Reaching out to homeless hiding in Wood County

Guests pick out winter coats at Project Connect last year.

By JAN LARSON McLAUGHLIN

BG Independent News

 

Homelessness in Wood County has many different faces – many of them invisible.

Some of those faces gathered around tables earlier this year at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church to share their stories with members of the Wood County Continuum of Care, the organization looking at how to reach out to those struggling with inadequate housing here.

One woman told of being homeless for six months with her four children. For a period they lived in the now demolished Victory Inn in Bowling Green – a hotel frequently on the citation list of the county health department for unsafe living conditions.

The hotel was not a suitable place for children, the mother said.

The family eventually got into HUD housings, but only after sitting on a waiting list for nearly a year.

Other families find their temporary homes in parking lots, like those at WalMart. To some, parking lots are more appealing than living in a shelter. Wood County has no shelter – the closest homeless shelter is in Toledo.

“I was born and raised here. I’m not going up there,” said another woman sitting in the church meeting room. “I’ll live in my van if I have to.”

Others talk about seeking temporary shelter in local laundromats, or couch surfing at friends’ homes.

“I have a son. You can’t live in a van when you have a kid in school,” one mother said.

As of 2016, an estimated 16,675 residents of Wood County were renters. According to HUD, the fair market rental rates in Wood County in 2017 were:

  • $465 for an efficiency apartment.
  • $559 for a one-bedroom.
  • $730 for a two-bedroom.
  • $1,000 for a three-bedroom.
  • $1,093 for a four-bedroom.

In 2016, a total of 569 evictions were filed with Bowling Green Municipal Court. In the end, 324 families and individuals were actually evicted from their homes.

The number of annual evictions through BG Municipal Court has grown from 135 in 2001.

The Continuum of Care Wood County is trying to expand community awareness of the homeless living locally, and trying to reach those homeless with services.

The Continuum of Care is a coalition of public service providers, non-profit organizations, and community leaders addressing issues of housing insecurity and homelessness in the area.

The organization is embarking on a new five-year strategic plan to raise awareness about available housing resources, improve the effectiveness of local intervention services, and create a long-term solution to permanent and affordable housing solutions in Wood County.

Community conversations were hosted in 13 local communities by members of the organization. Town hall meetings were held with area residents plus discussions with clergy, elected officials and public servants. The discussions were designed to inform the coalition about perceptions of homelessness and how communities can address these issues more effectively.

Many local communities perceive homelessness as traditional or stereotypical images of people sleeping in the street. But in Wood County, the homeless are sleeping in cars, or if they haven’t worn out their welcome, couch surfing between friends’ and families’ homes.

Many are “one medical bill or car repair away from homelessness,” said Kathy Mull, of the Continuum of Care, during the community meeting in Bowling Green earlier this year.

High rental rates and poor conditions of housing seem to be issues county-wide, Mull said.

“We’re finding there’s an issue of affordable housing or housing not up to code,” she said. Those renters finding places to rent at low prices are often reluctant to complain about insufficient heat, insulation or other problems.

“I couldn’t afford the heat to be on,” one woman said during the community meeting in Bowling Green. She remembers her dog’s water bowl being frozen in her apartment one winter morning.

Another woman said her oven didn’t work for six months, and another talked about leaks from the apartment above.

“It was literally raining in my kitchen,” she said.

While there are laws about fair housing, the renters at this meeting said they are afraid to make waves, and some landlords don’t follow those rules. “They find ways around it,” one said.

“In Bowling Green, there’s just not anywhere to turn,” another person said.

Most of those at the Bowling Green meeting said there is plenty of food assistance in the county. But housing help – especially for those without children – is lacking.

“The fact that I am single and have no children kind of disqualifies me from so much help,” one woman said. “I don’t want to hear ‘No’ one more time.”

Transportation becomes an issue for those renting in rural areas, where the rent is often lower, Mull said. In Bowling Green, the rent is often geared toward students.

HUD housing has long waiting lists. Salvation Army will put people up for two or three nights in a local hotel, but that is a mere Band-Aid.

“I don’t feel there are enough resources,” Mull said.

The Continuum of Care is considering the building of homeless shelters in Wood County, transitional housing, expanded voucher programs and transportation options for displaced residents in the area.

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