EILI WRIGHT, Narrative Journalism Health & Poverty Fellow—Every Saturday at 11:50 p.m., a crowd of people is visible on the right turn from North Cedar street to East Main Street. From down the road, it just looks like a group of people talking and getting to know each other. But past three churches, an abandoned Dollar General and a Speedway, the view becomes more clear.
At an empty lot at the corner of East Main and Buena Vista, a line of people begins to form at the edge of two white foldable tables, and wraps around the corner of the block. Two women frantically staff the white table as other volunteers buzz around them, scrambling to have everything in order before the clock hits noon. People who want to donate stand at the sidelines, chatting and greeting the ones who have come to collect goods including clothes, food, hygiene products, and harm reduction kits.
The line is bulky at some points and thin at others, but it is alive with groups of two or three, or people who have paired up to share small talk between friends. Either way, everyone knows the drill.
The Newark Homeless Outreach started in 2017 at the hands of Trish Perry, who is passionate about selfless service in her community. At first, the concept was only to provide coats and hot meals for the unsheltered during the winter of 2017, but things grew and now they are four years strong. More and more people have joined their cause, from locals with small handcrafted tools like solar lights, to church donations, to motorcycle groups who are just looking to help out.
“This is a true street outreach. Grass roots, from the bottom up street outreach,” said Nancy Welu, a fellow advocate and devoted volunteer of the organization. According to Welu, during the summer months when the tables, clothing racks, and bins of free food have been set up by 10am, they’ve been able to serve up to 130 people in the span of two hours.
Welu has been a loyal part of The Newark Homeless Outreach since 2018, when she joined during the Thanksgiving Holiday season. Welu has come every Saturday since, rain or shine, and has become familiar with the usual crowd. Welu referred to The Outreach as more of a gap service until people can get back on their feet. “We’re a gap service–not a social service–a gap service, until they find housing, just to help do something,” she explained.
One of the things The Outreach was proud to provide, she said, were their harm reduction kits that included narcan and fentanyl test strips. “Newark has an unsheltered problem,” Welu said, “and we realize there is addiction in Newark.”
Welu also wanted to recognize how important it is for people in Newark to have a safe space to come to, one that she hopes the Newark Homeless Outreach can provide. “These are people we care about,” she said. “It’s a safe space, people can show up in active addiction and we don’t judge.”
According to Olivia Biggs, the Public Information Officer at the Licking County Health Department, 36 people in Licking County died from overdoses in 2019. Even with this important data, however, the Health Department does not have information about the amount of people who have overdosed without death.
Despite the amount of addiction in Newark that people like Welu see every day, there is yet to be a needle exchange program in Newark.
Needle exchange programs are a public health program that allow people who use drugs to exchange used needles for clean ones to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS. These programs have been proven to be an effective and safe way to encourage safe drug use, according to research supported by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. According to the CDC, Syringe Service Programs not only offer safe access to sterile needles, but can dispose of used needles as well as provide other education and disease screening that can contribute to better overall health.
Biggs said the Health Department has been in the process of starting a needle exchange program, but the program is still in the information-processing phase.
In 2018, the U.S. Small-Area Life Expectancy Estimates Project found that amongst other small towns, Newark Ohio’s life expectancy is 69.4 years old. Based on 2010 Census data, this is eight years younger than the United States National Average, at 77.8 years old.
That is why Welu and Perry’s work to close the gap for people who do not have access to other social resources like a needle exchange program is so important. Paying attention to the social determinants of health, like access to proper public health resources, is a way to help life expectancy increase and provide–like Welu said before–a grassroots approach to helping the community.
Welu’s compassion for The Outreach and the people who flock to the corner of East Main and Buena Vista every Saturday can be seen even in future plans for The Outreach. Due to the high amounts of donations the organization has received in the years of their operation, Welu said they have been trying to construct a building on the very block where The Outreach started four years ago.
There is a problem, however, with where the building would be constructed. At the back of the grassy lot, one tree is bigger than all the rest. It’s low to the ground, but because of its size, the shade it provides stretches far out into the lot, creating a small cove.
Welu said during the summer, this tree provides a cool, shady spot for people to lay under and rest, where they know they are safe. But if a new building were to be constructed on the lot, the tree may have to be cut down.
Even in the name of progress, Welu and the other volunteers at The Outreach always have the needs of the community in the forefront of their minds.
For any interested in helping the Newark Homeless Outreach, their hours are 10 a.m. until, according to Welu, whenever they run out of materials during the summer months. They are always looking for more clothes, food, and hygiene supplies to hand out every Saturday!