As I drive and run my daily errands in Columbus, I have noticed an increase in the number of people at highway exit ramps holding signs and asking for money.
Coming off of Interstate 70 west and turning on to Hamilton Road on the east side of town, two men have a daily shift working traffic going in opposite directions. One is elderly, appearing to be in his 70s, and the other is much younger, most likely in his early 30s. Their clothes — dull T-shirts and sweat pants — are heavily soiled, and the younger man sometimes has on a disposable face mask that looks as if he has worn it more than once.
The elderly gentleman gingerly moves around with a wooden walking stick. As the cars pass on Hamilton, he waves his right hand and bows as if he is meeting someone of royal stature. The younger man jingles change in a plastic cup while he walks down the exit ramp. Both are white and could possibly be father and son. Both could also be homeless.
Homelessness in cities such as Columbus is a problem that is going to be exacerbated in coming months with landlords filing more evictions, especially with evictions in areas with high COVID-19 rates. The two white men asking for money on that I-70 west exit are peddling close to an area that, during the first week in October, had between 814 and 1,279 COVID-19 cases. This is a working-class residential location that is largely African American and carries a higher health risk for people contracting the coronavirus.
CNN sent a team of investigative reporters to Columbus near the end of September to interview families facing eviction. Their stories were distressing and cast a dismal outlook on how more people are on the brink of harsh poverty as they wrestle with hardship brought on by the pandemic. A young mother from Sierra Leone with two daughters, ages 1 and 4, faced eviction after contracting COVID-19 and not working for two months. Another young couple in their early 20s received an eviction notice after being laid off from their jobs as a result of the economic impact of the virus.
The CNN story also included research from Princeton University’s Eviction Lab, which published the first-ever dataset of U.S. evictions. I looked at their 2016 rankings for the 100 “Top Evicting Large Cities in the United States.” Columbus came in at No. 52. I expect my city to move up a few spots when these statistics are updated. Current Eviction Lab data from October 17 shows Columbus having 125 eviction filings. This does not bode well for residents who are behind in rent due to layoffs or furloughs. Although the CDC did implement a moratorium on evictions on Sept. 4, it will expire at the end of the year.
I often think about the two men I see off of I-70 west, but there is a beacon of hope just a few blocks away. My church, Vision of Breath with Life Ministries, is building an edifice in this area. God has given us a mandate to help those who are struggling in this community.
Recently, we handed out small bags filled with masks, hand sanitizer and coloring books for children to families, and we prayed with several families as they told us about the health and job challenges looming over them. About a month ago, I was with my pastor and a few other members as she was surveying the clearance of the land for our church.
We met a young woman who was heavily behind on her rent with four boys to care for. She broke down in tears as she told us about her difficulty in landing a job. The Lord touched my pastor’s heart to help this young lady with her back rent, and a payment plan was worked out with the landlord.
This is the type of outreach that our ministry will be doing in Columbus. As COVID-19 lingers, more people are going to require assistance, and with God’s grace we will do our best to get people off of highway exit ramps.
Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at The Ohio State University-Lima. Email her at email@example.com. @JjSmojc