for the scrappy nonprofit. The Open Shelter has never before operated outside of the Downtown area. And only recently in its nearly 40-year history has someone been in charge not named Kent Beittel.
Beittel died at 72 on Oct. 16, 2020, three years after the passing of his wife, Mary. Together, they were the city’s best-known and perhaps most outspoken advocates for homeless individuals, battling public officials and business titans alike in their determination to serve the poorest of the poor.
Often as not, the Open Shelter was on the losing side of policy and funding decisions. It became homeless itself in 2004 when its city-owned building was razed to clear the way for development on the Scioto Peninsula. Beittel remained undeterred, as did many of those who continue to support the Open Shelter and its all-are-welcome philosophy.
“How many places have someone at the front desk who tells people ‘I love you’ and means it?” says Sheli Mathias, who took over for Beittel as director. “We have a deep faith here in what we do—what we’re willing to do—for our guests.”
A mother of three and a former teacher, Mathias, 54, started as a volunteer about seven years ago. “I raised my kids in a bubble in Pickerington, and I was in it with them,” she says. “When I stepped out, this all made sense.”
Mathias was humbled by the deep commitment and pastoral approach of the Beittels and the Open Shelter’s other longtime staff members, Solomon Dean and Harry Yeprem Jr. The men have been with the program for more than 20 years, through its transition from overnight shelter to advocacy center and day services provider for homeless and marginally housed people.
“Each of us was hand-picked by Kent for a certain purpose,” says Dean, the deputy director of day services. “Coming here without him was sorta emotional, sure. Memories. But like I told Miss Sheli, this is a new beginning for her as director. She can put her own stamp on it. She’s stepping out of their shadow, which is so good.”
Mathias faces plenty of challenges in a fast-changing city with skyrocketing rental costs and a critically short supply of affordable housing. She made the difficult decision to move the Open Shelter outside the city’s center—a prospect Beittel always rejected—only after realizing there was no way to afford a large space Downtown. “We looked and looked,” she says. “Then Solomon is walking to work one day, and he sees this.”
Mathias saw opportunity in the twice-as-big storefront, which gives guests room to spread out, reducing stress and conflict. “One of our board members, whom I love and respect so much, said he didn’t think Kent would want us to leave Downtown,” Mathias says. “He came to me later and said, ‘You were right.’”
People familiar with the Open Shelter have been making their way to the new site since it opened in January. And in a worrisome sign, so are many fresh faces. “In January alone, we signed in 150 people new to the Open Shelter,” Mathias says. “That’s huge.”
During a recent town hall meeting at another social service agency, Mathias reminded everyone that they were gathered in a room where others had just slept. “I sounded just like Kent,” she says, laughing.
Hawkins often found refuge in the Open Shelter’s former home after nights on the streets had taken their toll. The 61-year-old has a spot in a rooming house now, but it’s barely a step up from living on the land. He’s tired of scraping money together to pay application fees for apartments he never gets and can’t really afford.
At the Open Shelter, at least, supplies of hot coffee and hope remain endless. “I helped with the move here,” Hawkins says of the new storefront. “The best thing about this is the extra space.”
1037 Parsons Ave., will host a community open house from 4 to 7 p.m. June 23. To learn more, go to theopenshelter.org or call 614-222-2885.
This story is from the June 2022 issue of Columbus Monthly.