“Homeless in Athens”

by Laura Lee Bloor

Good Works founder Keith Wasserman knows the experience of being homeless. To keep himself humble and provide better resources for those experiencing homelessness, every few years for a couple of days, Wasserman chooses to be homeless. Since 1989, he has traveled to several cities within and outside Ohio, citing Pittsburgh, Pa., and Lexington, Ky., as the most influential homeless experiences.

In Pittsburgh, Wasserman wanted to meet with someone to learn more about creative housing options for homeless people in the Appalachia community. Meanwhile, he wandered the streets with a fellow homeless man he befriended and took him along to visit an agency that provided creative single-room occupancy housing. When Wasserman went to the appointment with the housing agency man, the man told Wasserman he had no time to meet with him.

“It showed me how people judge others on their status in life and the biggest lesson for me, was not to do that,” Wasserman said.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, poverty in the United States rose to 12.1 percent in 2002; an increase from 11.7 percent the previous year. In 2002, 34.6 million individuals lived below the poverty level in the United States, which is an increase of 1.7 million from 2001. In 2000, the poverty line for a family of four was $17,050. The Coalition on Housing and Homelessness estimated that in 2001, 179,718 Ohioans experienced homelessness. And in rural Ohio , which includes Athens and southeast Ohio , homelessness increased 300 percent between 1985 and 1990.

Why is homelessness steadily increasing, not just nationally, but especially locally?

The Coalition on Housing and Homelessness cites two main factors for the rise in homelessness: a growing shortage of affordable housing and a simultaneous increase in poverty. Simply put: those who live in poverty have a higher risk of experiencing homelessness, and Athens County has a much higher poverty rate than the national average. In 2000, the Athens poverty rate was 27.4 percent compared to the national rate of 12.4 percent.

In Athens and other rural Ohio areas, most jobs pay at or slightly above the $5.35 per hour minimum wage rate. As Barbara Ehrenreich demonstrated in her book, “ Nickel and Dimed,” individuals, let alone families, cannot live on a minimum wage-based salary. So although most people in Athens and elsewhere in rustic Ohio are working full-time, they are unable to make ends meet.

According to a study by Dr. Richard J. First and Dr. Beverly G. Toomey at the Ohio State University on the demographic characteristics of the rural homeless over the mid-1980s through 1990, 43.2 percent of those working, were working full-time and almost one-third (31.2 percent) had worked for pay in the prior month before becoming homeless.

In this comprehensive study using 919 interviews with homeless persons from 21 randomly selected rural counties in Ohio, the average length of homelessness was 49 days, with 79.7 percent experiencing homelessness for six months or less. Of those homeless, 39.2 percent stayed at shelters or missions and 14.6 percent lived in cars, abandoned buildings or other unsheltered conditions.

Fortunately, for those experiencing homelessness in rural southeast Ohio, there is Wasserman’s Good Works. Good Works is a private, nonprofit Christian organization dedicated to creating a loving community of hope for rural Appalachian Ohio’s homeless.

Wasserman founded Good Works in 1981 as a two-bedroom-apartment shelter operating out of his and his wife’s remodeled basement. A board of directors formed in 1982, and in 1984, the shelter gained tax-exempt status. In 1985, the Good Works Emergency Shelter moved out of Wasserman’s home and into its present facility on Central Avenue and was re-named The Timothy House in 2000.

Today, the Timothy House has four bedrooms with 15 beds, a living room, a kitchen, two bathrooms, two offices and one large eating/meeting room. An average of 200 people stay at the Timothy House per year, and the numbers are growing Wasserman said. In 2003, the Timothy House sheltered about 173 people; in 2004, the number swelled to approximately 216 people.

The Timothy House’s counterpart is the Hannah House, founded in 1994, as the Good Works Transitional House and re-named in 1998. The Hannah House has six bedrooms, four living rooms and is located on 35 acres known as The Good Works Luhrig Road Property.

The Luhrig Property is practically a small community in its own. Besides the Hannah house, it contains administration offices, the Good Gifts retail store, the Country Bed & Breakfast, the Carter Cabin, the Transformation Station (a storage facility for donations), the Good Works garden and walking trails.

Good Gifts, the Country Bed & Breakfast and the Carter Cabin are all employment opportunities for former residents at the Timothy or Hannah houses.

Although Good Works offers financial opportunities to others, it could use some monetary aid of its own. Every year, finding money for Good Works is a challenge, Wasserman said.

Good Works receives one annual grant from the Ohio Department of Development for $60,000 that goes toward the Timothy House. However, this year, Good Works also received a grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission to help with its Hope and Possibilities Computer training program. Good Works’ budget for 2004-2005 was approximately $450,000. It needs an additional $340,000-$360,000 to operate, which comes from private donations through churches, businesses and individuals.

“We rely on the kindness and generosity of our neighbors,” Wasserman said.

The funding shortage is responsible for the suspension of the “Life in Transition” program at the Hannah House, which had been running for eight years until August 2004. The “Life in Transition” program ranges from a six-to-12 month plan where a former homeless person stays at the Hannah House and has a volunteer, mentor roommate who guides the person to establishing a stable home, job and life.

Wasserman said he plans to reinstate the program as soon as there is enough funding for it, which should be next year.

Athens County not only has strong ties to poverty but also with mental illness. Today, 30 percent of homeless Ohioans suffer from mental illness, according to the Coalition on Housing and Homelessness.

In 1874, the Athens Lunatic Asylum opened as a housing institution for the mentally ill. Over the years, the population at the asylum soared, reaching its peak of 1,749 patients in 1953. One reason for the swelling growth was that the asylum would admit homeless people.

However, as attitudes and funding shifted away from institutionalizing the mentally ill, beginning in the 1980s, gradually patients were released from the asylum known then as the Athens Mental Health Center.

Were the mentally ill released onto the streets?

No one was discharged from the health center without an after-care plan said George Eberts, volunteer coordinator at the Appalachian Behavioral Healthcare. The Appalachian Behavioral Healthcare replaced the Athens Mental Health Center , known today as The Ridges. The Appalachian Behavioral Healthcare has 22 rooms in its south unit for more permanent stays and 18 rooms in its north wing for patients who need short-term care.

When Eberts started at the Athens Mental Health Center in 1979, 240 patients constituted the geriatrics and continued-care unit where he worked. Between 1988 and 1993, almost all of the geriatric and continued-care patients were released from the Ridges and sent to local nursing homes or subsidized-care facilities with a community health care supervisor looking after them, Eberts said. The remaining 60 individuals moved to the new location at the Appalachian Behavioral Healthcare when it opened in 1993 at 100 Hospital Drive in Athens , Eberts said. Then in 1996, 20 of those patients were sent to the Appalachian Behavioral Healthcare’s sister facility, Cambridge Hospital . Appalachian Behavioral Healthcare Social Worker Becky Canter Willard echoed Eberts assertion that no patients were released without an after-care plan. In fact, hospital employeeswere not allowed to discharge patients to the streets, and they had to have an address the patient could be discharged to, Willard said. If employees could not find family or friends willing to accept the patient, that person stayed with the hospital through the move from the Athens Mental Health Center to the Appalachian Behavioral Healthcare until further arrangements could be made.

The problem is that even though most patients do get released to their families or friends, the hospital is not responsible for them from that point on, Willard said. So if the former patient leaves or the family kicks him or her out, that person could wind up without a home.

To help ensure released patients did not become homeless, in 1988, a new Ohio law required patients be assigned case managers who designed plans to get them out of the hospital and back into society. In addition, the case managers are responsible for checking on patients after they are released and making sure they are getting the services they need.

Some of these services include annual Medicaid re-determinations and annual Housing Urban Development (HUD) re-determinations. In the annual Medicaid re-determination, the patient meets with a jobs and family services case worker to determine his or her continued financial need. Similarly, in the annual HUD re-determination, if the patient demonstrates he or she is below the poverty level or disabled, the person can meet with a caseworker to subsidize his or her rent, Willard explained.

The problem, however, is that no one can force a person to stay on his or her medication or keep up with these annual services. Another problem is that case managers have too many cases to provide the same quality of service as when the system started, so often they are unable to see if former patients are making their annual re-determinations. Failure to meet annually with case workers for these services results in losing those benefits, which is how people can end up homeless, Willard said.

Another issue the hospital has grappled with was discharging patients to Good Works. From 1990 to 1998, Gov. Voinovich would not permit the Appalachian Psychiatric Healthcare System to release patients to Good Works, Willard said. However, today the hospital can send patients to Good Works if they are accepted after a face-to-face interview with a staff member or director.

The poverty-stricken mentally ill as well as the chronic diseased and disabled are facing another frightening perspective that could cause them to become homeless — losing disability medical assistance.

Currently in Gov. Taft’s budget proposal is a proposition to eliminate Disability Medical Assistance for families, said Tracy Galway, community relations coordinator of Athens County Job and Family Services.

“When I heard about it I thought, ‘They can’t be serious, there are no other options for these people!’” Galway said.

If the state legislature passes the proposal, more than 200 people will be affected, in Athens Galway said. Also in the proposal is a motion to drop the 100 percent poverty income guideline to 90 percent. This means that to qualify for Medicaid coverage, people do not have to be merely at poverty level, they have to be below it.

If those were not enough cuts, the budget proposes eradicating vision and dental coverage for all adults regardless of their Medicaid category. In this situation, if the budget proposal passes, about 5,000 Medicaid recipients will lose their vision and dental coverage, Galway said.

Cutting medical assistance for needy families and people is an alarming issue as well to Athens County Commissioner Bill Thiesen. Without their medication, some people could end up homeless or even die, he said.

The state has the money to contribute to helping those in poverty but will not let the funding go where it is intended, Thiesen said. Two years ago, the state balanced its budget with money that was supposed to go to needy families.

“We’ve been trying to get the state legislature to increase cash assistance by $100 (per month),” he said. “I don’t think it’s been raised in at least 10 years.”

Thiesen empathizes with those struggling to keep a home and pay bills. He acknowledged that many homeless people wind up in jail for something that is beyond their control.

But does being homeless break the law?

Not in Athens, where there are no laws against vagrancy, said Athens police Lt. Anthony Fish. Homeless people who go to jail do so for the same reasons people with homes are sent to jail — because they violated a law.

For example, if a homeless person were found sleeping in the parking garage or a condemned building, that would be considered trespassing. Typically though, Fish and other officers simply tell people they need to move and they do.

On some occasions, though, Fish said arresting homeless people actually helped them.

“We’ve had (homeless) people hoping to get arrested just so they would have a warm place to sleep that night, and we would oblige them to get them out of the cold,” Fish said. “It sounds kind of cruel, but it’s better than having people sleeping out there on the streets when it’s 10 below zero.”

Fish and the other officers usually try to do what they can to help people without a place to stay, usually referring them to Good Works.

“A lot of people think we’re callous and cold-natured. I understand that’s a common stereotype of us because of the nature of our work—it’s so black and white,” he said. “People don’t see the gray areas of our work but we do what we can to help (homeless people) out.”

Where would homeless people seek refuge in rural Southeast Ohio if Good Works did not exist?

While one may never know the answer, hundreds are grateful everyday that it does.

True Story: One woman’s experience with homelessness

Mary Smith (her name has been changed to protect her identity) is one of many who is thankful for Good Works.

Smith came to Athens from Washington for a specialized counseling program. Smith made arrangements with a friend she knew who lived in town and made the move. However, by the time Smith moved in with her friend, she discovered her friend had become seriously ill. She had just been diagnosed with Epstein-Barr virus, which causes infectious mononucleosis. Smith’s friend had a particularly severe case of the virus and severe migraines. Consequently, she told Smith she would not be able to stay with her. Within a week of moving to Athens, Smith was homeless.

“I was really frustrated, scared and mad because I had nowhere to stay,” Smith said.

Smith had only a couple hundred dollars left after moving to Athens and registering for her counseling program. Her counselor suggested she look into staying at Good Works’ Timothy House.

Although it was not the ideal living situation, Smith went to the Timothy House, which was a somewhat intimidating experience at first.

“You’re sleeping with people you’ve never met before, watching people do stuff they’re not allowed to do and not saying anything because you’re afraid of what they’ll do if they find out you’re the one who tattled,” Smith said.

Because she considers herself a highly moral person, watching others break house rules really bothered her, Smith said. Good Works sets many rules and regulations guests must abide by while they are staying there, like house chores and curfews. Those guidelines made Smith feel more secure.

Another new experience living at the Timothy House for Smith was living with males and having some of them “hit” on her. Smith came from a sheltered home so, at first, it seemed shocking. Now she realizes getting “hit” on is not so uncommon, she said, laughing.

When Smith came to the Timothy House, like all guests, she was assigned a care-giver, Ken. Ken’s job was to help Smith find a job and get out of homelessness.

“He really was a cheerleader for me in getting a job,” Smith said, “and that’s so important because going out day after day job-hunting — it gets really discouraging.”

Smith came from a family that was always low-income, but food was always available. Her mother worked full-time, showing her what work ethics were. In Smith’s opinion, some people remain homeless because they do not have or do not know what work ethics are and how essential they are to maintaining a full-time job.

Smith’s intelligence and ambition made her an excellent candidate for the “Life in Transition” nine-month program at the Hannah House. However, getting accepted to the Hannah House was a long and extensive process. She had to complete two interviews and two application processes that took about three to four weeks before she was accepted.

Living at the Hannah House gave Smith more freedom, and the facility felt more like a home. Having more guidelines to live by worked well for her, although Smith acknowledged they may not be for everyone.

Each housing agreement costs $150 per month for three months and can be renewed, Smith explained. Every week, Smith met with a house manager to discuss how she was doing on budgeting, finding a job and setting personal goals.

Finally, after two months of job searching, Smith landed a part-time job working as a secretary for a law office in Athens. Smith said the part-time job was perfect for her because it gave her enough money to stay at the Hannah House, pay for her counseling and still have time to work out the issues within herself.

Smith was one of the last people to complete the Life in Transition program since it went on hold in August of last year. She decided to live with a friend from church but after about a month realized that due to conflicting personality styles, she would rather stay at the Hannah House.

Although the “Life in Transition” program had been put on hiatus, the internship programs were still available at the Hannah House. Smith applied and was accepted to be one of five interns.

As an intern, Smith works at the various Good Works properties—serving at the Country Bed & Breakfast, assisting customers at Good Shop or hosting and answering phones at the Hannah House. The internship is building Smith’s work experience and giving her skills useful for full-time employment.

Today, Smith has joined millions of others in pursuit of one coveted goal: finding a full-time job that pays above minimum wage. Now, with the budgeting techniques she has learned, Smith knows approximately how much she will need financially to afford comfortable housing.

“I wouldn’t say I’ve gone from homeless to complete independence, but I’m almost there,” she said.