As pilot nears end, formerly unhoused residents weigh next moves

Around 40 Columbus residents were moved from tent encampments to an East Side motel as part of a program initiated by the Community Shelter Board that has drawn criticisms from participants and staff.
Loyalty Inn
Loyalty InnAndy Downing

For nearly 10 years, Brenda, a pseudonym, lived on the streets, most recently making her home in a tent encampment in the woods off of High Street behind Great Southern on the South Side of Columbus. 

But when city officials conducted a sweep, shutting down the encampment and ushering the people who lived there from the site, Brenda said she was presented with the opportunity to enter into a pilot program launched in late December by Community Shelter Board (CSB), a nonprofit that coordinates city- and county-wide efforts focused on homelessness. The program, Brenda said, would provide her with immediate temporary shelter in a hotel or motel while case workers helped her to establish permanent supportive housing.

Shannon Isom, president and CEO of CSB, said in a late-May Zoom interview that the organization has always housed families in hotels and motels, but that the program expanded last year to include two additional cohorts: Those left without shelter due to the sudden, unexpected closure of their housing complexes, such as the former residents of Latitude Five25 and more recently Colonial Village; and people such as Brenda, who have long made their homes in encampments, eschewing the shelter system for numerous reasons. These can include their relationship status (Isom said the current shelter system does not offer shared housing for unmarried couples), pet ownership, being a person who uses drugs, concerns related to personal safety, and the limited number of personal belongings that can be carried by a person staying in a shelter, among other issues.

“If there’s someone living on the land who’s struggling to move into a congregate space for various reasons, we now have another option for them,” Isom said of the pilot. “It’s about centering our mission differently than maybe we had in the past.”

And yet, Brenda initially struggled with her decision to enter the program. She said she had a comfort level with the various South Side encampments in which she had built relationships and, over time, put down roots. And she feared the unknown that came with abandoning this community and moving into a motel in a strange part of town – in this case the Loyalty Inn on the far East Side – where she would be isolated from the part of the city with which she was most familiar. It can now take three buses and multiple hours, Brenda said, for her to reach her old stomping grounds, which continue to exert a tug even five weeks into the program. 

“I still miss being out there, and I’m still not used to it here [at the motel]. … But I was tired of living the way I was living. I haven’t spoken to my family in over 10 years, and I want to be back in their life,” Brenda said in late May, seated in a coffee shop across Brice Road from Loyalty Inn, where she’s lived for the past six weeks along with roughly 40 other formerly unhoused individuals who are also part of the CSB pilot program. “I’d never been offered housing like this, and I thought this could be a good opportunity to get off the streets and finally change my life around.”

But Brenda said it felt as if these hopes were dashed when she learned in mid-May that the program would end on June 30, at which point the participants will be required to depart the Loyalty Inn. When this change was announced, residents were given a list of 13 income-based rental properties scattered around the city. Of the seven places Brenda had called in an attempt to find housing, she said the shortest waitlist she has encountered is eight months. 

“This was a big change for me to come and do this, and now it’s like – poof! – and I’m going to be right back out there on the streets,” Brenda said. “There are waiting lists everywhere. There’s no way I’m going to be able to get into any property that quick.”

Similar frustrations were expressed in a series of interviews with 14 other residents who are currently part of the CSB pilot program at the Loyalty Inn, all of whom spoke under the condition of anonymity, fearful of any negative impact on potential future aid.

Collectively, the residents raised issues related to everything from how the program has been managed to the conditions at Loyalty Inn, claiming cockroach infestations, faulty wiring in the rooms, inoperable door locks, the presence of mold, and a malfunctioning HVAC system, among other concerns – accounts echoed in interviews with three staff members contracted by CSB. 

Brenda said the heat in her room has never worked properly, so on colder nights she has warmed the space with an electric countertop burner. Another resident said the door to their room can’t be locked, making them hesitant to leave the motel, concerned that their belongings could be stolen or damaged in their absence. And three residents described similar issues with water leaking through a light fixture in the ceiling above their showers, with one saying that they received an electric shock from brushing their hand against it. Other residents said their rooms were equipped with broken televisions, missing or burned out light bulbs, and soiled carpeting and/or bedding. (Attempts to reach Loyalty Inn management for comment were unsuccessful.)

Public records show that a non-emergency call was placed in April claiming exposed wiring in the lobby, with a subsequent city inspection uncovering multiple, still-active violations. The Nuisance Abatement Group (NAG) also conducted an inspection at Loyalty Inn last week due to complaints about fire code and sanitation issues, a spokesperson for the Columbus City Attorney said via email. The property is currently under a nuisance abatement order filed against the motel’s previous owners in 2021 – an order that extends to current ownership. And a meeting is planned for next week between the City Attorney’s office, hotel ownership and CSB to discuss any violations, with the spokesperson noting that all options are currently on the table, including “possibly reopening the court case if we determine that to be the most appropriate response.” 

Prior to our call, Isom said she hadn’t heard directly about the conditions experienced by the residents living at the Loyalty Inn, but she also wasn’t surprised. “We don’t want to have a different level of quality for any of our community members. I believe, though, what we’ve tried to do is work with hotels and motels that are able to keep a population together, so that we’re not breaking up peoples’ communities,” said Isom, who noted that CSB operated in 14 hotels and motels at its late-winter peak – a number that has since dropped to eight, including the Loyalty Inn. “And, I will be honest, the hotels and motels that had space for that, there was probably a reason they had that space, and they weren’t the ones that were being highly utilized. So, we’re sensitive to that. … And I think everyone is motivated to figure out, condition-wise, how we can do better.”

Conditions aside, a majority of the residents interviewed said the pilot program often felt ill-defined. One resident described the last five months as living in a purgatory, of sorts, defined by long stretches of inaction. Another said participation felt akin to riding in a car as it was being constructed, pointing to an overriding sense of uncertainty they said had gone hand in hand with their five-plus months in two different motels.

“Everything about it was questionable,” they said when asked how the program had first been pitched to them while they were living in a West Side tent encampment. “It seemed like they were still trying to figure all of that stuff out.”

Isom, for her part, acknowledged that the pilot is still in its infancy, and that CSB is in the process of gleaning information from current participants and contractors in the hopes of making improvements should resources be available to continue with the program in the future.

In the course of our interview, Isom cited numerous challenges faced by CSB and other organizations currently serving the unsheltered amid a growing housing crisis. Driven in part by skyrocketing rents and rising evictions, the number of homeless residents in Columbus has climbed to record levels for the second consecutive year. The annual “point-in-time” count conducted by CSB on Jan. 25, found there were 2,380 people experiencing homelessness in the city – up from the 2023 count of 2,337, an increase of 1.8 percent.

The “point-in-time” count numbers landed at a time when eviction filings in the city are also at record highs. And The Columbus Dispatch recently reported that the city has a shortage of 52,694 rental units for people who need affordable housing. Meanwhile, a joint report released in March by the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) and the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio (COHHIO) found that only about 25 percent of extremely low-income individuals or families are able to get housing in Columbus.

“What I do know is we need multiple options to address this crisis. Thinking a shelter system will solve all of this is no longer the way we should be thinking about housing destabilization and homelessness,” Isom said. “Do we need more money? Yes. Do we need more housing? Yes. Do we need more affordable housing? Yes. … There is no longer this archetype of what homelessness looks like. We have community members who are working through myriad issues, and all of these things can’t necessarily be solved by a one-time pilot, but could be solved with more density of housing, more development of housing, more city development, more economic development.”

Isom also said that the pilot program in place at sites such as Loyalty Inn was never meant to house individuals indefinitely. “We don’t have enough financial resources for people to be in hotels,” she said. “What I’m trying to create is a space that doesn’t allow people to be on the land, where they’re assaulted by the elements, and that ultimately helps people move faster into housing. … If that’s not happening, we can’t have two congruent shelter systems moving along, with one (hotels and motels) being more expensive than the other.”

But all of the residents interviewed said that when they were first approached about the program, there were no deadlines given, and that they were told temporary housing would be extended until a more permanent solution could be found. In the interim, the residents met regularly with counselors from Equitas Health, Southeast Healthcare and Mount Carmel. They also interact with contract workers, a number of whom are connected with FIRST Collective and serve as the on-site points of contact at Loyalty Inn, doling out bagged lunches and bus passes and occasionally serving as everything from conflict mediators to counselors.

Ellis Carswell-Smith, who was recently let go from his contract position with the program, said that in their six-plus weeks on the job they never saw an official from CSB onsite at the Loyalty Inn, and that their only contact with the nonprofit consisted of text messages exchanged with a contract employee who served as an intermediary between CSB and the folks doing the on the ground work at the motel. (Reached via text message, the intermediary declined comment citing employment agreements.)

“I had no training, and when I was brought in, I was told there would be two people onsite at all times,” said Carswell-Smith, who has worked with the local unhoused community for more than a half-decade, most recently with FIRST Collective, a nonprofit serving the city’s unsheltered residents. “But for the past three weeks, it’s just been me there, working 10-hour shifts, managing 40 people alone.” 

Staff members interviewed said resources were often stretched thin. There were days when there weren't bagged lunches available to residents, Carswell-Smith said, or when they ran out of bus passes. And there was rarely pet food available to those residents who lived with cats or dogs. Additionally, there were almost near-daily occurrences where staff members were forced to play mediator in disagreements residents had both with one another and with motel management. (Carswell-Smith’s accounts were supported in interviews with two other staffers, both of whom spoke under the condition of anonymity owing to their continued employment in the program.)

In spite of these issues, a number of the residents still expressed gratitude for the relative sense of routine that motel housing had afforded them in recent months, providing shelter from the elements and allowing them access to things that many people take for granted, such as daily showers.

Within the program, a number of residents also said they had made progress in obtaining the identification needed to apply for permanent housing – an often-laborious process whose timeline can be greatly impacted by the documents to which a person has access. One person, for example, described experiencing a months-long delay in their quest to obtain a copy of an out-of-state birth certificate. And another shared how they had recently visited the Ohio BMV with two pieces of mail and a social security card in hand, only to be denied a copy of their photo ID when they learned they had a warrant block stemming from an unpaid $137 parking ticket.

“And the clerk said, ‘If you pay that, we’ll give you the all-clear,’” they said. “And trying to come up with that kind of money without committing a crime is almost impossible.”

Other residents who had successfully obtained the needed documentation expressed concerns at the potential of having their ID lost or stolen in the months-long gap that currently exists between eviction and, ideally, landing a spot in one of a limited number of affordable housing units.

“We’re going to get out there like we did before, and it’s going to happen where somebody steals my wallet,” said one resident. “And once that ID is gone, you’re fighting tooth and nail to get it back. And then it’s over. And you can’t get a job, and you can’t get this, or you can’t do that. And that scares me to no end.”

Prior to entering the program, Richard, a pseudonym, lived with his wife in a tent encampment near West Broad Street on the city’s West Side. But in December, he said he awoke to her dead body next to him, recalling how the paramedics later removed her from the couple’s tent by dragging her by her feet. “I don’t even drag my trash out. I pick it up and carry it,” Richard said. “But that’s how we get looked down on, like trash. I’ve got 25 years clean. I don’t do drugs. I don’t drink. I don’t do anything. And yet, I still get treated like I’m less than a human being. We get treated like we’re worth nothing.”

Richard, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer, said he viewed the program as a chance to finally reestablish some footing in the wake of this tragedy, holding to a hope that he could spend his final months with a roof over his head. Now he fears that he’ll be back on the streets when June ends, and with less than he had to his name prior to taking CSB up on the pilot.

“I had multiple tents, multiple sleeping bags. And 95 percent of my stuff was stolen when I was moving [into the motel],” he said. “And I don’t have nothing now. I have no tents, no sleeping bag, nothing. I’ve got less now than what I had then.”

In interviews, residents generally expressed a mix of anger and resignation over the pilot nearing its end. Of those who spoke with Matter News, only two said they would take part in a similar program moving forward, with one saying, “If anyone is willing to extend a hand, I’m going to take it.”

The remainder said that what they viewed as the pilot’s failures had shattered their faith in one of the few remaining safety nets available to them. “Pardon my language, but personally that trust is shot to shit,” one said.

“Hearing people lose hope, that hurts,” Carswell-Smith said. “How am I supposed to help somebody that’s given up?”

These frustrations were echoed by two other staff members. “My hope for this program was to demonstrate that even if the system can’t be trusted, there are folks or there are pieces that can be, and we could build from there,” one said. “But as it stands, I think the only thing this program has done is make the next social worker’s job harder.”

Isom acknowledged that the pilot has not been perfect, but she said that its existence alone is a sign of progress. “I do know that last year, we didn’t have this,” she said, expressing hope that the “touches” made with formerly unhoused residents in the last five to six months could one day, in time, impact the direction their lives take. “What I’m trying my hardest to do is make our touches as sticky as possible, so that even if there is a separation from us, the stickiness of it or the magnet of it would still have us connecting. … I did not begin the pilot to release anyone back into camp. That is not the goal. And so, my staff, my team, the department, we’re going to be working like the dickens to see something different happen.”

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