Amid panhandlng problem, group is on front lines fighting homelessness

Beneath the train tracks along North Keowee Street just south of the Mad River is a village for the destitute. Scattered mattresses are surrounded by a carpet of broken glass, clothing strips, beer cans, potato chip bags and water bottles.

“Home is where the heart is,” is spray-painted on a cement post.

It’s called “The Trestle” by the Miami Valley Housing Opportunities workers who regularly venture there to offer assistance to the inhabitants.

Panhandling has surged in the wake of a law change preventing police from arresting people for asking for money without a permit, but Montgomery County’s homeless population — estimated at about 4,000 people — has seen little change in recent years.

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Not all panhandlers are homeless and not all homeless people are panhandlers. But if the goal is to get people off the street, city and county officials say efforts like MVHO’s are more helpful than handing cash to someone at a highway on-ramp.

That’s why a coalition of social service groups, along with the city of Dayton, launched Real Change Dayton, a campaign to encourage people to donate to United Way programs instead of giving to beggars.

That way, they say, the money will go to groups like MVHO, which does the kind of outreach social service agencies say is needed to truly address homelessness and get help to those who need it.

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“Do you need anything?” Angel Barger asked of the shirtless, tattooed man asleep on a blanket on the ground under The Trestle. “Food? Water?”

Most days, they try to get there early, before the roaring trains rouse sleepers to scatter throughout the city. On Tuesday, they arrived in the late morning to find two men on the filthy mattresses.

“There’s all kinds of people out here,” said Kenny Sparks, 47, who had just woken up. He doesn’t consider himself homeless. He often stays at his mom’s place. He thinks of the underpass as his own space, like an efficiency apartment where he can crash after a night of drinking.

Sparks suggested that trash bags be brought out for the residents to use and urged the workers to check on the man on the other mattress, who wouldn’t give his name but said he was hungry and accepted some canned food.

“It’s downtown, so it’s close to a lot of the different meal sites, walking distance,” Barger said of why she thinks people are drawn to The Trestle. “The police don’t too much come back here, so I think they feel kind of safer under here. They don’t feel like they’re going to be messed with as much as other sites. “

‘You name it, we’ll do it’

Now in its 26th year, Miami Valley Homeless Opportunities is a nonprofit that works to provide housing for the poor but also sees homelessness as part of its mission.

MVHO is one of a few area agencies that does street outreach.

Barger and fellow MVHO worker Heather Hotchkiss inspect the garbage left behind by the group like archaeologists, looking for names on pill bottles or other clues about who was there.

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“If we can find a name, like I have found a couple names, I can go back and look it up in the system and see if they’re linked to any kind of resource in the community, whether it be the shelter, whether it be us, or if they’re working with case manager somewhere,” said Hotchkiss.

If you have seen a panhandler on the street multiple times — especially if they’re truly homeless — there is a good chance they have met workers like Barger and Hotchkiss.

“We go into abandoned houses, we go into the woods, you name it, we’ll do it,” Hotchkiss said. “Anywhere there are people in places not meant for human habitation.”

SPECIAL REPORT: Region’s homeless come from near and far, and often find few resources locallySome don’t want the help, and Barger says that’s OK.

“I’ve come out and brought people things for a whole year before they decided to engage with me,” she said. “I’m on their time. It really isn’t about what I want for them….It’s about what they want and what they’re ready to do. If they’re not ready, I’ve just got to sit around and wait till they are.”

‘Do you know who gets that money?’

Part of the sentiment behind the Real Change Dayton campaign is that homelessness is enabled by those who hand out cash at street corners.

Not everyone agrees with that philosophy, including some of those who occupy those corners.

One recent morning a woman who identified herself as Robin sat on a portable stool as she held a sign at U.S. 35 and Main Street in Dayton. Robin isn’t homeless. She has a small apartment her family helps her rent. But she said she has been unable to get Social Security disability for two years and begs for money to get by.

“Do you know who gets that money?” she said about the donations to groups like the United Way. “It’s not the poor people. It’s the people in charge.”

RELATED: What you’re saying: The panhandler issue in Dayton

Andrea McGriff, director of MVHO’s Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness (PATH) program, said most of her funding is federal. The little money the agency gets from donations goes entirely to clients, she said.

“I pay people rent with that, I buy people boots for work, I buy them a bed,” McGriff said. “All of it can go directly to the client.”

The PATH program enrolled 250 people last year, about 150 of whom went into permanent housing with subsidies.

The United Way hasn’t said what programs specifically will get funds donated to Real Change Dayton, only that it will go to programs for employment, emergency medical, food and shelter.

From dumpster to home 

If someone does want help from MVHO, they go through a screening. The agency only helps people with mental illnesses, but nearly all of the people they encounter have a mental illness. It then helps them get medical care, a place to stay and ultimately a job if possible.

The agency offers both transitional and permanent housing options, which provide subsidized rent to those who stay linked with mental health and other resources.

James Cooper, 30, has been in transitional living since November.

Barger had seen him on the street for years, but he declined help. He was in and out of jail, often on trespassing charges. Finally, he was put in a treatment facility a year ago and began taking medication for his depression.

He was sleeping in a dumpster last summer when Barger noticed his pants didn’t fit and brought him a belt.

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During an interview in his small apartment last week, Cooper darted into the other room and brought out the belt: “This is my most prized possession,” he said.

With MVHO’s help, Cooper got an apartment off of Salem Avenue, and a janitorial job at Eastway. He is paying child support for his 7-year-old son.

“I went from a dumpster to a chair, couch, and bed, stove and refrigerator,” he said.

MVHO also gave him something else, he said: Someone to call if he needs help.

Barger said she would never tell someone not to give money to a panhandler if it is in their heart to do so.

But, she said, it takes more than that to get someone off the street.

“(It takes) us being there and standing by them through the whole process. Going out there, checking on them, picking up our phones after hours, going in and making sure they’re OK on the weekends cause we’re worried,” Barger said. “They know we care, and I think that makes all the difference, and it makes them want to be successful.”

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