LORAIN — It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
K.C. said he played the game of life by society’s rules.
He kept his head down, didn’t make any waves, was friendly to those in need and learned a skill that made him useful to the community — he is a machinist by trade, he said. Fate was supposed to reward him with all the trappings of a good life — an income he could live on, a job and a place to call his home.
But fate is fickle. It changes likes the wind. Two years ago, K.C. learned the hard way of fate’s sporadic nature. He lost his job and with it his only source of income. Before he knew it, his home was gone, too.
Now, the same rules that allowed him to move through the world and be seen as mainstream serve as a mantra he lives by in the place he now calls home — a hodgepodge of tents, sleeping bags and makeshift shelters that make-up Lorain’s tent city.
“People don’t understand how easy something like this can happen,” said the 57-year-old man, the son of a former elementary school assistant principal. “You lose your job, and you can be in a bad situation real quick.”
From all outward appearances, K.C. simply looks the part of a hardworking man who has seen some strife in his life. But certainly not the reflection of a homeless person in the way Hollywood would like you to believe.
K.C. — he prefers that to giving his full name — twirled a half-full bottle of water in his hand as he spoke. In the two front pockets of his jean shorts, the top of a bottle of lotion and soap can be seen sticking out just above the stitching. Things like that are much appreciated from those who give to the homeless.
“I didn’t know people like this existed before I became homeless,” he said. “But I didn’t need them then either. My perception of the homeless and people who help the homeless really has changed since I got out here.”
‘We want to reach their hearts’
It was just before 1 p.m. Saturday when a little more than a dozen people pulled into a gravel parking lot just off Broadway. They backed their caravan of cars and SUVs up to the edge of a wide patch of overgrown grass and weeds.
They were a stone’s throw from Gyros and More. The smell of lamb meat and French fries filled the air.
On the side of one vehicle read the words, “New Day New Vision Healing and Deliverance Ministries.” The men and women inside the cars have on white T-shirts. Open Heart and Helping Hands Outreach is what the shirts read.
They opened the trunks of their cars and popped the back hatches to the SUVs. Inside, there were boxes full of water bottles, bagged lunches, personal hygiene items and pamphlets.
David Blaine, a man who said he is simply a disciple of Christ, made a quick phone call.
Soon, out of the woods came the residents of tent city. These are men who by “circumstance, addiction or mindset” have no other place to call home but a patch of undeveloped land across the railroad tracks. They share the land with deer, skunks and the occasional stray dog searching for a scrap of left over food.
Typically, they move in the shadows and make an effort to stay below the radar.
“You develop a relationship with them. You break bread with them and they trust you when you say you’re coming,” Blaine said.
But before the items were disbursed, the group offered the homeless men something few people probably would think to do. They prayed for the group and let them know they may be down, but certainly were not forgotten.
“We are here to speak life into their lives,” said Pastor Diana Bruno, a robust woman who greets everyone — even strangers — with a wide smile and even wider hug. “We want to reach their hearts. That’s where the pain that is keeping them down lives.”
This is nothing new for Bruno. She always seems to gravitate toward those who need her help the most, or as she will tell it, they gravitate toward her. Before opening her church, she had a small women’s boutique, and it attracted women more in need of prayer than clothing.
Her transition from business woman to pastor was near effortless. She now runs the church on Lorain’s West 21st Street with her husband, Elder Jimmy Bruno, and lets Open Heart and Helping Hands Outreach use it as their home base.
“Basically, we are just people helping people,” Blaine said. “We started this because we know there is a need in Lorain. We don’t have enough people who are willing to go to them where they are — instead it’s like ‘If you want our help or need our services, you have to come to us.’”
Bigger than just one group
There are few people who know Lorain’s homeless problem better than Connie Osborne.
CEO and president of Neighborhood Alliance, Osborn and her staff run, among other things, Haven Center, the county’s only year-round homeless shelter. It is a full-service, 68-bed facility that provides meals, shelter, clothing and more to women, men and children who need help toward the goal of independent housing.
The East 30th Street facility always has a waiting list. A huge requirement for those who want to enter the shelter is the willingness to abide by strict rules and work an aggressive program.
“When someone comes to reside with us, we give them a week to acclimate to the shelter and then a case plan is quickly written for them,” Osborn said Saturday.
She was not with the group near tent city, but knows of the work they and others like them do.
Osborn said she knows her shelter is not for every homeless person. Groups like Open Heart and Helping Hands Outreach fill the gap for those people she will never see.
“There are more homeless out there than people know,” she said.
At last count — the Lorain County Task Force for the Homeless attempts as best it can to count the homeless population twice a year in January and July — there were a little more than 400 people without permanent housing in the county. At any given time, at least 50 are veterans.
“The sooner Valor Home opens, the better,” Osborn said.
The still-under construction facility on West 21st Street will serve as transitional housing for homeless veterans. It is located across the street from the St. Joseph Community Center.
Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Cleveland also has a place for the homeless. They are moving the St. Joseph Overnight Homeless Shelter, 317 W. 15th St., to the former Horizon Daycare center at 205 W. 14th St., but it will only operate from the late fall to early spring to help keep people out of the cold.
Osborn said not much more can be done because there just isn’t enough funding to add any more shelters or further address the growing need. Neighborhood Alliance is one of the highest grant recipients in the state and they work hard to secure every single dollar, she said.
K.C. said those who live in tent city — about 20 at this time — do so because it’s their only option. This way they are sort of staying out of the way, he said.
“I’m not saying we are perfect or without our problems. We all have a story that brought us out here,” he said. “I’m just grateful there are people who are willing to come to us and help us. A lot of time it’s the outsiders that filter in and try to — I don’t want to say take advantage of us — but they cause us problems.”
Still, the complexity of the homeless problem in any city — Lorain is not alone — lies in the complexity of those in need. For every K.C. — a down on their luck man hoping to catch a break — there is someone who makes empathy a hard sell.
Late Friday evening — just a few miles from the Broadway tent city — a homeless man was arrested near the 1100 block of Tower Boulevard. His offense was aggressive panhandling.
Police said 56-year-old Rodney Williams approached a resident outside Autumn Aegis, one of the city’s independent retirement homes owned by Sprenger Health Care, and asked for money. When none was given, a police report said Williams began screaming obscenities and moving aggressively toward the elderly resident.
When police came, they had no choice but to take him to jail. It was his 13th arrest for panhandling since 2009, the report said.
“Rodney is a plague to the area and clearly shows little regard for the good citizens of Lorain,” an officer wrote in his report.
Not preaching perfection
By 2:30 p.m., after milling around the parking lot, waiting — hoping — others in need would show up, Open Heart and Helping Hand Outreach was near ready to leave for the day.
About 15 men had received a bagged lunch and a few personal hygiene items at this point.
Blaine said he felt like the group had a pretty successful day.
Could they have helped more people? Possibly, Blaine said, but that was not what God wanted for that day’s mission.
“You know, we are there for them and we love them. They know that and know how to reach us,” he said.
Bruno said the volunteers who do the outreach work in the summer are just trying to be vessels of God.
“We are just trying to be God’s hands and examples of his heart,” she said, knowing from personal experience the hardships of life and how prayer from a stranger can make a world of difference. “I, too, have been at a place where I’ve been hurt and felt worthless. No one is perfect. But once you have been given to, you don’t have a problem giving.”
A few steps away, Blaine wrapped up a quick phone call.
He had just gotten permission for the group to stop by the Haven Center to offer prayer to its residents. The group quickly packed up.
But before they left, they formed a quick circle and offer one last blessing to the occupants of tent city — now back hidden behind the brush and trees out of sight from the world around them.