Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week illuminates issues in Portage County

Canned goods at the Women’s Center on Kent State’s campus on Nov. 15, 2018.

Bryan Vohsing

Behind a Comfort Inn in Portage County lies an old, beat-up couch. On the couch is a man who has now had a two-year stay outside the hotel.

Employees try to help the man by providing him with leftover food and coffee, but every time he turns it away.

“We left him a winter coat and a backpack with some hygiene (products), some snacks, and a hat, scarf and gloves,” said Anne Marie Noble, the executive director of the Haven of Portage County. “And that’s just one isolated incident. We know there are many others out there.”

The Haven is a homeless shelter in Ravenna that is set to open in the fall of 2019. The shelter will provide necessities like housing, meals, mental health counseling and professional help.

The need for a shelter in Portage County is definitely there, Noble said. “There are approximately … 80 to 90 individuals that are staying at the Haven of Rest in Akron and they’re actually Portage County residents.” Those 80 to 90 individuals make up about one-third of the shelter.

This number is verified by the Portage County Housing Services Council that found there are 100 individuals (63 households) in Portage County without housing during their annual “point-in-time” count. The “point-in-time” count is a volunteer effort to find out how many homeless people are in Portage County and what conditions these individuals are living with.  

Many of these individuals are taking advantage of the housing services, which include shelter, transitional and rapid re-housing, but there were just as many people who are forced to sleep in cars, a common form of homelessness in Portage County.

“Rural homeless looks a little bit different than urban,” said Jenn Matlack, the director of Housing & Emergency Services and member of the Portage County Housing Services Council. “You go into a city and you see people on the street, whereas our homeless are in the woods, campgrounds, cars, abandoned buildings or other places not meant for habitation.”

Another common situation for homeless people in Portage County is what Matlack and the Housing Services Council call couch-surfers who will go from house to house staying with friends and family for brief periods of time.

Situations like these make the point-in-time count difficult and also make it easy for residents to not realize the problem Portage County has with homelessness.

As of now, the Miller Community House is the only shelter in Portage County taking in the homeless, Noble said. Servicing approximately 200 individuals a year, the community house struggles to take care of every homeless person in need of shelter. This is why many homeless people are forced to migrate as far as Akron for housing.

Noble and the Haven are hoping to fix this problem by offering a low-barrier homeless shelter, meaning those with felonies can also take advantage of resources as long their convictions were not of a violent or sexual nature.

Last week, Kent State students and staff tried to raise awareness about these issues through Hunger and Homelessness Awareness week.

The week was started by a public health class three years ago and has now raised approximately 5,000 items, according to Amanda Woodyard, the director of Community Engaged Learning.

The donations largely come from food drives held by multiple groups, including Hillel.

“Doing food drives is really important on a college campus because a lot of people don’t realize that a lot of students at the university are actually struggling to find food,” said Victoria Cohen, the community service coordinator on the Hillel student board. “I think it’s important to recognize that some of our classmates are at a disadvantage and they need help.”

Hillel accepted items throughout the week and ended the drive with their “Friendsgiving Shabbat” where they encouraged participants to bring items.

Items from the food drive will benefit the Women’s Center food pantry on-campus. Intern Emma Getz has seen first-hand how much donation drives like the one held by the Hillel help those in need.

“There are students that are coming here and they’re definitely in need and they’re working so hard in school,” Getz said. “But how can you do your best in school when you have to worry about where your next meal will come from?”

Food drives for places like the Women’s Center also indirectly help other organizations like the Haven, Noble said.

“We can’t do it alone so when you’re talking about groups on campus, we are so grateful to them because we can’t do it alone,” Noble said. “This is a community problem and we have to work together to solve it.”

What you can do

Advocate – Services like Housing & Emergency Support Services (HESS) need funding that largely comes from grants at the state and federal level. Next election, make sure your representatives have a clear stance on how they’ll handle hunger and homelessness.

Volunteer – On and off campus, there are many programs and organizations you can volunteer with. The Miller Community House, the Kent State Campus Kitchen and eventually the Haven of Portage County are just a few places that welcome volunteers.

Donate – Local shelters as well as the Women’s Center on campus are always accepting donations. Food, personal care items (shampoo, razors, etc.) and clothes are always accepted.

Bryan Vohsing is a business and downtown/Trumbull reporter. Contact him at [email protected].