‘The face of homelessness is changing’

Kelly Petryszyn

Mary Kay Reese has a college degree from Walsh University in education. She taught for 26 years. She has owned two houses. She always lived comfortably.

Then, while she was pregnant with her son in 1998, she was diagnosed with depression. In 2005, she transitioned from being a full-time teacher to a substitute. Her son Jordan was diagnosed with Asperger’s Disorder. The medical bills for Jordan started to rise, and her depression escalated to the point where she could no longer substitute teach.

She hit her breaking point when her house was foreclosed on in December 2008. This past October she was hospitalized for depression. During this time, her son went into foster care for three weeks. Reese and her son had nowhere to go when she was released from the hospital so they had to stay in Miller Community House, a homeless shelter, for four months.

Reese is the first to admit that she does not fit into the stereotype of a homeless person.

“You don’t know when you’re going to find yourself in this situation,” she said. “The face of homelessness is changing.”

She is one of many who were once accustomed to a comfortable life in the middle class and then found themselves in poverty.

According to statistics from the United Way 211 Portage, a resource that connects impoverished people with local social services, in 2008, 80 percent of the people they consulted were at 200 percent or below federal poverty guidelines.

Then in 2009, the number of people being consulted decreased to 71.9 percent of people who were at or below 200 percent of federal poverty. Despite this decrease, the total amount of people needing services increased. This disparity reflects that middle class people need more services then in the past.

Many point to the economy as the source of the increase in the need for services. Sister Denise Stiles, manager at the Center of Hope, a food bank in Ravenna, said other reasons for an increase are high unemployment, big medical bills and expensive utilities. The unemployment rate for Portage County in 2009 was 10.2 percent, according to Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.

Stiles can recall a young man who came in desperate for food. He lost his job and his wife got sick. The staff was touched by his story and gave him a few extra loaves of bread. He was so thankful that he hugged and kissed everyone who helped him. Then he came in a week later with money to repay the staff for their generosity. At first, Stiles wouldn’t take his money, but he insisted. She realized that offering the small sum of money was his way of giving back, so she took it as a donation to the food bank.

Stiles said she has had many people who have scheduled appointments for assistance cancel at the last minute. She said this is because people who are used to providing for themselves have to work up the courage to ask for help.

Jen Matlack, program director of Housing Emergency Support Service, has seen the same behavior among middle class people who come into Portage County Job and Family Services. They are often scared or embarrassed to be seen in the agency, Matlack said. She said she feels that initially asking for help is a shot to their pride. Eventually she has seen them drop the do-it-yourself mindset and start to become more comfortable seeking assistance.

Navigating the system of social services presents a problem for middle class people since they are so new to it. Many of the programs have extensive paper work to fill out and a substantial waiting time before the service is started, said Erin Dunbar, vice president of community services and director of 211 Portage. For example, the food stamp program takes up to 30 days before the stamps are received.

Reese said she is not embarrassed to ask for help. She has learned how to tap into the resources available through Portage County. Currently, she is living in a house provided by the Portage Area Transitional Housing program. She is constantly seeking support through various programs for her son’s Asperger’s Disorder. Reese also gets help from Medicaid to pay his costly medical bills. She views her spout of temporary poverty as a chance to start over.

“You have to want to get better,” she said. “You can’t make the excuse that ‘I’m homeless, I’m helpless.’ You have to change your attitude.”

The demand for services has remained steady since the start of the year. The requests received by 211 Portage have slightly decreased over the first few months of 2010, according to 211 Portage data.

In the meantime, Reese is going to start applying for teaching or substitute teaching jobs for the fall. Reese has always been helping people, but this time she needs help. And she is thankful that she has found support she needs to begin her journey of overcoming poverty.

Contact public affairs reporter Kelly Petryszyn

at [email protected].