A pair of chunky  Doc Marten boots — laced, tied and unworn since their owner passed away in 2022 — sits on the steps of the Licking County Courthouse, surrounded by hundreds of others. The boots are tagged with the owner’s name, Syler, and a message from his mom: 

“I love you.”

Syler’s boots are among hundreds of others on the steps of the courthouse, representing individuals experiencing homelessness and mental health challenges, and memorializing those who have died of an overdose in Licking County as part of the sixth annual Steps of Change event on Saturday, May 18.  

Of those hundreds of shoes, 237 adult shoes and 153 children’s shoes represented the approximate number of unhoused people in Newark. 

Syler’s mother, Connie Ryan, came to the event on Saturday to memorialize her son. 

When one of Syler’s friends reached out about Steps of Change a few years ago, Connie gave her a pair of Syler’s favorite Doc Marten boots. This year, she got to carry his boots during the Memory Walk. 

Syler’s struggles with substance use disorders were heartbreaking and brought about tumultuous times for Connie. She now volunteers at the Humane Society in honor of Syler, who loved animals.  

“People don’t realize it is a disease,” she added about the stigma of substance abuse disorder. 

Steps of Change, organized by Newark Homeless Outreach and OhioCAN (Change Addiction Now), began on Saturday with featured speakers, live music and a Memory Walk around the Courthouse Square. Participants were encouraged to hold a pair of shoes from the steps while they walked. 

The day’s events lasted from 10 a.m. until 1 p.m. Money was raised through sponsorships, as well as booth rentals, raffles and online donations. All donations  will be used to support the Newark Homeless Outreach, a volunteer organization that provides food, clothing and harm reduction supplies to unhoused people in the Newark area. 

Steps of Change also featured resources from rehabilitation and mental health programs meant to end the stigma and help people with substance use disorder. Volunteers with the Newark Homeless Outreach distributed a free meal.  

Trish Perry, of the Newark Homeless Outreach, helped organize the event and said her goals were “to bring awareness to the community about our unsheltered population and to recognize those that have died to substance use disorder.”

“When it comes to substance use disorder, nobody needs to die, we have too many resources and we have too many evidence-based practices that can keep people alive,” Perry said  in her introductory remarks.

“Unfortunately what kills most people is the stigma. And until we get rid of the stigma, which is what we work on here and what we try to do every week at the Outreach, we will continue to lose people,” she said. 

Ellie Owen writes for TheReportingProject.org, the nonprofit news organization of Denison University’s Journalism program, which is supported by generous donations from readers. Sign up for The Reporting Project newsletter here.