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‘Only homeless person in Wauseon’ fights on

City trying to push him out, lawyer says

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Ronald Strong sits in front of Christ United Methodist Church in Wauseon. Strong, who is homeless, and his lawyer feel the city is trying to push him out, while the mayor and others say he has declined their offers to help get him off of the streets.

THE BLADE/LORI KING
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WAUSEON — With his belongings piled into two backpacks, Ronald Strong sits in a lawn chair on the sidewalk in front of Christ United Methodist Church on Fulton Street day and night.

The bearded 56-year-old calls himself “the only homeless person in Wauseon” despite what he sees as the city’s best efforts to get him off its streets.

“They don’t want me to be here, period,” Strong said. “One week they charged me with three different offenses. The hits just keep on coming.”

Lawyer Joe Urenovitch of Whitehouse, who was appointed to represent Strong in Fulton County Western District Court, concedes his client can be difficult, but he said the city does seem to be trying to push him out.

When complaints came in about Strong sleeping on a public bench, the city removed the bench. They say new benches were going to be installed so workers took out all the downtown benches.

When residents complained about Strong sleeping in the park, city council adopted an ordinance banning camping in public places, except for special events in which campers obtain a permit.

A church where he’d been sleeping on the back steps followed up with its own no-camping-on-church-property rule.

“It does seem like Wauseon is saying, ‘You can’t be homeless and live in our town,’ ” Mr. Urenovitch said. “I mean, illegal camping? I’ve got to look that one up because I don’t think I’ve ever heard of that.”

City officials insist they are not harassing Strong. They say many people and organizations have helped — or tried to help — him to no avail.

“It really has been a conflict,” Mayor Kathy Huner said. “At the beginning, everybody wanted to help him, but as the months went on and they saw that a lot of the help he didn’t want, it got old and it was hard on our business owners.”

Though Wauseon Police Chief Keith Torbet said Strong is “not a harm to himself or anyone,” he is a large man with a big voice. That can be intimidating for passers-by.

More than 100 residents signed a petition submitted to city council over the summer expressing concern about “the immediate threat posed by Ronald Strong,” who at the time was spending much of his time at South Park.

Referencing his “erratic and menacing behavior,” they asked council to adopt an emergency ordinance to “not allow Mr. Strong to spend extended periods of time in areas designed for children.”

Mayor Huner said council members first looked at the city’s loitering ordinance and then adopted the new camping ordinance. Its stated purpose is “to maintain the city’s streets, parks, and other public areas within the city in a clean, sanitary, and accessible condition and to adequately protect the health, safety, and public welfare of the community.”

Chief Torbet insists his department has not harassed Strong, and he even says the new camping law was not directed solely at Strong.

Police have cited Strong once for unlawful camping, although the chief said technically his officers could cite him every day that he spends the night in his lawn chair.

Strong also has been cited for public indecency, being in parks after hours, disorderly conduct, and theft. All of the misdemeanor cases are pending in Western District Court where Judge Jeffrey Robinson recused himself and an out-of-town judge was appointed, reportedly because Judge Robinson had gotten so many phone calls about Strong from residents.

City Councilman Scott Stiriz said the issue has quite literally torn his town apart.

“I just think he’s taking advantage of the good generosity of Wauseon,” Mr. Stiriz said. “It’s a small town. Everyone wants to help everybody, but he doesn’t seem to want to make an effort to help himself.”

Chief Torbet said the same.

While his department has “spent hundreds of hours trying to get help for Mr. Strong,” he said Strong either has not cooperated or chosen to not follow the rules. 

Officers have warned him repeatedly about illegal behavior, the chief said, and, when he doesn’t change his behavior, he’s been cited.

“It’s his choice if he wants to live on the street, but we expect you to follow the rules,” Chief Torbet said.

The chief gets lots of phone calls.

“Do people get upset? Absolutely,” he said. “... People want to know why we’re not doing anything for him and why he’s allowed to do that.”

Strong, who receives $810 in monthly Social Security disability benefits, is not without resources. He has a certificate that qualifies him for Section 8 housing, but he said he doesn’t want to live just anywhere.

Strong said he suffered a brain injury at birth that left him permanently disabled and institutionalized for several years as a child. 

He worked for a time as a cook, and, while he was married from 1984 to 1991, he stayed home and took care of his three children.

He said he previously lived in Archbold, Defiance, and, for a time in the mid to late-1980s, he and his wife lived in Wauseon. 

For the last 24 years, he made his home in Maine, but decided to move back to Wauseon because “... the quality of life is better here.”

Still, he isn’t interested in settling for the subsidized housing currently available in Wauseon. He said he is looking at a senior living apartment complex in town.

Brian Horst, executive director of Henry Housing Authority, has worked with Strong. He said Strong does not qualify for the senior apartments.

“The rent there was too high, and he was going to end up paying a really large portion of his income, in fact too much,” Mr. Horst said. “The law requires they can’t be paying more than 40 percent of their income on rent.”

Strong rejects the idea that he’s being too picky about where he lives. He said he has a terminal heart condition and refuses to live out his final days in “substandard” housing.

Last week, he spent several days at Mercy Health St. Vincent Medical Center where he said he underwent a heart catheterization. When he was released, he returned to his spot on Fulton Street.

Ken Leslie, an advocate for the homeless in Toledo, said Strong “sounds like the chronically homeless person in every community. Fifteen percent of people who are unhoused are said to be chronically homeless oftentimes because of mental health issues. ... The solution is simple, but complex.”

He said Strong needs a mental health professional to befriend him, to be his advocate, and to help him move forward.

Strong says he’s got just two years to live, and he’s not going to live in substandard conditions.

“I’m going to have to do what I got to do,” he said when asked what will happen when winter arrives. “I want a quality place. All they want to do is throw me under the bus and I’m not going under the bus.”

Contact Jennifer Feehan at: jfeehan@theblade.com or 419-213-2134.

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