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A PATH Out of Homelessness

Social workers reach out to mentally ill on streets

By Jacob Baynham · November 3rd, 2009 · News

There are about 8,400 homeless people in Hamilton County. More than 2,000 have a severe mental illness. A local nonprofit called PATH is trying to help them.

Until two years ago Timothy Mills had lost any hope of living a normal, stable life. His despair started years back, when he turned 18 and had to leave St. Joseph’s Orphanage. With nowhere to live, he dropped out of 10th grade at Colerain Senior. He started “drinking and drugging,” a lifestyle that would collide with severe depression and leave him with no home but the Queen City’s streets for 20 years.

He slept in abandoned houses, lined up for soup kitchen lunches and stood on street corners asking for odd jobs. Some mornings he woke up so scared he never got up at all. “I didn’t even know I was depressed until I talked to the doctors,” he says.

Ironically, what finally saved him was his asthma. “I couldn’t walk from here around the block,” he says. “If it wasn’t for that, I’d probably still be out there.” Mills was being treated at the Center for Respite Care, a North Avondale medical center for the homeless, when he met Alfonse Muller, from a group called Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness (PATH). Muller found him a room in a transitional housing program in Over-the-Rhine.

“This place here, it’s a blessing,” Mills says of his new home, a dorm-style building on 12th Street, run by the Tender Mercies organization. Mills is taking classes at a nearby learning center, working towards his GED. Things are looking up. He’s written down some of his goals in a green notebook. Following through with these goals is hard, and sometimes frightening, but they’re there whenever he needs them, staring him in the face in deliberate penmanship:

Improve eating habits

Go back to school

Get involved in a church

Go to Narcotics Anonymous/Alcoholics Anonymous

See family more often


Mills admits that living on the streets taught him a lot. But the biggest lesson he learned was that he doesn’t ever want to do it again.

Mills’ story is a welcome victory for the social workers at PATH, a nationwide program to help the homeless who have mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression. Altogether, one in 17 Americans suffers from severe mental illness.

Among the nation’s homeless population, that figure rises to one in three.

In Cincinnati, PATH employs seven outreach workers and is administered by Greater Cincinnati Behavioral Health Services (GCBHS) and Tender Mercies. In 2008, the team made contact with 775 homeless people in the city, of which 305 had a mental illness. Among those, 206 were enrolled in relief services.

“It’s a pretty good dent,” says Debbie DeMarcus, GCBHS community support services manager. The figures represent considerable persistence on the part of the PATH team. For someone sleeping in a park or beneath an overpass, being punctual and organized enough to get one’s life back on track isn’t easy. Add a mental illness and substance addiction, and it’s harder still.

“We do whatever we can do to make sure they’re not homeless anymore,” DeMarcus says. But that doesn’t always happen at a pace of her choosing. “You just can’t force people to do what you want them to,” she says. “We hang in there with them. A lot of people who are mentally ill, their choices just don’t make sense.”

That patience underlies an unofficial mantra of the PATH team: Meet people where they are, and if they’re not ready for help, keep visiting.

At 6:55 a.m. one recent Friday, the sun is lighting up the top floors of the skyline. Tony Camma sits alone in the one-room PATH headquarters at 12th and Elm, poring over a weekly planner and waiting for Alfonse Muller. The pair will spend two hours driving around the city visiting Cincinnati’s homeless camps. They go early to catch those who might be leaving for first-shift temp jobs.

Camma selects the camps they will visit — he counts about 10 in Cincinnati overall, though the number fluctuates — and reviews what they found the last time they went. He knows his job well; he’s been doing it five days a week for two and a half years. Before that, he was homeless himself, living in his car.

When Muller arrives, they leave for a camp next to the Roebling Suspension Bridge. The camp is quiet at this hour, though the bridge hums with rush-hour traffic. Camma counts the tents and estimates 11 inhabitants. Last week there were four. Muller and Camma walk among the camp’s flotsam — a sooty pot, a fishing pole, a can of Spam and a small toiletry bag bearing the name, “Jason Smith.”

Muller pulls a business card from his pocket and tucks it into the cupholder of a vinyl chair, beside an embroidered sign that reads “Home Is Where the Heart Is.” He explains that these trips aim to make contact, build relationships and let the mentally ill know that help is available.

“Basically it’s to let people know that someone cares about them,” he says.

Muller and Camma stash more cards under cups and in jacket pockets before leaving. The next stop is to say “hi” to a couple of men curled up in blankets just a few feet beneath the roaring Interstate-71. The men thank Muller and Camma for dropping by. Then Muller points the car toward a camp of alcoholics in Clifton. They pass the Mary Magdalen house at 12th and Main, where the homeless can shower, shave and wash their clothes. At 8:15 a.m. the line is already out the door.

At the Clifton camp, two men are sitting around a radio. They greet Camma and Muller warmly. Two years ago Muller persuaded one of them, Bill, to go through rehab. He was sober for six months before relapsing. Bill’s backslide doesn’t seem to faze Muller, who banters with him like a friend. The other man, Bo, asks Camma where he can get help.

“I’m tired,” Bo says. “I’m too old for this stuff, sleeping under a bridge.” Camma answers his questions, gives him a card and urges him to stop by the PATH office.

Driving back to Over-the-Rhine, Muller and Camma talk about former clients, pointing out houses they found for some. They both enjoy their relationships with the homeless people they encounter. With the relationships come the patience and empathy necessary to do their jobs.

“Once you do this, you just start realizing how hard it is to live out here,” Muller says.” It’s tough to get out of a hole.”

Back on 12th Street, Timothy Mills is experiencing that difficulty firsthand. His two-year transitional housing term will end next year. By then he hopes to have found a job and another place to live. He’s hopeful that he can turn his life around, but he’s scared, too. He’s grown used to failure in his life, and sometimes it’s easier to just expect it. He’s been given a second chance, however, and he aims to make the most if it.

“I’m startin’ to grab hold of myself now,” he says. “I ain’t got a lot, but I got a whole lot. I got a roof over my head and a future I’m preparing for.”

Mills flips to a clean page in his green notebook and draws two diverging railroad tracks. “It’s so easy to get detoured in life,” he says. “But I’m gonna stay on the right track. I’ll put one foot in front of the other, and just hope I stop trippin’ over them.”

[Photo: John Abercrombie (right) and Scottie Smith live in a homeless camp under a Queensgate Bridge. Abercrombie has lived on the streets for 15 years. "It's peaceful," he says. "Even when I had an apartment, I still went outside. I like it outside." Photo by Jacob Baynham.]



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