The Ohio State University Alumni Association

Josh Edwards, who graduated this spring with a bachelor’s degree in social work, writes about his opportunity to volunteer for Columbus’ annual count of homeless individuals.

Josh Edwards
Recent Ohio State graduate Josh Edwards serves meals at the 2015 Point in Time Count of homeless individuals in Columbus.

When I arrived at Blackburn Recreation Center on Columbus’ east side that chilly Thursday morning, I learned I’d be on kitchen duty.

My job as a volunteer for the city’s annual Point in Time Count of the homeless population would be to serve warm meals and provide a bag or more of produce from the Mid-Ohio Foodbank. This was an invaluable opportunity for me to get a better perspective and understanding of homelessness. Serving such a large number of individuals that day brought to my attention that homelessness does not always conform to traditional stereotypes.

There was one girl in particular whose experience really resonated with me. Not much older than me, she was employed as a coffee shop barista. As a young, independent single woman, she just didn’t have sufficient funds to maintain her rent payments. She was depending on her network of relationships to help support her during this difficult season of her life.

Her situation made me critically assess my own. I thought about how easily I could be in her shoes if my resources were suddenly pulled out from under me.

The annual Point in Time Count is a federally mandated survey of unsheltered individuals who live on the streets, in camps or in other places not meant for human habitation. On this day, dozens of social services agencies in Franklin County collaborated to deliver much-needed services such as warm meals, haircuts and health care.

Heather Hulett, right, and Stephanie Starks, both students in the College of Social Work, organize coats to be provided to homeless individuals.

While statistically there are a higher number of homeless people who are dependent on drugs and/or alcohol or experiencing mental health difficulties, many of the individuals I served that day were much like me. My participation made me realize that one financial crisis or emergency could put many people face to face with hunger or homelessness. It was good for me to see that this could happen to anyone. And it helped me understand that homelessness and food insecurity are problems that need more attention in our communities.

I also learned a little more about how this all started. In 1987, Congress assigned the Department of Housing and Urban Development the task of monitoring homelessness. Information collected from throughout the country during the Point in Time Count helps the federal government allocate social services funding for homeless individuals. In Franklin County, federal funds and other government and private grant monies are distributed through the Community Shelter Board, which partners with local agencies to provide shelter, meals and medical and other services.

As I consider my career options, I plan to use the skills and information I have learned from my studies and opportunities such as the homeless survey to address community-level challenges. This experience convinced me to increase my knowledge of this issue and how it affects many people in my own backyard. It seems most important to first educate our neighbors of these problems and then work with others to combat them.

I was grateful to witness how powerful the Community Shelter Board’s efforts are when joined with the work of other passionate social services agencies and organizations. I am excited and honored to have the opportunity to use what has been provided to me through my education and volunteer experiences like these to make a difference in communities right here in Columbus.

Perhaps it would benefit us all to take the time to serve someone in need, only to discover that they might be just like us.