City, nonprofits work with homeless in Xenia to make difference

“We’re people just like everybody else, we’re just going through a hard time.”

XENIA — Every Saturday morning, Mike Hunter cleans up trash on the same bike path where he saved a person’s life. On Saturday mornings and Wednesday nights, he and 17 other homeless or formerly homeless individuals go out and clean up trash, cut back trees, lay mulch and generally maintain the look of Xenia’s downtown.

Hunter, who has been homeless and just recently obtained housing, carries Narcan with him, and said he has saved eight people from an overdose.

“He didn’t even thank me or nothing,” Hunter said of saving the man on the bridge. “Killed his buzz, I guess.”

Hunter and his colleagues work through a privately funded program put on by Bridges of Hope, a Xenia shelter that serves homeless single adults. Workers are paid $10 an hour at the end of each work day, in a way that organizers say gives them dignity and purpose in addition to putting money back in their pockets. Since the project started in May, workers have picked up more than 1,000 bags of trash.

“It’s teaching men and women responsibilities you need to have a job,” said Will Urschel, a city council member and president of Bridges of Hope’s board of directors. “They get paid every day, but if they don’t work the hours, they don’t get paid. It’s teaching good basic work skills.”

Through the work program, five people now have full-time jobs and full-time residences. One of those people is Jeff Langan.

Langan became homeless two days after Christmas in 2020, and now works at the Greene County Fairgrounds doing general maintenance.

“If it wasn’t for Bridges of Hope and TCN (The Caring Network) helping me, it was getting cold in January, I’d probably have been dead,” he said.

Bridges of Hope currently houses 35 adults each night, but closes during the day. Bridges of Hope houses individuals from Xenia, Fairborn and Beavercreek, but all adults served by Bridges of Hope must have proof of Greene County residence.

Bridges has plans in place to be open as a full-day programming shelter in 2022, both to give people a place to go during the day and to address some of the root causes of homelessness.

Those root causes can be as varied as the individuals experiencing it, said shelter director Jill Conkel.

“People think it’s ‘they don’t have a job or because of drug addiction.’ For a third of our population, it’s health issues,” she said. “You want to really know somebody’s story? Ask them about their childhood. It’s horrific what some of these people have gone through, but they didn’t have the support or counseling to work through it.”

The city of Xenia has started its own initiative to address homelessness from a law enforcement perspective.

“The issue has become a significant concern for residents, and by extension the council,” said City Manager Brent Merriman. “There’s no easy way to deal with it. What this initiative is attempting to do is providing assistance and accountability at the same time.”

Titled the HeadsUp program, the effort has dedicated two police officers to go out in the mornings and identify individuals that are living on the street, offer them help, and direct them toward available resources. Through their efforts, the city has identified that there are roughly 10 to 12 people living on the street who refuse to seek help.

“The perception of the scale is really off,” Merriman said.

Sgt. Jeff Osburn of the Xenia Police is one of those officers interacting directly with the homeless.

“Ninety percent of the ones we’re dealing with now are those that don’t want to take the next step,” Osburn said. “We don’t just want to lock them up. We can’t force them. We can’t harass them. But if they are committing a public ill, we can hold them accountable.”

Though some individuals refuse to seek help, there are others who are actively giving back to the community, and Xenia is already starting to see a return on investment, Merriman said.

“Some homeless folks are taking value away, but these guys and gals are taking pride in doing a service in the community that others wouldn’t,” he added.

That pride is felt by individuals like Hunter as they go about taking care of the city of Xenia.

“We’re people just like everybody else, we’re just going through a hard time,” Hunter said. “Sure you have people who abuse the system. But we do a hell of a good job.”

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