The photo looks like any other image of homelessness: Two people sleep on a blanket in a grassy area, an empty wheelchair sitting next to the woman. This could easily be a scene in New York or even Columbus, but it isn’t: These two people are in the Public Square of Mount Vernon.
Last Thursday, Kenyon students and community members lined the rows of a lecture room in Samuel Mather Hall and listened attentively as Callan Pugh and Joshua Morrison from The Mount Vernon News detailed their experiences writing a collection of stories about homelessness in Mount Vernon.
With the picture displayed behind them, Pugh and Morrison talked about the disconnect that exists between the general public and the homeless population. “[Homelessness] was never really something that was a hot topic . . . they live someplace that you don’t normally see,” Morrison, a Mount Vernon native, said.
The speakers were brought to campus by The Rural Cause, a student organization that focuses on strengthening Kenyon’s ties to surrounding rural community. Sigal Felber ’21, the group’s director of programming, said the event came about from her desire to bring awareness and discussion of social issues in the surrounding area to Kenyon students. “People need to be informed about these issues because they’re going on all around them, even if they aren’t going on in their own individual lives,” Felber said. “There are students at Kenyon who struggle with these issues, and we can’t keep pretending that this isn’t true.”
The invisibility of homelessness in Knox County is compounded by the fact that no accurate count of the homeless population exists, and most of the support for people experiencing homelessness is provided through private avenues rather than the city of Mount Vernon. Furthermore, many homeless people do not have access to information about the resources that could help them.
The support systems Pugh and Morrison found that provide assistance to homeless people in Mount Vernon were often only able to provide restricted and inconsistent help. “The overall needs are lacking in Knox County,” Morrison said. “There’s just not enough money, there’s just not enough volunteers.”
While resources like The Winter Sanctuary and The Main Place do their best, assistance is limited and does not meet specific needs such as housing for family groups or during the summer.
The presenters also spoke about the journalistic process involved in running the series. “You can’t just tell the personal side or the informational side; it has to have both,” Pugh said, describing how she and Morrison spent a long time forming relationships with the homeless people they interviewed. They spent a year working on the personal stories while the descriptive stories were completed in the month before the story ran — though Pugh noted that the less personal stories were also hard to write because of the inadequate acknowledgement of the problem by the local community.
Some audience members stayed up to a half an hour after the talk in order to continue the discussion and ask questions. When asked about what Kenyon students who are interested in getting involved in Knox County could do, Morrison and Pugh said the best way for students to become more engaged was by volunteering.
“You don’t have to throw money at the problem,” said Pugh. “[Go] out and [help] and [have] that relationship with the community.”