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Local organizations work to combat youth homelessness

A local 17-year-old living in foster care turns 18 and ages out of the system. A young veteran no longer serving moves to Ohio University to live with friends. A student, unable to afford an apartment on top of tuition, crashes on friends’ couches for months.

Many think of homelessness as panhandling or sleeping on the streets, but that’s not always the case. Housing insecurity often lends itself to homelessness in a less distinguishable way. 

George McCarthy, Athens County judge for Common Pleas Court and Veterans Treatment Court, runs a Facebook page for local resources to help Athens’ homeless community. He said it can be difficult to know how many individuals experience homelessness in Athens because many find impermanent solutions.

“People that are homeless may not designate themselves as homeless, so it's an undercounted population,” McCarthy said. “A lot of people get by, self-admittedly, by couchsurfing. They'll say, ‘Well, I’m not homeless. I stay with friends.’ They don't have a permanent address. They're staying and living off the generosity of their friends or family, and they'll literally crash on couches and kind of move from site to site to site to site and don't count themselves as homeless when, in actuality, they really would be counted as homeless because they don’t have a permanent residence anywhere. They don’t have stable living.”

According to a 2020 Hope 4 College survey, nearly three in five college students experience basic need insecurity, with 14% of all students surveyed affected by homelessness and 48% affected by housing insecurity. 

Athens is not immune to these struggles, but it’s also not without resources to help. Ohio University’s Housing Help page offers temporary emergency housing and one-time grants for students in need through the university as well as links to local organizations that help with housing insecurity.

Giselle Garcia, graduate assistant for the OHIO basic needs program, said there are many support resources on campus, including emergency housing for students in need.

“If a student gets evicted from an apartment or is at the brink of being unhoused, there is that resource, and that’s more of a partnership with Res Life,” Garcia said. 

The university website suggests public housing options for low-income residents through Athens Metropolitan Housing Authority as well as support for homeless youth through Integrated Services and Sojourners Care Network. 

Sojourners Care Network operates in seven Appalachian and Southeast Ohio counties serving homeless youth by offering housing, outreach services, foster care and other programs, including support in completing GEDs and diplomas. Matthew Phillips, an outreach coordinator for Sojourners Care Network, said the network serves people aged 14 through 24.

“We are fully grant-based, so we kind of have to work with what our grants allow us,” Phillips said. “For the 18 to 24-year-olds, we have our crisis transitional housing units that let us house them if they are homeless. We will oftentimes try to get the young people that we serve counseling because, oftentimes, being homeless can be a pretty traumatic situation all while just providing a safe place for them to sleep, to have a hot meal, to be able to bathe, do their laundry, the basic things that, sometimes, we who are not homeless take for granted.”

The OU site also links to a housing information hotline and connects users to Timothy House, a local homeless shelter. 

Timothy House is run by the Good Works organization, a local group that strives to serve homeless, impoverished and recovering individuals in Athens and rural Appalachia. According to Good Works’ website, an average of 200 people stay at the Timothy House each year. The house has four bedrooms with fifteen beds, a kitchen, a living room, two bathrooms, two offices and one large room for meals and meetings. 

McCarthy said Timothy House requires interviews in order for individuals to live there, as does a local sober living men’s environment, Clem House. He said these interviews are to ensure occupants will live safely together, and they often require sobriety. 

While Phillips is not in charge of Athens County outreach, he said he still helps Athens youth when he is called, and the Sojourners employee responsible for Athens is trying to expand programs in the area. Phillips said Athens is home to the network’s Resiliency Center, which provides resources and support to local teenagers and young adults.

“From certain hours of the day, people can come in and take a shower,” Phillips said. “They sometimes will have meals set up. They can come in and get a meal. She has been working there trying to get a lot of programs set up. I know she had a music program, an art program and they try to get tutors to come in and help young people.”

OU also has on-campus resources for basic needs insecurity problems that often come in tandem with housing insecurity, such as academic support and Cats’ Cupboard, a food pantry for university students and staff located in Baker University Center. 

“You can get upwards of $50 worth of groceries every two weeks when you shop with us,” Charlie Fulks, basic needs coordinator for Cats’ Cupboard, said. “So, instead of working that second job, if you join the pantry, you get a bunch of staple food items. You can spend that five hours studying and focusing on school.”

McCarthy said there are many ways individuals can help local homeless and basic needs insecure individuals, including donations and volunteering. He said he helps with Athens Area Stand Down, an annual event at the fairgrounds that distributes items for the winter and accepts volunteers all year. However, he said help should be offered, but it may not always be accepted. 

“People need to be aware that some homeless have significant mental health issues,” McCarthy said in a message. “So, if you do offer help and it’s refused then it’s ok to walk away. I see students offering food to someone who looks homeless and it’s refused.  They shouldn’t take it personally. While it’s great that people show such kindness, some homeless (people) just don’t want help.”

Voices of Youth Count found 69% of homeless youth experience mental illness. Phillips reflected this in his own experiences and said communities need to reframe homelessness as something to be fixed together, not a burden to the city.

“Sometimes, communities take out park benches so people can't sleep on them and stuff like that,” Phillips said. “Actions like that we may think are doing a service to our communities but, really, it's being detrimental to a minority group that is really struggling, and nobody wants to be kicked when you're down. We should always be willing to give a helping hand, and it’s the smallest things sometimes. It's a kind word: ‘Hey, you'll be OK. You'll get through it.’  That does wonders for a person.” 


Katie Millard


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