As a child, Joy Hart used to panhandle for enough money to find a relatively safe place to sleep during the cold Chicago nights-not enough to get room in a hostel, but enough to buy a ticket for the all-night commuter train.
"I'd ride the 'L' just to get some sleep," recalled Hart, 47, who now lives in Parkersburg.
Hart was one of four people who shared their stories of homelessness Wednesday night during a discussion at Marietta College. The event marked the mid-way point of the college's annual Homelessness and Hunger Week, which urges the college community to become more in touch with the issues of poverty, said Sydney Maltese, 22, a senior at the college.
JASMINE ROGERS The Marietta Times
Marietta College Director of Retention Ellen Campbell, left, and assistant professor and assistant athletic trainer Jaclyn Schwieterman, right, help with a community meal Wednesday in Marietta. College students and staff helped prepare, serve, and clean up after the meal as part of MC's Hunger and Homelessness Week, which encourages the college community to become more aware of the poverty surrounding them.
"So often there's a wall between our student population and the actual world," said Maltese, a founder and co-president of Shake America, a student organization aimed at furthering social justice.
Earlier in the day Wednesday, Maltese and at least 15 other students, faculty and staff members helped prepare and serve a community meal in conjunction with the Daily Bread Kitchen.
"I enjoy giving back to the community...But it's not just giving." said Marietta College senior Patrick Tegge. "It's making connections, building a community that is stronger."
At a glance
Marietta College Hunger and Homelessness Week:
- A week of events aimed at helping Marietta College students learn about and experience aspects of poverty.
- Wednesday's events included a community meal which college students and staff were encouraged to help prepare and serve and a panel discussion with individuals who have previously experienced homelessness.
- Events continue today with a 24-hour fast that starts at 1 p.m. and a overnight sleep-out on the college campus.
- The week wraps up Friday with a lunch to break the fast and a discussion of the week's events.
By the numbers
- 15.6 percent of Washington County residents are living below the poverty level.
- 12,325 people were found to be homeless during a one-day count of homeless individuals in Ohio in 2013.
- 8,550 people in Washington County were dealing with food insecurity in 2011.
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio, www.feedingamerica.org
Events like the community meal and the discussion give students a chance to break down those barriers to understanding and connect with people who have faced or are currently facing poverty, added Maltese.
Those on the panel shared their stories of struggle, and often shame, in hopes of changing attitudes toward homelessness and poverty.
Rico Willis, 43, was 19 years old when he found himself sleeping on the library steps in Los Angeles, Calif. after his marriage dissolved.
"I remember a lot of people looking at me and reinforcing that feeling that I was less than human," said Willis, who also now lives in Parkersburg.
People have a lot of misconceptions about homeless individuals, said Hart.
"A lot of time homeless people have this stigma. (People think) they do drugs or they're lazy. I left home at 12 years old. I had an abusive family, and I wanted to get out," she said.
Homeless individuals often find their lives take on a sort of tunnel vision of survival. The hunt for food, warmth, and safety becomes all consuming.
Just over a year ago, Parkersburg resident Troy Hilliard, 40, was living under a bridge in Steubenville. He and approximately 10 other men had formed a community of sorts and it was Hilliard's responsibility to travel to a bakery in town at day's end and retrieve the bread that a woman there discarded.
"She would see me standing there, and she would throw it in the dumpster anyway. I don't know why she did that," he recalled.
There was not always enough bread to go around and the scarcity would cause fights among the men, said Hilliard.
As John Moyes, 52, of Parkersburg found out during his period being homeless, a single helping hand can make all the difference in the world.
"Being homeless was one of the best things that ever happened to me," said Moyes, who was living in homeless shelters in Wheeling, W.Va., just around three years ago.
Moyes admits alcoholism and addiction are what eventually cost him a stable home. But the help he was given in that time is what put him on the path to recovery.
"It was because of people that put out their hands that it didn't have to be what it could have been," he said.
Moyes, like Hart and Hilliard, all eventually came to stay at the Mid-Ohio Valley Fellowship Home, a transitional housing facility in Parkersburg that helps individuals facing addiction or homelessness issues.
Willis was similarly saved by an individual who took him in and gave him enough peace of mind and security to spend time looking for a job.
People commonly ignore issues of homelessness, said Moyes.
"A lot of people won't acknowledge there's a homelessness problem," he said.
According to the 2013 one-day homelessness count report by the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio, more than 12,000 people were homeless in Ohio on the day the count was conducted.
Patrice Pooler, executive director of the Fellowship Home, said her organization conducts similar counts in Parkersburg.
When the survey was last conducted in January, temperatures were sub-zero and the organization saw their highest homeless count yet, she said.
Pooler encouraged students to become involved in the issues and change their perceptions.
"Our first impressions are not real. They're not accurate. You have to get to know people," she said.
Marietta College's programming continues today with a 24-hour fast that will begin at 1 p.m. and a sleep-out tonight on campus , said Shake America co-president Taylor Hanigosky, 20.
During the sleep-out, students will sleep in tents and sleeping bags on campus, said the college sophomore.
"We do this to experience what it's like to not have shelter for a night...It's also a good way to spend time with others and talk about these issues," said Hanigosky.