‘Bridging’ the Gap

Local homeless shelter ‘Bridges of Hope’ serves community needs

by Breanna Beers

In December of 2017, Bridges of Hope opened its doors to its first guests, converting a former elementary school into an emergency shelter.

The road to opening Bridges of Hope was a three-year process of prayer and persistence until finally the nonprofit organization was finally able to confirm their purchase of the former Simon Kenton Elementary School in Xenia. The building was slated for demolition, but now it has been converted to serve the community in a new way. Jill Conkel, the shelter manager, said the mission of Bridges of Hope is threefold.

“We’re trying to alleviate homelessness, help with addiction, and overcome poverty,” Conkel said. “We’re trying to meet the basic human needs that someone has.”

Meeting the basic needs of food, shelter and safety, Conkel said, can empower individuals to take steps on their own toward economic and personal growth. By contrast, when someone is lacking the security of a roof over his or her head, it is much more difficult to begin searching for a job or dealing with addiction. Conkel explained the difficult-to-grasp concept for Cedarville students by applying it to their daily lives.

“How would you do as a student,” Conkel asked, “if you had to sleep outside, not sleep, watch yourself, not work, wondering where you’re going to eat next, and it’s really cold, and then you’ve got to go to class — how well do you perform?”

This, Conkel explained, is why Bridges of Hope was started. The shelter has already made an impact on the community in just the few weeks since it opened.

“We’ve already heard in the few weeks that we’ve been open that more appointments are being kept at a local counseling place, more are going to recovery programs,” Conkel said.

Homelessness is not an issue specific to Xenia, but rather a country-wide phenomenon. In addition, many of those who are homeless are not so of their own volition. The U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports that approximately 30 percent of individuals experiencing chronic homelessness — those who have beenhomeless for a year or more — have a serious mental illness, and almost two-thirds of chronically homeless individuals have a substance abuse disorder or other chronic health condition.

These conditions often play a role both in driving people into homelessness and in keeping them there. In particular, the use of opioids such as heroin, morphine, and fentanyl has been steadily rising over the last several years, and according to NBC, Ohio is the “epicenter” of this crisis. The U.S. Department of Health reported that more than 4,000 Ohio residents died of opioid overdoses in 2016, and officials estimate that that number may have doubled in 2017.

Social work professor Dr. Julie Furj-Kuhn said that substance addiction and mental illness often go hand-in-hand as individuals try to use opioids or alcohol to deal with their condition.

“There’s a lot of individuals who … have some sort of mental illness, and use drugs or alcohol in order to cope,” Furj-Kuhn said. “It’s a catch-22.”

Bridges of Hope recognizes the challenges many homeless people face in dealing with substance or alcohol abuse, but instead of closing their doors to these individuals, the shelter chooses to welcome them in.

“We are a low-bar shelter, which means we don’t have a lot of requirements to come in,” Conkel said. “If you come in drunk, if you come in on drugs, that doesn’t eliminate you from coming in. What does is your behavior.”

For instance, Conkel explained, someone could come into the shelter drunk, but as long as they remain quiet and calm, they are permitted to stay. By contrast, if an individual came into the shelter and acted unruly and destructive, they would be asked to leave, regardless of whether drugs or alcohol were a part of the equation.

Conkel said she has found that addiction is usually not the ultimate cause of homelessness, but rather the symptom of a deeper problem.

“The addiction is not the first step,” Conkel said. “A lot of times, when someone has an addiction, there is a root problem. A lot of it goes back to childhood — there’s been neglect from childhood, abuse from childhood, that they just don’t seem to be able to overcome. They can’t have stable relationships, and then that drives addictions, which are usually masking pain in someone’s life. If you don’t deal with why someone started drinking, you really don’t solve their problem.”

According to Conkel, the next step in helping homeless individuals after meeting basic human needs for food and shelter and dealing with addiction is finding employment.

“I hear a lot of frustrated individuals saying, ‘I just want a job. I just want to work,’” Conkel said. “A lot of them have felony records—not violent—and it’s amazing how many places will not hire with that. It happened eight years ago; it could be carrying drugs or something like that, but nobody will hire them.”

Yet, even if an individual is able to find work, Conkel said many homeless individuals put their money toward food for the day or a night in a hotel, rather than saving toward long-term goals. Conkel said she has seen how homelessness can develop a mindset focused on survival today rather than hope tomorrow.

In order to combat this mindset, Conkel said Bridges of Hope provides shelter for the employed homeless along with the unemployed. Rather than “punishing” those who are able to find jobs by requiring them to find their own place to sleep, Bridges of Hope allows them to stay at the shelter as they continue on the road to independence.

“Giving people that ability to sleep and rest and get that done, it’s allowing them to take steps on their own to attend meetings, maybe to look for employment, save their money so they can maybe get a place,” said Conkel.

Bridges of Hope is currently seeking volunteers to continue to serve the needs of the community. Conkel and Furj-Kuhn both encouraged students to get involved in homeless ministry, whether by tutoring children in homeless families, offering to help homeless individuals write resumes, giving haircuts at a local shelter, or supporting businesses that give back, such as Second Act and One Bistro.

“Sometimes we don’t see it, as Cedarville University, but there are people living in poverty right here in our own town,” Furj-Kuhn said.

Breanna Beers is a freshman Molecular Biology and Journalism double major and an off-campus news writer for Cedars. She loves exercising curiosity, hiking new trails, and quoting The Princess Bride. whether it’s relevant or not.

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