Mike Premo, executive director of Community Development for All People, is too often forced to navigate grief in his line of work, confronted with unhoused community members whose lives are lost to addiction, to exposure, to violence.
And yet Premo has not become desensitized to death, instead embracing the memories of those passed as motivation to carry forward in the nonprofit’s mission, much of which centers around helping the economically disadvantaged gain some foothold in a system that is frequently stacked against them. “It really does push you onward,” he said.
But even Premo was sent reeling when he learned about the death of unhoused community member Kevin Smith, who was shot and killed in the early morning hours on April 15.
Smith, 60, had long been a consistent presence at , serving as a volunteer, a peacemaker and a steadying force in spite of the struggles with alcohol that diverted him from his post-law school path and toward a life on the streets of Columbus. An April memorial service at the United Methodist Church for All People reflected the breadth of this existence, Premo said, with family members and upper- to middle-class people celebrating Smith’s life “alongside those who had slept on the street the night before.”
“Everything he faced, nothing crushed his spirit,” said Rev. Joelle Henneman, senior pastor of United Methodist Church for All People, who first met Smith eight years ago while working as the director of the nonprofit's healthy living and eating program. “I remember initially being struck by his smile and by his sense of humor. He was someone who never seemed weighed down by life. … I can still hear his voice, and hear him saying, ‘I appreciate you guys so much.’ And I would tell him that he was one of us, and that he was part of our family.”
Henneman said Smith was well-read and highly intelligent, recalling how he would speak at Bible study and expertly break down the Greek form in Paul’s letters, drawing on the lessons he learned growing up in a middle-class Boston family with a father who was a deacon in the Roman Catholic church.
“He was a friendly, gregarious guy, easy to talk to, always helping out, always looking to pitch in wherever he could,” said Premo, who first met Smith about two years ago in the Free Store the nonprofit operates at the intersection of Parsons Avenue and Whittier Street on the city’s South Side. “If deliveries were coming in and he was there, he would help carry them upstairs. When he was staying at the warming center, he would help set up and tear down each night. … He was so respected and loved in our community, and when this happened, it was devastating for folks. I had staff crying when they got the news, because he was such a constant presence in their lives, and it was just shocking when he was killed.”
Columbus police have released few details about the shooting, which took place after Smith was discovered in a detached garage on the 600 block of East Whittier Street in the Southern Orchards neighborhood.
Around 6 a.m., police received the first in a series of 911 calls about a trespasser. In the first call – recordings of which were obtained by Matter News – a neighbor said that a white male dressed in a white T-shirt had been discovered sitting in the backyard. In a second call, the same neighbor relayed that a police cruiser had driven past the residence without stopping but that people were still “keeping an eye on” the trespasser. In the third and final call, a different person told the dispatcher that medical attention was required for the man, who had been “shot several times.” “You shot him?” the dispatcher replied. “What could I do? I couldn’t do anything. He was attacking me,” said the person, who then told the dispatcher that they were calling from inside the garage where the confrontation and shooting had taken place. When police arrived, Smith was pronounced dead at the scene.
In a press release, Columbus police said the case would be investigated and then sent for review to the Franklin County Prosecutor’s Office – a review likely complicated by Ohio’s “stand your ground” law, which states that “a person has no duty to retreat before using force in self-defense … or [in] defense of that person's residence.” (Under Ohio law, a detached garage typically is not considered part of a residence, adding to the complexity of the case.)
“I think it has altered our consideration of matters,” Franklin County First Assistant Prosecutor Janet Grubb of the state’s “stand your ground” law. “Without going into too much detail, I can think of several cases where the fact that ‘stand your ground’ is present has potentially altered whether or not an indictment has been returned.”
Thaddeus Hoffmeister, professor of law at the University of Dayton, said in a March interview that the "stand your ground" law would "100 percent" lead to an increase in violence. "Anytime you encourage people to settle their problems through violence, you're going to see increased deaths," said Hoffmeister, whose statement bears out in nationwide studies, which have linked "stand your ground" laws with an 11 percent increase in homicides.
Both Premo and Henneman remained skeptical of the circumstances surrounding the shooting, citing Smith’s low-key demeanor, which lent itself well to the peacekeeping role he often played within their community. “We have a warming center, and people would come in agitated, come in under the influence, and he had that credibility and that calming presence where he could diffuse situations,” Henneman said.
“If you had told me any number of people had been in that situation, I might have thought there was a possibility that they could have provoked [the shooting] by being aggressive. But there’s absolutely no way Kevin did anything at all to provoke,” Premo said. “And I know because we’ve seen him in action. He doesn’t get angry. He doesn’t get agitated. He was a calm person, even under fire. And if someone confronted him and wanted him off their property, he would have complied.”
In recent months, there has been an uptick in the number of national media stories about people armed with guns quickly escalating situations to violence, often with deadly results. In April, a Black teenager mistakenly knocked on the wrong door in Kansas City, Mo., and the homeowner responded . The same month, New York officials after he shot and killed a woman who had mistakenly turned into his driveway. And just this week, a Kentucky woman shot and killed an Uber driver in Texas she was being kidnapped.
Smith’s case, however, has continued to fly under the radar – a reality Henneman attributed in part to his status as a member of the unhoused community, a population whose deaths often go overlooked and unreported. “I’ve worked with homeless and low-income people for the last 13 years, and I could go through a list of people who died under strange circumstances, or unjustly, and I know their deaths are not treated the same as it would be if it was a middle-class person like me,” Henneman said. “So it’s always heartbreaking, but at this point it’s not surprising.”
For Premo and Henneman, part of the focus moving forward centers on working with all levels of government to address the housing crisis in the hopes of preventing the next Kevin Smith. And while the scope of the problem has grown – in January, the Community Shelter Board in Columbus in, up from 1,912 the previous year – both Premo and Henneman stressed that the city is not lacking in resources to more adequately address the issue.
“Before I was here, I worked with the homeless community in Albuquerque, and New Mexico is comparatively a poorer state, where we have an abundance of resources here,” Henneman said. “The fact that people here don’t have a safe space to lay their head, to me, is an indictment on our systems.”
“For our organization, we’re not only involved in helping people who live in poverty with direct services, but we are all about helping people identify and overcome systemic barriers so they can find the economic security that has eluded them for so long,” Premo said. “Part of that is working to change laws, and part of that is working to get programs in place, or get them fully funded, that will support folks who are living in poverty before they become homeless.”
Premo credited efforts made by the city to address the affordable housing crisis but said that the issue required alignment across all levels of government at both the federal and state level – something he believes is currently lacking. As an example, he cited the resistance to funding the construction of affordable housing he’s seen from the Republican-controlled Statehouse. “There are really complicated issues that communities face, but the more I understand about it, the more I believe homelessness is not a complicated issue,” Premo said. “It is simply a matter of getting people into places to live, and that requires a lot of funding.”
In recent years, Columbus City Council and Mayor Andrew Ginther have taken criticism for their handling of issues related to the unhoused, including the decision early this year and a heavy-handed approach to clearing unhoused camps some have termed cruel. (During sweeps, trespassing notices are issued to all residents, while campsites are demolished and any remaining tents, blankets, mattresses and other personal belongings are hauled away.)
But there are signs the city is starting to develop a different approach. In September, thanks in part to to the efforts of the nonprofit activist group First Collective, for the residents of Camp Shameless, an unhoused encampment formerly located on East Mound Street – part of a transitional housing pilot program funded by the city and managed by the Community Shelter Board. Similar accommodations were made for lower-income residents displaced by the Christmas Day flooding that . (Representatives for Columbus City Councilmember Shayla Favor did not reply to requested email questions by deadline.)
While Smith’s death has served as a galvanizing moment for some who work with the unhoused, Premo said the impact hasn’t been as immediately visible among the population served by Community Development for All People.
“I think part of it is – and this is just my impression – that people can only be beat down so much until basically nothing shocks them anymore,” Premo said. “They may get upset, and they may get angry, but it’s not like, ‘I can’t believe this happened.’ Of course they can believe this happened, because it happens all the time. Folks experiencing homelessness are victims of crime and violence all the time. So when something like this happens, I think it’s just a further example of how the system is rigged against them.”