The corner of Scott and Skidmore is a place known to very few. It offers the rare observer a view of a bleak yet paradoxically serene landscape. A pristine blanket of snow covers the ground, punctuated only by the spindly trees. Beyond the road and tree line, past a pair of well-worn train tracks, the partially frozen Scioto River begins its sharp bend towards Columbus proper. A mix of small industrial buildings rounds out the scene, lying dark and quiet along the street. The area seems devoid of life, save for several pairs of footprints tracking towards the river.
The footprints are of various depths and age, suggesting a well-used path by persons unknown. The tracks continue through a break in the thin tree line, across the well-worn tracks, and towards the Scioto. There, amid a grove of leafless trees, one can discover a harsh truth amid a forgotten urban wilderness.
This is the home of a couple who endeavor to share what little they have with others, even though they have so little themselves. Here are the shelters of men who wake up at four in the morning to find paying work to support themselves. And in this small grove sleep veterans of war in the shadow of the Franklin County Veterans Memorial, long forgotten by the country that they served.
The grove has been raided by police backed by politicians, who threaten its inhabitants with un-payable fines, eviction, and imprisonment. It has been the target of a merciless Mother Nature, who batters the shelters with snow, wind, and freezing temperatures. And its residents must navigate through a convoluted and overburdened social service system if they hope to receive any type of organized aid.
Although some grapple with issues of alcohol abuse, drug addiction, or mental health problems, all of the homeless of Columbus are ultimately in a battle each and every day to simply survive. If you pause and listen to their stories, you will hear a tale that often shatters the image of the persistent panhandler or comatose vagrant. Instead, their voices will tell you a very human story…
Author Note: The homeless camp described in this vignette is actually a secondary camp created after the first was forcibly evicted by the city a year earlier. At that first camp, situated off of an abandoned road off of Greenlawn Avenue, a de facto camp mayor, homeless himself, and long-term or permanent residents, had created a functioning society in the middle of another stretch of woods. They coordinated with non-profit organizations and church groups for aid and helped new residents settle in, find working wages, and abide by camp rules.
The first camp soon came to the attention of city officials, who responded first by placing concrete barriers on the abandoned road to prevent local non-profit organizations from reaching camp inhabitants. Months later, police officers were sent to arrest and relocate any remaining residents of the camp. All camp shelters were torn down and the residents were transferred to local homeless shelters. It is unclear how many of the residents sent to these shelters were able to be placed in stable housing and how many ended up back on the streets.
This essay was written nearly six years ago to this posting (shared first through Facebook, then a now-defunct medical blog, and finally finding a new home here). At the time of the writing, city officials and local police were regularly threatening eviction. It is likely that, today this camp no longer exists…
As an aspiring physician, some of my future patients will have extenuating circumstances, some of which, like the lives of those described here, will be extraordinary. These circumstances will adversely affect their ability to access, receive, and maintain their connection to health care systems.
Without an appreciation of these difficulties, we as healthcare providers run the risk of mislabeling poor circumstances with poor motivation, of confusing mistrust with belligerency. Only through understanding, not only of our patients’ circumstances, but also of the social services and support systems available in our local communities, will we have the ability to truly help our patients beyond the clinic.