As temperatures around central Ohio drop, unhoused residents in Licking County worry about surviving the winter without a roof over their heads.
“We’re talking about a large number of people that are suffering, and are going to suffer even more,” said Eric Lee, 67, of the Newark Think Tank on Poverty.
Lee has experienced homelessness himself and faced major obstacles in finding housing due to his criminal record. He now has decades of work addressing these issues under his belt.
A new bill working its way through the Ohio Legislature targeting housing accessibility for people like Lee with prior criminal convictions might help them get back on their feet.
House Bill 50, introduced by Reps. Latyna Humphrey (D-Columbus) and Bill Seitz (R-Cincinnati), would help individuals re-entering society by creating a program to issue certificates of qualification for housing.
“It is a certificate you will get from your sentencing court after you’ve gone through programming to show you’re working,” Humphrey said. “The judge can make the decision if he or she will provide the certificate.”
Humphrey says she understands the struggles of reentry better than most lawmakers.
“I’m a daughter of a re-entering citizen,” she explained. “I’ve seen how much [my mom] struggled growing up with trying to find housing despite having an education. Once you get an F on your back, it becomes hard.”
These certificates, Humphrey said, create a pathway for people to access housing, rather than leaving them on the street where they may be arrested again.
The criminalization of homelessness is an ongoing problem, advocates say. Bans on sleeping in public places and cars are becoming more common across the country, including close to home in Wheeling and Parkersburg, West Virginia, according to the National Homelessness Law Center.
And first-time offenders or people who have been to prison once experience homelessness at a rate seven times higher than the general population. For those who have multiple prison stays, that rate is 13 times higher than the general population, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.
According to Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in 2022, there were 10,615 unhoused people on a given night in Ohio.
These certificates, Humphrey said, are essentially “a legal object of good faith,” though there’s no guarantee it will immediately provide them with housing. Because the certificates are not binding, no mandate exists for landlords to accept them.
“I don’t know if a lot of landlords would necessarily honor [them], but I think it would be helpful,” said Laura Kennedy, a case manager for the Licking County Coalition for Housing. “A lot of clients have previous evictions or arson and a lot of barriers that would prevent them from housing.”
Humphrey said House Bill 50 “is not enough,” but is a good step in the right direction.
The bill has already passed the state House of Representatives and is currently making its way through committee hearings in the Senate.
Passage can’t come soon enough, advocates say, as community resources in Licking County have been crippled in recent months, and outside change does not seem to be happening at the necessary rate.
Lee is concerned that effective change may not happen until it is too late for some. “I hope this never happens, but it seems like it’s always the case when it comes to change: Something tragic has to happen,” Lee said. “I don’t want anyone to have to die because of this.”
Earlier this year, the Licking County Jail Ministries-operated shelter, Vertical 196, closed its doors after five years of operations. The organization offered laundry and shower facilities, clean clothes, haircuts, access to the internet and rides to rehabilitation centers for those who need them. Without an outlet like this, a 24-hour day becomes less and less manageable for people on the streets.
“You almost lose your soul, and you do sorta give up hope,” Lee said. “Hope is something, you know. When you don’t have hopes for anything being better the next day, you gotta live through a day that’s just like hell, and you know you got the same life tomorrow. All these charities like Coalition for Care, they do what they can but it’s just not enough.”
While Lee is housed now, he said something like the proposed certificate for housing could have gone a long way to help him find housing in his earlier years.
Each year, around 700 unhoused people across the country die of hypothermia, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. With temperatures in Ohio already in the 30-degree range, finding shelter each night will be crucial for the survival of the growing population of unhoused residents in Licking County.