Crudely shaped beds made from strips of tattered rags cover a cement floor littered with shards of glass, chunks of cement, and pieces of metal.
A broken toilet clearly still being used causes a gut-wrenching stench to fill the old, abandoned guardhouse at 1401 Front St., located in an undeveloped section of International Park in East Toledo.
A large wooden desk drawer on the floor contains half-burned scraps of paper, wood, and twigs.
“People are using this as a campsite,” said John Whitlow, an outreach technician with Neighborhood Properties Inc., a Toledo housing agency. Part of his job is to scour the city looking for homeless people to transfer to shelters. “This is dangerous. They’re building bonfires in here to try and keep warm.”
Despite the evidence of life, nobody was found in the building this last week, when temperatures dipped to lows of -14 degrees and -15 degrees.
“People have been here recently,” said Mr. Whitlow, a former homeless person himself. “But most people have already found some place to stay — a shelter, with relatives, or friends.
“If we do find anybody, they’ll likely be in bad shape.”
Still, Mr. Whitlow, 62, continues his daily searches, trudging through nearly shoulder-high drifts of snow to check if anyone is taking refuge in tents discreetly hidden in a heavily wooded area across the street from The Docks.
On this day, he conducts his daily morning check below the Anthony Wayne Bridge in East Toledo where dozens of homeless people often come to seek refuge, he said. Nobody had been spotted at this site for more than one week — freezing temperatures and winds likely prompted them to find other shelter. But signs of their presence are everywhere: Half-eaten pumpkins, beds made of old rags, cinder blocks used as chairs, and patches of feces are scattered across the grounds.
Many of the homeless will return to this and other locations as the weather warms up. Some will return because they like their independence; the other reason is because local facilities will discontinue offering around-the-clock shelter once the immediate danger is over, Mr. Whitlow said.
St. Paul’s Community Center and Cherry Street Mission opened their doors to more people than usual last week due to the dangerously cold weather. St. Paul’s winter crisis program normally permits people to spend only nights at the facility, but because of the frigid temperatures allowed everyone to stay during the day through last Wednesday, said Marcia Langenderfer, St. Paul’s executive director. They’ve since resumed their regular night-only shelter hours.
Homeless U.S. Army veteran Robert Soovagian, 44, began seeking shelter at St. Paul’s when temperatures started to turn dangerously cold. Mr. Soovagian has been homeless for nine years.
“I usually sleep by underpasses,” said Mr. Soovagian. “But if it wasn’t for this place, I wouldn’t be alive.”
Mr. Whitlow understands the plight of the people he meets and helps. He spent three years living in homeless shelters because he was depressed and had given up on life.
“Most people become homeless because they don’t make the right choices — because they don’t love themselves,” Mr. Whitlow said. “I had to ask God to teach me how to love myself.”
Nine years ago, Mr. Whitlow decided to make helping other homeless people his ministry. He works closely with many different agencies to make sure people receive the assistance they need.
It’s often easier for Mr. Whitlow to approach the homeless than a police officer. Many people recognize him from the days he lived on the streets or because he is so visible in the homeless community.
“A lot of times they’ll scatter when they see the police coming,” Mr. Whitlow said. “They feel intimidated by the police or anybody in a suit and tie.”
As part of his job, Mr. Whitlow hits the streets every day, offering to transport the homeless to shelters where they can receive short and long-term help. Those who decline are offered sandwiches, blankets, or rides to clinics. He’ll offer them words of encouragement by telling them they can overcome their current circumstances.
Forest Bennett, 61, a longtime homeless resident from Lima, had been struggling with severe addictions for most of his life. A desperate Mr. Bennett traveled to Toledo in February, 2012 and successfully completed a Salvation Army program that helped him overcome his addictions.
After completing the program, Mr. Bennett didn’t want to return to Lima, where the former temptations would be too great.
Meeting and realizing Mr. Bennett was at risk, Mr. Whitlow enrolled him in the Neighborhood Properties’ Road to Recovery program, which offers transitional housing at several locations countywide. Outreach workers like Mr. Whitlow visit the residents to check on their progress.
Despite his hard life and many health problems, Mr. Bennett looks like a man half his age. He smiles like a man who’s just won a million dollars, or perhaps like someone who was able to climb back from hell.
He smiles as he shows off his sparsely furnished house.
“I love it here,” Mr. Bennett said. “For the first two weeks, I slept on the floor until I got some furniture.”
To earn money, he finds odd job such as mowing lawns, cutting weeds, or shoveling snow. An 11th-grade dropout, Mr. Bennett said he continues to find ways to improve his life, which included pursuing his GED.
“I’d like to become a drug counselor someday, because unless you’ve done it, you don’t really understand it,” he said.
Contact Federico Martinez at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6154.