November 16th - 24th is National Hunger & Homelessness Awareness Week. United Way of Portage County (UWPC) joins in the efforts to ensure people are thinking about others in need at this time of year and always. UWPC is a proud partner and funding supporter of several food pantry and hot meal sites, as well as shelter and housing assistance programs. A story shared by two of those programs, the Center of Hope, in Ravenna, and Kent Social Services, in Kent, explains how hunger and homelessness can intersect and how they are helping in the community to combat these issues.
“Karen” had been homeless for 20 years, often squatting in a house in Ravenna. For almost five years, she lived in a house provided to her by a gentleman named “Uncle Buck.” While it provided her with shelter, she lacked some basic utilities. Karen would carry jugs of water (weighing up to eight pounds) from the Center of Hope (CoH) just to survive to the home, just to survive. After four years, Karen was ready to go back to living on the streets when she finally received news that she could get housing. Through all of the struggles, Karen had received hot meals and food from the pantry at the CoH. The Center Director worked with Karen to help her find an affordable home. CoH, using Sister Jordan funds, was able to assist Karen with a deposit for her rent. When she moved into her new home, she collapsed and slept for 22 hours straight. Karen stated that she was thinking, “it’s over now, I don’t have to worry about the snow and the toothpaste freezing. I don’t have to worry about this place collapsing on me.”
This is just one example of the indirect role of the food programs in the community play in reducing homelessness and enhancing the quality of life for hot meal and pantry participants. In the past, Kent Social Services (KSS) would serve 8 - 10 homeless individuals through their warming center. This number has declined significantly because KSS staff members were relentless in their efforts to work with local resources to help 6 chronically homeless adults to obtain housing and succeed in housing. Things that seem simple to most of us, such as obtaining a State of Ohio ID, can be very complicated, costly and time-consuming for individuals who have no identity documents. KSS and CoH staff lending a helping hand through these types of processes make a huge difference to those seeking assistance.
In addition to seeking food or housing, many individuals assisted through KSS and CoH are in need of mental health intervention and/or counseling for alcoholism. The six chronically homeless mentioned previously, had limited experience navigating the social service system. Employees at both centers made time to help those individuals. Those six people have been successful in housing for over two years, with one now in his fourth year of residing in permanent housing, and two of the individuals are employed. Some of those who experience long-time homelessness have a minor criminal history, which can pose challenges to obtaining service, but the staff from KSS and CoH are advocates for these individuals and help to ensure they receive the assistance they need.
Not only do the food centers provide hot meals, pantry services and connections with other social service programs in the community, but they provide a place for vulnerable people and center employees to interact. These interactions and conversations establish trust for both parties. Relationships are able to be nurtured at places like KSS and the CoH as individuals can stay at the facilities throughout the day and provide opportunities for casual conversations to take place. The caring attitude of the CoH and KSS employees and the willingness of agencies to take on clients, some who are experiencing difficult challenges or circumstances, proves to be a successful collaboration that has made a difference in reducing the homeless population in Portage County. Kent Social Services and the Center of Hope work every day to fulfill their mission statement – “The centers commit to feeding the body and the spirit of vulnerable people in the community through the provision of hot meals, groceries and a caring attitude.”
To learn more about how UWPC is fighting hunger and homelessness in the community, visit uwportage.org/programs. To seek assistance from the Center of Hope or Kent Social Services, visit fcsserves.org.