At 28, Matthew Shoemaker spent a week in rehab and then checked himself out, walking from Lancaster to the St. Vincent de Paul homeless shelter in Newark, desperate for refuge.
After an 8-year prison stint that started when he was just 17 years old, he struggled to reenter society, secure housing and work a stable job.
“I almost killed myself working two jobs,” he said. “That’s when I came into contact with methamphetamine for the first time.”
His Adidas-clad feet were planted far apart on the cold concrete, and the bright orange Lorax hat did little to hide Shoemaker’s weariness while standing under the Newark Homeless Outreach Pavilion earlier this year.
As the dual housing and overdose crises grow in Ohio, some groups are implementing harm reduction strategies and systems — prioritizing safety for all — to help reentering and unhoused citizens like Shoemaker, but advocates say it’s not enough to meet the growing need in Licking County.
Just last year, 58 people died of overdoses in the county, up from the 47 individuals who died due to overdoses the year before, according to data from the county coroner’s office.
Shoemaker had to spend four nights outside the shelter before he was allowed into St. Vincent de Paul shelter. His criminal record and urinalysis kept him out, so he waited until they would let him in, and then stayed for four months before he relapsed.
This experience is common–and potentially dangerous. People who use drugs or who are in recovery and who are unhoused are at risk of overdose. According to a study published in the Journal of Substance Use and Addiction Treatment, people returning from incarceration “experience rates of fatal and nonfatal opioid overdose many times higher than the general population.”
Stable housing can be a step towards recovery for those living on the street.
“If we can get them a house first, then we can tackle everything else,” said Laura Kennedy, the returning home Ohio and community transition program case manager for Licking County Coalition for Housing.
But that can be a challenge. Licking County Coalition for Housing had 146 households on their waitlist for housing as of Friday, October 20th.
On top of the housing delay, Shoemaker faced many systemic difficulties. It took him months to find a job, and the only one he was able to hold was at a Speedway, where he said he was not allowed to take any time off.
“It’s barrier after barrier and if you were out on the street and you kept hitting this roadblock and you didn’t have people like some of our volunteers help you, what do you think you would do? You would stay on the street,” said Nancy Welu, a volunteer at Newark Homeless Outreach. “Maybe you’d turn to drugs and alcohol to help you cope.”
Many people who’ve needed assistance with housing have also turned to Southeastern Ohio Legal Services (SEOLS), an organization working to provide civil legal aid to people facing housing discrimination and security, as well as domestic issues, retaining Social Security benefits and getting their driver’s license back.
Both lawyers Ann Roche and Bill Canterberry echo the common belief: Licking County lacks affordable housing.
“Supplies [are] so limited and it’s crumbling and we don’t remodel when we need to,” Roche explained. “The housing stock is small and it’s just old in Ohio.”
SEOLS said some of the challenges with the aging affordable housing stock make it even harder to secure housing for those who need it: lead pipes and paint in homes, as well as inaccessible units for those with disabilities and the elderly, coupled with discrimination from landlords create major barriers across the board.
Some landlords in Licking County have refused to take vouchers from the Licking Metropolitan Housing Authority for subsidized housing, a practice that remains legal in the county, SEOLS said.
Other parts of Ohio, though, including Cuyahoga County and the City of Columbus have passed ordinances deeming it unlawful to discriminate against someone based on how they pay their rent.
“It is discrimination on the basis of poverty, which on its face is legal,” Roche explained. “There are ways you can show its disproportionate impact on women, and racial minorities. On its face you’re allowed to discriminate against poor people.”
Licking County faces a severe lack of low-barrier shelters, where individuals are allowed to stay regardless of their sobriety status or criminal history. The challenge of housing unhoused people in the county is typically remedied through the use of shelters like St. Vincent’s Haven or the Salvation Army, both of which have barriers or mandate people be sober before they can stay at the shelter.
St. Vincent’s requires conferences with case workers twice a week, background checks, and mandatory drug tests, and residents must be out of the shelter from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.
For people who use drugs and need housing, these are hurdles.
“Low barrier means that individuals can access immediate emergency shelter regardless of their status,” said Deb Dingus, the executive director of United Way of Licking County. “Perhaps with a charge that’s outstanding, or despite their drug use, and testing, all those sorts of things that may preclude them from other places of emergency shelter.”
Dingus is also the pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Newark. She’s worked with several volunteers to create a drop-in shelter at the church on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. This drop-in time allows unhoused people to come inside, get a sack lunch, use the bathroom, charge their phones, and rest. It’s helped fill a hole left by Vertical 196, a day shelter in Newark, which recently closed. Dingus also helps to run a weekly dinner on Wednesday night which anyone is welcome to attend. Volunteers bring food and everyone sits together, shares their faith, and enjoys a home-cooked meal.
“We’re just a church extending God’s love, feeding the hungry, trying to shelter unsheltered people, providing services where we can,” said Dingus.
Mallory Meeker, a formerly unhoused person who now works for Whole Living Recovery, a sober rehabilitation house, explained that living on the street can be mentally and physically dangerous.
Drugs like heroin and fentanyl are appealing to numb pain and methamphetamine is appealing to stave off fatigue and stay sharp, Meeker said. The issue of substance use and the housing crisis go hand-in-hand and the many regulations of shelters in the area and lack of broader resources hold people back from getting proper housing and proper care, she said.
“We owe that to this community, the nonprofits, this organization, Newark, and our county,” Meeker said. “There’s so many people that have donated their time, money, food, clothing to help save our lives.”
Shoemaker understands what it’s like to live with substance use disorder, and understands that housing is harm reduction.
“A week after I relapsed I started shooting again, and I shot all the way up to almost 6o days ago,” Shoemaker said.
Now Shoemaker volunteers at Newark Homeless Outreach, providing resources for unhoused people.
Despite all of this help, the problem is growing, and these organizations still need more support if they’re expected to expand their solutions.
Ellie Owen and Noah Fishman write for TheReportingProject.org, the nonprofit news organization of the Denison University Journalism Program, which is funded in part by the Mellon Foundation and donations from readers.