ASHLAND -- Homelessness has been a social issue in the United States nearly since its beginning. The number of homeless people in the United States briefly declined after the Civil War ended but it was first recognized as a national issue in the 1870’s.
A large “army” of young, able-bodied, white men created a culture that combined the search for work with a delight for the open road and a disdain for the constraints of workers in what was becoming an industrialized America.
Homeless people were initially referred to as tramps and described as traveling the country in search of work while riding the rails on train car. It was felt these wanderers had lost their character, created moral instability and threatened the ideas and principles regarding having a home life which was a primary concern of the pioneers.
One religious group described the problem as “a crisis of men let loose from all the habits of domestic life, wandering without aim or home.”
The word “hobo” first appeared in the 1880’s in western America and softened the public’s perception a bit but many people today still tag assumptions on homeless people such as they are all criminals, unemployed, have poor hygiene and are undereducated.
The truth is this is usually not the case.
Many factors create homelessness including a house fire, weather-related incident, family issue, domestic violence, unemployment, low-paying work, lack of medical insurance, disability, a serious illness or lack of affordable housing just to name some.
From 1850 through 2009 Ashland County mostly supported its homeless population by building various facilities to house people in a congregate setting. Once the Heartland Home closed (once referred to as the poor house), many of its residents were sent to the appropriate facilities to meet their needs.
By 2008, the Homeless Coalition in Ashland was already hard at work addressing homeless challenges in the area. Although there was the Pumphouse Ministries who provided shelter for men, and SafeHaven who provided shelter for victims of rape and domestic violence, there still wasn’t enough shelter to assist families or single women who were not eligible for services elsewhere.
The Homeless Coalition formed a subcommittee who researched and developed a program to fill the gap. Annamary McDonough and Maj. JoAnn Shade of the KROC Center (Salvation Army) soon played prominent roles in getting the program off the ground with the help of Maj. JoAnn Shade of the KROC Center (Salvation Army) along with churches and other members of the subcommittee.
Ashland County Church Emergency Shelter Services (ACCESS) was formed as a coalition of local Christian congregations designed to provide safe, temporary emergency shelter, meals and compassionate assistance for homeless Ashland County women and families. The churches modeled the program after the “Operation Homes” program in Medina County and provided overnight shelter in a Christian-based atmosphere.
The initial goal was to have 12 host churches but it started with eight, with each rotating shelter services. The first “guests” of the churches started participating in the program in November, 2009.
Over the years, the ACCESS program has changed and continued to expand.
In 2011, it became its own non-profit organization. A mix of different people helped run the program but in July, 2013 Cathy Thiemens was hired as the executive director and remains there today. The program again expanded in June, 2016 when the churches no longer provided shelter and guests started temporary living in apartments provided by local property landlords.
Local churches today are still involved in the program and provide ACCESS guests with food and other support as they stay in an ACCESS apartment and work toward developing skills and relationships that allow them to transition to self-sufficiency and a more stable future.
In 2019, more temporary housing was made available and ACCESS became one of Ashland County’s United Way agencies. In January 2020, ACCESS welcomed the addition a social services liaison that works directly with guests and links them to the services they need for success and stable housing.
In 2020, ACCESS served 60 people with 29 of those being children. The largest issue their guests faced was finding affordable housing. 91% of those people were able to accomplish their goal. ACCESS follows a “hand up, not a handout” philosophy because it is a program that must be followed in order to live temporarily in their housing.