Bela Koe-Krompecher on Addiction, Poverty and Fixing a Broken System

The writer and social worker’s new book, “Love, Death & Photosynthesis,” describes a bygone music era and shines a light on homelessness in Columbus.

Brittany Moseley
Columbus Monthly
Bela Koe-Krompecher

Bela Koe-Krompecher has a lot of thoughts on how Franklin County treats its most vulnerable citizens.

By the end of our conversation, he’s outlined the shortcomings of the shelter system, explained the hoops people have to jump through to get a birth certificate or a Social Security card, and railed against the lack of transparency in local government. “You can tell I think a lot about this [stuff],” Koe-Krompecher says over coffee at Crimson Cup in late September.

In the ’90s, Koe-Krompecher made a name for himself in the Columbus music scene as the co-founder of Anyway Records. The label released albums by Guided By Voices, Jenny Mae Leffel and Jerry Wick of Gaunt. He also spent years behind the counter of Used Kids Records and booked local shows.

Koe-Krompecher’s recent book, Love, Death & Photosynthesis, is an homage to that time. Two people who feature heavily in it—and in Koe-Krompecher’s life—are his best friends: Wick, who co-founded Anyway Records, and Leffel, Koe-Krompecher’s on-and-off-again girlfriend, whose album Don’t Wait Up For Me is still talked about in revered tones today.

Read an excerpt from:Bela Koe-Krompecher's book "Love, Death, & Photosynthesis"

Yes, Love, Death & Photosynthesis is a book about music, but it’s also about troubled childhoods, mental illness, addiction and relationships. Throughout the book, Koe-Krompecher outlines in exacting detail his own struggles with alcohol, before eventually getting sober in 2002. Along the way, he tries to help Leffel, both as a friend and later as a social worker, but was unsuccessful. In 2017, Leffel died from complications due to alcoholism.

“She  is the main reason I work with the poor, the addicted and the mentally ill,” he writes toward the end of the book. “She gave me a sense of purpose to challenge the levers of power to quit stomping on the disenfranchised.”

After going back to school, Koe-Krompecher’s first job was as a case manager for people who were homeless and had criminal issues. He loved the job. At the same time, Leffel was homeless. After showing so much musical talent and promise in her 20s, her addiction and mental health issues, along with troubled and sometimes abusive romantic relationships, had ended her career just as it was getting started.

“I didn't know how to help people,” Koe-Krompecher says of his early career. “And at the same time, I'm trying to help her.” An ongoing issue with Leffel, he explains, was finding her housing, which was difficult due to her substance abuse and mental health issues. For the last six years of her life, Leffel used a wheelchair. Finding handicapped-accessible housing presented a larger challenge. Eventually, Koe-Krompecher found an apartment for her with a ramp, but one day, a man followed her home from the liquor store and raped her, so she moved.

“There were all sorts of systematic barriers that prevented her [from getting] housing. And what I also realized was, most people don't know about it,” Koe-Krompecher says. “One of the things I tell my students at OSU is that we have a broken system for broken people.”

Koe-Krompecher would like to see local systems that better support homeless people. He would like to see more housing for homeless people. He would like for shelters to allow drugs on their properties, so people with substance abuse issues have somewhere safe to sleep for the night. He would like for the city to provide free birth certificates and funding for people to get driver’s licenses. He would like outreach workers like himself to have more authority to help their clients complete the government paperwork they need.

While we’re on the subject of outreach, he would like the county to create a robust program that is solely focused on helping homeless people find housing and other resources. He would like the local government to do its research before enacting programs—like parking meters in the Short North that can only be used via a smartphone app—that disenfranchise certain groups.

For the moment, though, Koe-Krompecher just wants to remind people that there are those out there who are suffering and deserve our help. Yes, Love, Death & Photosynthesis is a book about music, but it’s also about his friend Leffel and the struggles she went through that could perhaps have been avoided if the system was better equipped to help her.

“We should be enlightened enough to acknowledge that there are those among us who really suffer, and it's our job, collectively, to help care for [them]. Not just because it's the right compassionate human thing to do, but it makes our city better, makes our community better. We have less crime. We have more safety for our children,” Koe-Krompecher says. “It's better, right?”

Secret Studio will host Bela Koe-Krompecher this Friday at 7 p.m. The event will include readings by Joe Hess and Kelly Sundberg, a performance by Marcy Mays and a Q&A session and book signing with Koe-Krompecher.