Mutual aid groups press city to use relief funds on housing crisis

With an eventual $187 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds available to spend by 2024, advocates want Columbus to invest dollars in real housing solutions rather than continued camp sweeps.
Sergeant Ed Daniher looks out at protesters and residents at Heer Park, the site of an unhoused camp that was cleared June 22, 2022. Daniher holds a trespassing notice for the camp's residents in one hand and has the other on his stun gun.
Sergeant Ed Daniher looks out at protesters and residents at Heer Park, the site of an unhoused camp that was cleared June 22, 2022. Daniher holds a trespassing notice for the camp's residents in one hand and has the other on his stun gun. Jaelynn Grisso

Multiple bulldozers and white trucks pulling trash containers drove onto a closed park on the South Side of Columbus as temperatures hit 93 degrees in June 2022. As the city followed through with its promised sweep, the unrelenting sun sprayed its rays on advocates and residents of an encampment at Heer Park. More than 20 CPD police cars were parked around the encampment and at the neighboring Walmart, with officers standing guard outside of tents that used to be homes. Bulldozers piled together residents’ tents, beds and belongings and crushed them into the backs of trucks.

At multiple points during the sweep, activists and city officials argued over the morality of what the city was doing and over what the city should be doing instead. Several activists suggested investing in stable shelter and housing for people experiencing homelessness and pointed to more than $100 million that the city received as part of a COVID-19 relief package. Those funds are in addition to the city’s existing budget and are designated for specific issues, including homelessness.

“We have $135 million in the American Rescue Plan funds,” Emily Myers, founder of mutual aid group Heer to Serve, said in an interview at a protest against the city’s sweep of the encampment a week earlier. “They’re not using it for housing, and they won’t tell us why.” 

American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds were allocated nationwide to be used to respond to public health and negative economic impacts caused by the pandemic, according to the National League of Cities. The list of eligible uses of funds is non-exhaustive, meaning cities’ needs will vary and many issues resulting from the pandemic would qualify to use ARPA funds. 

Columbus has distributed around $83 million in ARPA funds to community organizations to mainly address educational setbacks caused by the pandemic and anti-violence efforts in the city. But – with more visible camp sweeps and unaffordable housing in the city continuing to rise – several grassroots activists said they want to know why the city hasn’t invested more money into the housing crisis. 

With an eventual $187 million in ARPA funds to spend by 2024, advocates have clear ideas about where they want Columbus to invest the dollars. 

When asked about how the city would support residents at the Heer Park encampment following the June 2022 sweep, Emerald Hernandez-Parra, the assistant director of special projects for the Department of Development, said clearing an encampment is a last resort.  

“This is the end of the thing. This is why we send outreach. So now, this is the end of the plan because we do have to address the ongoing issues here,” she said during a live interview, describing these “ongoing issues” as “theft, nuisance issues [and] drugs.”

However, advocates from Heer to Serve said they believe outreach provided by the city is not doing enough. While the city offers phone numbers to local services and shelters, many of them require residents to be drug-free. Advocates pointed out that phone numbers are only helpful for individuals who have consistent access to a phone and that the focus should be on safe drug use, rather than providing unhoused residents with the choice between forced sobriety or a camp sweep. 

Myers and other members of Heer to Serve have been aware of the ARPA dollars the city has since they were announced, and proposals of the funds were approved by city officials. Myers went to a City Council meeting in mid-June 2022 and asked why the money wasn’t prioritized on fixing the issues that lead to the sweeps of unhoused camps. 

“We directly went to them and said, ‘Hey, you have $135 million in American Rescue Plan funds. Stop doing this sweep and start using this money for housing,’” Myers said. At the meeting, Myers asked City Council not to displace residents at Heer Park because they would lose their community and be placed in life-threatening situations due to the heat and a lack of a place to go. 

At the meeting, Council President Shannon Hardin responded by thanking the organization for its work. But Myers said “there’s no conversation about where that money is being spent.” 

After thanking Myers, Hardin then turned to Deputy Director of Community Development Hannah Jones for more comment on the upcoming sweep, or remediation as some council members referred to it, at Heer Park. 

“I do anticipate that we would move forward due to the overarching public safety concerns,” Jones said. “But we do recognize the priority of health and safety. So, I think that is our most immediate step right now, and of course we’re open to having any dialogue we can to continue to make sure that as many people who are willing to go in, we can find a place for [residents].” 

Councilmember Shayla Favor, who is the chair of housing, health and services, also spoke after Hardin requested Favor’s “additional notes.” 

“I would also uplift the work of the Department of Development, specifically Ms. Hernandez’s work around engaging the community that is out there,” Favor said. “It definitely has not been for a lack of attempts to get folks to go into shelter, but we also understand that we can’t force folks into shelter. And so we have to create a better solution in the city of Columbus that meets people where they are at. We don’t have that just yet.”

Favor also said there could “be many different solutions” that will help unhoused residents in the city. “But advocacy and continuing to bring these issues to our attention is the first step.” 

FIRST Collective, another mutual aid organization that manages an encampment in the Near East called Camp Shameless, offered a proposal to the city requesting the use of ARPA funds.  The organization requested $181,500 and recognized city leaders’ plan to create “a new competitive three-year funding process utilizing $5 million in ARPA dollars.” 

The ARPA grant decisions will prioritize organizations dedicated to “infant mortality, homelessness and housing instability among immigrant and refugee populations,” according to a news release from the city.

FIRST Collective’s proposal highlighted the extent of the homeless crisis in Columbus. As of January 2020, the Continuums of Care reported to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that 10,655 were experiencing homelessness on any given day, according to the United States Interagency Council of Homelessness. As of 2019, statistics from HUD and the Homeless Shelter Directory database revealed that 1,907 people were experiencing homelessness in Franklin County. 

“The shelter approach to the houselessness crisis has proven to be unsuccessful,” the FIRST Collective proposal states. “From January 1, 2020, to March 31, 2022, 3,866 individuals entered emergency shelter, and 4,270 exited.” 

The success rate of residents who transitioned and exited from emergency shelters into more stable housing is low and less than 30 percent, according to the proposal. Around 11 percent of individuals who exited emergency shelter were entered into transitional housing while 17 percent found permanent housing.  In addition to the low percentages of people who find more stable housing, FIRST Collective’s proposal also detailed the decreasing amount Columbus is investing to prevent homelessness. The city’s 2022 budget for Homeless Prevention is $107,500 less than the 2021 budget. The budget for housing this year totals $8,142,651. 

Leif Autzen is a member of the Party for Socialism and Liberation, which has been working with Heer to Serve on its project for more than a year. “I think a lot of us in activism have an ear open for that kind of thing,” said Autzen, who has followed ARPA fund expenditure since the program was announced. “And that sends up a red flag because we’re immediately [asking] how is this money going to be spent?” 

When it comes to using ARPA funds to find solutions to the housing crisis, Watson and Myers want to see investments. 

“The primary solution that we’re demanding is permanent supportive housing without any barriers to access, which means folks who are still using have safe use space” Watson said. “And they need to have harm reduction, they need to have stigma free, pressure free [and] access to addiction related care if they want it.” 

The requirement for unhoused people who struggle with addiction and substance abuse to suddenly quit and remain sober throughout their recovery while also in housing centers is statistically difficult, Autzen said. 

“I know that less than 10 percent of people in their recovery process are going to stay clean and sober for that entire process. Ninety percent or more of people are going to relapse or are going to have some kind of ongoing relationship with some substance as a part of their recovery,” Autzen said. 

It is common for people entering treatment to relapse on drugs. According to American Addiction Centers, more than 85 percent of individuals relapse within a year after treatment. More than two-thirds of individuals are estimated to relapse within weeks or months after beginning treatment. 

Myers said there also needs to be an emphasis on transportation when investing in potential solutions, noting that people who are unhoused need transportation “that will serve them and work with them and work for them.”

Another possible use of funds, according to Myers, could be on “utilizing existing infrastructure.” There are empty properties with the potential to house and create affordable housing in the city. 

“As far as the South Side goes, we have a lot of properties that the land bank owns that could be utilized to create tiny homes to be a public camping space that would allow people to tent camp there legally,” Myers said. “There’s multiple pathways to getting people into safe spaces.” 

Matina Bliss, the outreach and project manager for FIRST Collective, said she wants funding to be used toward projects such as the encampment and smaller ones the organization mentioned in their grant proposal. 

“They have so much money to invest in small projects,” Bliss said. “And talking to houseless people and including them in conversations. Why aren’t they going directly to the source?” 

Both Elizabeth Blackburn, executive director of First Collective, and Bliss argued the process of finding solutions to the housing crisis can’t be found by talking to only developers, which in their view is how the city currently handles it.  If funds went to organizations doing similar work as FIRST Collective, Blackburn said what they could accomplish would be amazing. 

“We could use it to build houses, and we could pay our residents to build them,” Blackburn said.

A low-cost start to solving the housing crisis city leaders could adopt is to form connections with unhoused residents, Bliss said. She pointed out that it’s difficult for unhoused residents to trust city officials when they “have transactional relationships” with them.

“You need to be in constant communication with people on the ground,” Bliss said. “Try that and figure out what works like investing in the time, energy [and] not just money. Genuinely work with organizations like us, houseless people on the streets [and] develop those relationships. … Stop talking to developers and trying to find solutions there.”

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