Unsheltered from the storm: Greater Akron homeless community facing cold temperatures, fewer emergency beds in pandemic
E.B. didn’t know how to be homeless.
The 30-year-old from Texas came to Akron with a factory job lined up, but by the time he arrived in March as the pandemic was beginning, the position no longer existed. More work opportunities fell through, a criminal record blocked him from jobs and housing, and a fight over his stolen wallethas kept him out of a local shelter.
So instead, he spends his nights in a tent, left to him by a man named Tony who taught him how to survive homelessness. Tony died while E.B. was in jail for two weeks.
Between Tony and a cellmate, E.B. learned how to douse tissues in hand sanitizer, stuff it in a tin can and set it aflame to keep a tent warm. He learned to line the base of a tent with cardboard boxes to keep the wind out. He learned to accept every sock, glove, coat and blanket offered to him to keep warm. And he learned to help others whenever possible.
This winter, E.B. will be one of the estimated 1,000 homeless people living in Akron and the surrounding communities — including Stow, Cuyahoga Falls, Tallmadge and Munroe Falls — and one of about 250 to be considered “unsheltered,” meaning they sleep in areas not meant for habitation.
Those numbers, estimated by Peter Maurin Center's boots-on-the-ground volunteers, are significantly higher than the latest point-in-time numbers reported by the Summit County Continuum of Care. Statewide, the latest point-in-time count is about 12,000 homeless people, said Marcus Roth, communications director for the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio.
"Another way we can count homelessness in Ohio is rather than by looking at one particular instance is how many people experience it in a given year because homelessness is cyclical," he said.
By the annual count, 76,000 Ohioans experienced homelessness last year.
In Akron, many set up tents in the woods, relocating frequently as they get kicked off property by owners or the city.
Some are unsheltered because they refuse to leave their pets — as is the case for 19-year-old Sara and her dog, Anubis, and 54-year-old Ron and his dog, Chopper. Some don't feel safe in the area shelters, and some are unwilling or unable to follow the shelters' rules.
Most of the individuals who agreed to discuss their experiences with homelessness declined to provide their full names.
On exceptionally cold nights, many will seek warmth in one of Akron's emergency shelters for a night or two.
This year, however, those spaces have been reduced in order to comply with Centers for Disease Control social distancing guidelines. Local shelters, nonprofits and communities are working to ensure these populations survive the winter.
"Now we're looking at a minimum of 200 individuals who will be outside during this dangerous time. Whereas we'd see four people freeze to death in a normal winter, now a lot of us are afraid of that number skyrocketing," said Mike Rauh, a volunteer with the Peter Maurin Center in Akron.
Sara, who has been on the streets since she was 15, begins prepping in mid-fall by gathering candles and food.
"Winters are easy as long as you prepare, but if you're not, they suck," she said. "You have to have at least some food kept up in the tent because there will be weeks that you can't leave because the snow is higher than your head, which isn't much for me because I'm short."
Donna, 55, who has been homeless for a year and a half, layers several pairs of pants, including bib overalls, and uses Sternos to keep her tent warm. The lucky ones have a buddy heater, but those require propane, she said.
"When you step outside on a 20 below day, every part of you that's exposed immediately burns. [Community Support Services] is two blocks from here and it's hell even walking there," she said.
Dave Churbock, director of the Peter Maurin Center in Akron, said the city typically has 500 to 600 emergency shelter spaces, but this year will only have 200 to 250. Peter Maurin, which typically has space for 50 individuals, is unable to properly social distance, so it will not open its doors on the coldest nights.
Churbock is trying to find another space to house an emergency shelter or may donate their mats, pillows and blankets to another group that can offer overnight stays for the season.
Haven of Rest typically has 180 emergency spaces, but the Rev. Jeff Kaiser, the nonprofit agency's chief executive, said that number will be lower as there will be "major adjustments" due to COVID-19.
ACCESS Women's Shelter has only seen a slight reduction because they use family rooms. Of their 11 rooms, one is now reserved for quarantine cases. Another room, which typically holds eight single women, has been reduced to six beds.
"In the scheme of things, we feel pretty lucky we haven't had to reduce more and we haven't had any outbreaks yet," Executive Director Jackie Hemsworth said. "Even operating at full capacity, there aren't enough shelter beds in Summit County for people who need them. Our system is overtaxed in general, even without a pandemic."
In the summer, there was less demand for shelter beds because people were weary of communal spaces, but Hemsworth suspects there will be an uptick as the weather turns colder.
She added that ACCESS works through the county's centralized homeless hotline, which offers diversion services to help people stay where they are or find private lodging.
In cases where a bed can't be found or when people refuse to go to a shelter, support organizations and local communities are continuing — and, in some cases, ramping up — their collections and distributions.
"It's going to be different. We haven't moved through an entire winter with this sort of set up, and it's presenting challenges," said Lerryn Campbell, who runs Lerryn's Closet through the Homeless Charity and Village.
The organization offers a supply closet with snacks, blankets, masks, tents and other survival products for homeless people out of 15 Broad St. in Akron. The property was previously home to Second Chance Village, which had more than 40 tents for homeless people with permission of landowner Sage Lewis; the tent city was ultimately shut down by the city.
Campbell said that early in the pandemic, volunteers dropped off because so many were complying with stay-at-home orders and food supplies dried up as people panic shopped. Volunteers and food supplies have since returned to pre-pandemic levels, and lately, people have been been more generous with tangibles like used clothing and camping supplies.
Prevailing Word Ministry in Motion outreach administrator Christina Shaw began preparing for this winter in August by collecting supplies through an Amazon Wishlist that she adds to each time she receives a request from a homeless person.
Prevailing Word Ministry in Motion, based in Bucyrus, prepares and packages meals that volunteers deliver weekly to "friends in tents" in the Akron area.
"We have to prepare months before the first snowfall because I can have over 150 blankets and run through them in a month's time. People need batteries, socks, and everything goes so fast that we have to keep gathering things quickly," Shaw said. "Yes, it's a pandemic and they're concerned, but a lot of people in the camps have been there and this is something they've done before. They know what to do to prepare. They're stocking up."
Georgann Mirgliotta, founder of Hope Farm, has continued to provide sacked lunches to the homeless throughout the pandemic, and said that many of the people she works with are not yet thinking about the winter.
The group, based in Twinsburg, offers food and supplies to homeless people in the Akron area.
"They very much live day-to-day and those conversations just aren't happening yet," she said. "We will not stop. We just keep going out. People aren't starving, but people are hungry and I see that every week."
Jennifer DeLauder, founder of the Treasa Bartley Foundation, has not seen a large change in the need. The group, based in Medina, is continuing to provide meals, firewood, blankets, Sternos and candles. Her organization is now holding a Book Bags for the Homeless drive throughout November, with drop-off locations in Medina, Wadsworth, Rittman, Seville and Akron.
Prompted by Rauh and Stow Mayor John Pribonic, Stow/Munroe Falls and Cuyahoga Falls/Silver Lake are holding a friendly competition to see which community can collect the most winter warming supplies and cash.
The two losing mayors will wear the winning communities' school colors. Collection boxes will be placed in city hall or police department lobbies. There also will be drop-off drive-thrus in the coming weeks.
Inter-community supply drive
• Socks - winterweight
• Hats - stocking cap and/or full mask style
• Long underwear - men's and women's L, XL and XXL
• Hand and feet warmers
• Sleeping bags, rated for 30 degrees or colder
• Tents — two-person Coleman Sun-Dome type)
• Tarps — 10-by-12-feet, brown or camo
Stow: Drop-off at City Hall, 3760 Darrow Road. Drive-thru 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Nov. 21 at City Hall. More information: 330-689-2700.
Munroe Falls: Drop-off at police department, 43 Munroe Falls Ave., through Dec. 5. Drive-thru 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Dec. 5 at City Hall, 43 Munroe Falls Ave. More information: 330-688-7491.
Cuyahoga Falls: Drop-off in police lobby at City Hall, 2310 Second St., through Jan. 15.
Silver Lake: Drop-off at Village Hall, 2961 Kent Road, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays. Drive-thru 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Nov. 21 at Village Hall.
Financial donations may be sent to the Peter Maurin Center, P.O. Box 1105, Hudson OH 44236.
Reporter Krista S. Kano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, 330-541-9416, or on Twitter: @KristaKanoRCedu.