Tineisha Pearson watched from the top of a hill just outside her tent as the water from a “watering hole” rose about five feet. Canton was flooding and the power had gone out in several parts of the city.
Pearson, 23, wasn’t camping. She was homeless.
Perched at the summit of a friend’s 40-acre property in late August 2011, she had already become familiar with a transient life. That familiarity didn’t make anything easier, though.
But after more than two years of couch surfing and pitching tents, that lifestyle was nearly at its end.
Pearson moved in to an apartment in Alliance on Oct. 5, 2011 with the help of Jill Dingies, a housing support specialist at Community Services of Stark County. Dingies also experienced homelessness and foster care as a teen and homelessness again when she was a young adult.
Community Services has been using the SHELTER Grant, a five-year federal grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), to provide services for people experiencing mental illness, substance use disorders and homelessness. At the beginning, 1.8 percent of those using SHELTER services had housing. After six months, 47.3 percent were housed.
The Mental Health and Recovery Services Board of Stark County (MHRSB) was awarded a $1.5 million grant at the beginning of October by the same federal agency to run Project REACH (Recovery and Empowerment Achieved with Community and Housing).
The MHRSB will use most of the grant dollars to expand the SHELTER program, and provide intensive recovery services to 120 homeless people during a three-year period.
Focusing on 40 people per year, the MHRSB, along with several other agencies and government departments at the county and city level, will work with 20 adults and 20 transitional youth (18-24), like Pearson, to place them in permanent housing while providing them with recovery support.
John Aller, executive director at the MHRSB, said many youth who had spent a lot of time in “the system” (Job and Family Services, foster care or jail) find themselves homeless when it comes time to be an adult.
“When they turn 18, we make the mistake of thinking they’re all right,” Aller said.
Pearson remembers when it all started – down to the minute.
“It was 9:15 in the morning on May 22, 2009. I was potty training my daughter (now 4 years old) and my son (now 3 years old) was on the couch when the cops kicked down the door,” Pearson said.
Pearson was arrested at her home in Skyline Terrace on charges of drug possession and endangering children, which she still disputes today. She said her public defender settled for a plea bargain of 90 days in jail and two years probation.
Pearson was released from Stark County Jail after 58 days, according to court documents.
But for many homeless people, time in jail isn’t limited to 58 days.
Aller said many homeless people are in and out of jail constantly. It becomes a cycle. And in Stark County that could become a worse problem than it already is.
The number of open beds at Stark County Jail has already been reduced from 500 to 300, said Stark County Commissioner Peter Ferguson. And if a .5 percent county sales tax increase isn’t passed in November, the number of open beds would drop to 122.
With the $1.5 million grant, several MHRSB officials say, the board and its partners will be able to get several homeless people to a place of stability and out of this cycle of being in and out of jail. The board has set a number of goals for the project including housing stability, a reduction in drug and alcohol use, and an improvement in mental health – and not just for the 120 people it will focus on in the next three years.
An estimated 50 people will get support through outreach services, another 35 will have access to mainstream benefit programs and another 40 people will be placed in permanent supportive housing annually. The Mental Health Board will kick in $140,000 each year in housing vouchers for the next three years. The City of Canton will also support the housing initiative with $100,000 annually for the next five years.
Now living in an apartment in Alliance, Pearson plans to study business management at Brown Mackie College and use that degree to open a soul food restaurant in Canton or Alliance.
But mainly, Pearson is focusing on getting custody of her children, who now live with her ex-sister-in-law.
“I want my family to be whole again,” she said.