Noah Jones is what they call a drifter. He travels to homeless shelters across the Tri-State and when he stays the maximum time, he moves on to another shelter, or with a friend or to the streets.
“I never, in my wildest dreams, thought I would be here. I never thought I’d be this,” said Jones, 18, who quit high school one semester away from graduating. It’s his third stint at the Salvation Army’s Emergency Shelter in Ashland where individuals can stay for up to 30 days at a time. “I can’t find work, I can’t find hope. Places like this are all we have.”
The Salvation Army has operated its emergency shelter for 17 years. Maj. Darrell Kingsbury, who oversees the operations of the Ashland Salvation Army, said there are many faces to the homeless population in Ashland, from the elderly to newborns.
“We want to be a beacon of hope,” said Kingsbury. “Our goal is to provide shelter, but also a way out to not only housing, but also gainful employment and a better quality of life.”
On the rise
Homelessness in Ashland has nearly tripled since 2005, according to Susan Dickens, a case manager with the Salvation Army.
Last year, more than 600 people from more than 500 families utilized the emergency shelter, which is licensed to hold up to 30 people with men’s and women’s dorms and two family rooms.
Dickens has been with the Salvation Army since 2007, and she said that the fastest growing segment of the homeless is children who are in foster care and “age out” at 18.
“It’s sad when you come here and a young man or women is here because they have been put on the streets because they turned 18 in foster care,” she said. “It breaks your heart.”
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 1.56 million people used emergency and transitional housing in 2008-09.
A typical sheltered homeless person in 2009 was an adult male, a member of a minority group, middle-aged, and alone. Men are overrepresented in the sheltered homeless population — 63.7 percent of homeless adults are men, compared to 40.5 percent of adults in poverty. African Americans make up 38.7 percent of the sheltered homeless population, about 1.5 times their share of the poverty population. Only 2.8 percent of the sheltered homeless population is 62 years old or older. Homeless people have higher rates of disability than either the poverty population or the total U.S. population; slightly over two-thirds of sheltered homeless adults have a disability.
People who are homeless by themselves are very different from those who are homeless with children. Sheltered individuals are overwhelmingly male. More than three quarters are over 30, more than 10 percent are veterans, and more than 40 percent have a disability. In contrast, adults in sheltered homeless families are overwhelmingly female, most are under age 31, and very few are veterans or have a disability. Three-fifths of the people in homeless families are children, and more than half of the children are under age 6.
Dickens said the number of women using the facility have increased dramatically. “There are a lot of single parents out there, and a lot of people, regardless of sex or age, are one paycheck or hardship away from being homeless.”
Message and a meal
Members of the Garner Baptist Church have fed those at the shelter twice a month for the past four years. The meal is much more than nourishment for the body; it is as much nourishment of the spirit.
“We are here to give them a message of hope, and that we love them as Christ loves them,” said Gary Arrington, pastor of the Garner Baptist Church. “Members of our congregation look forward to this, and this is a part of our expanding ministry which we have in the prisons, jails and other places.”
Stacy Keelin, director of the Women’s Missionary Union at the church, said once members started volunteering “we knew it was worthwhile and something we wanted to continue to do.”
It has cultivated relationships that have expanded the stays at the shelter. A few years ago, church members helped put together a wedding for a couple at the shelter.
“We become a part of their lives, and we want our light to shine,” said Mike Cochran, a church member who provides musical entertainment when the church visits.
Cochran, a construction worker, said one of his most treasured gifts in life came from ministering at the shelter. “A little toddler drew a stick man playing a guitar on an index card. It’s priceless.”
Members of the church feed those at the shelter and provide a devotional during each visit. At the conclusion of the meal, those in attendance are asked voluntarily to fill out a prayer request form on an index card.
“We want to agree in prayer that whatever it is they are facing, we are with them, that God is with them,” said Barbara Cooper, a member of the church.
Hope for future
Outside the Salvation Army facility on Carter Avenue is a sign that reads “Center of Hope.”
“I’ve got to find my way,” says 28-year-old Aaron Childers. “I’m in need of finding myself.”
Childers was living in Michigan when he became homeless and found his way home to Ashland. For the last two years, he’s been bouncing, a street term meaning he has no concrete housing arrangements.
“I’ll live with friends for a while, or go there for a few hours, be in a shelter, or under a bridge or on a park bench…I never thought I would be this way,” he said.
On the streets, Childers said he’s been frightened: “I never wanted this, never imagined I would be like this. To close your eyes and not know if you will wake up, that’s scary.”
For Stephanie Collins, a housing monitor at the Salvation Army, the ultimate reward is seeing everything evolve outside the doors of the shelter.
“Our goal is to meet more than their housing needs,” she said. “We want them to be able to obtain certificates and training and obtain housing when they leave here, but the ball is their court.”