Four months ago, Brittany Corbitt was living in a house on Longcoy Avenue in Kent with a friend of a friend when the landlord delivered an eviction notice.
Weeks later, she scrambled to pack her things as law enforcement officers knocked on the door and yelled at her to leave or they would arrest her for trespassing, she said. In the shuffle, she lost important documents, including pay stubs, her birth certificate and her ID.
Without an ID, Corbitt has been unable to get a hotel room or apply for housing assistance. The 22 beds at Miller Community House, the only emergency shelter in Kent where she could stay, have been occupied for weeks, said Jenn Mattlack, Family and Community Services’ Director of Housing and Homeless Services.
Corbitt said her only option was to pitch a tent alongside about 30 others living under the Haymaker Parkway Bridge.
Then someone told her she had to leave there too. Last month, the Kent Police Department and CSX, the rail transportation company that owns part of the land the community was camped on, asked those living on the property to vacate by Oct. 1, citing safety concerns.
She and others living on the campsite left the land under Haymaker Parkway, but many of them simply moved north up the river along the tracks and set up new campsites.
“Where are they expecting us to go?” she said. “Everything’s private property, city property, county property. It’s like the trees that grow out of the ground that are God’s property, I’m not allowed to sleep in them. It drives me nuts.”
The order to leave
Kent Police Chief Nicholas Shearer said the population at the campsite has grown “exponentially” over the last year, potentially due to financial hardship brought on by the pandemic.
Along with the population increase came an uptick in fires (five in the last six or so months, caused by people cooking or burning trash), thefts, and complaints from Kent residents and business owners, Shearer said.
At the beginning of the summer, CSX representatives contacted Shearer to initiate a conversation about the campsite’s future, saying they were concerned about property damage and the safety of those living near the tracks, Shearer said.
“They found that if they let things get out of control, it’s extremely expensive to go in and clean up,” he said. The company has found “meth labs and things like that” on their property in other cities, which has cost the company “tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of dollars” to remove.
“Any activity on or near railroad tracks is extremely dangerous and can lead to devastating consequences,” said Sheriee Bowman, a spokesperson for CSX, in a statement. “CSX is committed to working with appropriate agencies to resolve the public health and safety challenge created by the current situation.”
CSX reported two non-fatal casualties on its tracks in Portage County in September 2020 and February to the Federal Railroad Administration. The administration’s statistics page doesn’t detail where the accidents occurred or who was involved, and Bowman did not respond to a request for more information.
Bowman declined to comment on the situation beyond the statement, which said the company had given the people living on CSX property 30 days to vacate.
CSX personnel, Kent Police Department leadership and representatives from social service agencies met Sept. 1 to discuss finding housing for those camped under the bridge, a month before the police would begin enforcing trespass laws.
“We want to do everything we can to help people out and not just say ‘you have to leave,’” Shearer said. “I said in one of our meetings, ‘This isn’t going to make everything go away. It’s going to move it.’ That’s why part of this process has been working with our social service agencies.”
After the meeting, police officers and social service agency employees were instructed to inform those living under the bridge they needed to vacate any time they had contact with them, Kent Police Operations Captain Jim Prusha said.
Employees from Coleman Professional Services and other area social service agencies began visiting the campsite daily starting Sept. 13 to let the people there know they needed to leave and to help them apply for housing vouchers.
Corbitt said she found out she had to go about two weeks before the move-out deadline.
The challenge of housing vouchers
The Emergency Housing Voucher program is one “low-barrier option” social service agencies have been able to offer those living in tents, said Meghan McClelland, a housing specialist at Coleman Professional Services.
The vouchers are intended for people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness and cover a sliding percentage of their rent payments, based on income, and often their security deposits too.
The Portage Metropolitan Housing Authority obtained $179,688 in funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in July to cover the cost of 24 vouchers and related administrative costs. The initial contract term for the funding is 18 months, and HUD will provide annual renewal funding in 12 month increments thereafter.
After four weeks of performing outreach to those from the campsite, which included meeting with clients at the Kent Free Library to fill out applications, McClelland and her colleagues referred nine people for vouchers.
There are still some barriers to applying for the program, McClelland said. People must submit their application electronically, which means they need internet access. They must also provide identifying documents — something Corbitt may not be able to do until she replaces her ID and birth certificate.
But receiving the voucher is only half the battle. Sometimes it’s hard to find landlords who are willing to accept vouchers, who have a property that will pass an inspection and who are charging an affordable price, McClelland said. The fair market rent value on a one-bedroom property in Portage County is $664 per month, which can be hard to find in a college town.
Another difficulty is finding landlords who are willing to consider applicants in spite of the stigma attached to receiving public assistance.
“We need more landlords to take chances on renting to those with low credit, criminal backgrounds, and previous evictions,” said Mattlack from Family and Community Services. “Social services alone cannot solve homelessness. It takes the community.”
Research shows the most effective way to eliminate homelessness in an area is to get people into stable, permanent housing as soon as possible (a philosophy known as housing-first), said Christopher Dum, a Kent State sociology professor who researches public policy and housing insecurity.
“People have to get their housing situation under control before they can find a job or before they seek treatment for addictions. You just can’t do anything like that without having housing,” he said.
Asking people to clear out of an area without making meaningful structural changes will only prolong the problem. “It’s sort of like whack-a-mole. People who need to camp like this are always going to find places to camp,” Dum said, “unless you do something about the social structures.”
“That raises some issues within cities for zoning, but tiny homes are fairly inexpensive, and that could be something the community could band together to do,” Shaffer Bish said.
People need to have a sense of community and to feel like they have choices beyond living in a shelter or in low-income housing far from amenities. Going the tiny homes route could tick both boxes, she said.
“It’s not going to be something that will be politically popular,” she added. “I would anticipate a lot of people saying, ‘Well, that’s a good idea, but I don’t want it near me.’ And you know, there’s a fear. Many of these folks have long-standing behavioral health issues. Not everybody. But it’s a complex issue with no easy solution.”
Ward 3 Council Member Robin Turner said he doesn’t know much about using tiny homes as a way to address homelessness but is open to learning more.
The nonprofits in Kent that help clients secure housing generally do a good job of helping people who want to help themselves, Turner said, but he acknowledges that there is a limit to what they can do in situations like Corbitt’s. “The ID issue is huge, even for people who have an address,” he said.
“When [you lose your ID], you basically become a non-person,” he continued. “We have to find a way to deal with that. You can’t exclude people because they’re down on their luck. That’s not acceptable.”
If the city is unable to take a housing-first approach, which usually relies on funding from grants and foundations rather than tax-payer dollars, Dum recommends bringing services to those experiencing homelessness wherever they are.
When places like the DMV and Housing and Emergency Support Services are spread out so far geographically, it is often “a bureaucratic nightmare to just get services,” he said. “People in these situations typically have very similar needs. So if you can’t provide stable housing, bring services to them.”
Evicted from homelessness
Before the pandemic took everything from her, Corbitt thought being homeless was a choice only drug addicts or scammers made. She remembers becoming irritated every time her ex-boyfriend offered a person living on the streets his money or his lunch.
Now, after living in a tent for four months, Corbitt knows how it feels to be judged the same way.
College students have thrown beer bottles at her. People openly stare, and businesses ask her to leave. “It’s because I’m homeless, and [they] don’t know how to accept that. I’m having a hard time accepting it. It’s embarrassing,” she said.
She’ll often hear people walking past, “and they have no idea that on the other side of the trees or under the bridge, I’m sitting there hungry, too scared to ask [for help] — ‘cause I don’t want to go to jail for soliciting.”
When the police told her to leave in September, it felt like being kicked when she was already down.
“I’m thinking, ‘I’m at the bottom of the bottom of the bottom,’ and you evict me from my homelessness,” Corbitt said. “But we’re already homeless. How much more homeless can we get?”
Lyndsey Brennan is a Portager general assignment reporter. She is completing her master's degree in journalism at Kent State and is an alumna of the Dow Jones News Fund internship program. Contact her at [email protected].