Homeless man in Athens

A man who appears to be the lone occupant of a makeshift encampment on state highway right-of-way on Athens’ North Side walks near the wooded clearing that he’s been calling his home. The Ohio Department of Transportation has filed suit to clear the encampment. Photo by Conor Morris.

The director of the Ohio Department of Transportation earlier this month filed a complaint in Athens County Common Pleas Court seeking the removal of what some are calling a homeless camp on ODOT land located off Columbus Road in Athens.

The NEWS, however, interviewed a man on Friday who claimed he’s the lone occupant of the so-called camp. And a short talk Wednesday morning with the same man at his campsite in a small clearing just 20 feet or so into the woods suggested that’s the truth.

ODOT Director Jack Marchbanks filed the July 15 complaint seeking the “ejectment” of “certain unknown persons (who) have intentionally occupied” the ODOT land, which is located northeast of Columbus road, across the road from Hugh White Honda, and on the other side, down the slope from U.S. Rt. 33.

The NEWS has been hearing from local residents for months now about people living in tents on that wooded patch of land. As of Wednesday morning, the campsite, perhaps 40 feet across, had a few simple plastic-sheet lean-to’s, a makeshift lean-to tent and a firepit, with various items, such as coolers and cooking utensils, scattered about.

The complaint asks Athens County Common Pleas Judge Patrick Lang to find that ODOT has been denied “full and exclusive use” of its property, that it has been unlawfully occupied, and to enter a judgment ordering the removal of anyone living on the property, as well as a judgment barring anybody from returning to the property without written permission.

When asked about whether ODOT had received any complaints about people living on the land, spokesperson Matt Bruning did not answer that question. He offered the following statement, however: “It is the policy of ODOT to not permit anyone to camp or live on its property. This is for the safety of not only the person, but motorists as well.”

Athens Fire Chief Robert Rymer did say in a brief phone call Thursday that he has raised concerns to ODOT about "unattended open burning" happening at the man's campsite as a potential fire hazard.

"We always have concerns about open burning," Rymer added.

Scott Sanders, an ODOT employee, reported in an affidavit filed with the complaint in Athens County Common Pleas Court that he had observed that “certain persons are living, residing, squatting and/or otherwise occupying on a permanent and semi-permanent basis (in) this area that is state-owned right of way and for which ODOT is responsible.”

This reporter found one person who said he lived on the land in question after visiting the area last Friday. He gave The NEWS his name but we’re not going to identify him due to the fact that a name doesn’t appear in the court papers.

The man – who appeared to be in his late 30s or 40s – said that he was the only person currently living on the land as of the interview on Friday. (He told a different reporter the same thing on Wednesday.) He said Friday that he was living in a lean-to tent, and was unaware of the court case, or even the fact that ODOT owns the land. 

“Land of the free, home of the brave; it’s in the Constitution… (It) says pick a spot and build a house,” he said.

However, ODOT spokesperson Bruning said that the Ohio State Highway Patrol has visited the man on "multiple occasions" to explain that he is living on state property and "cannot remain there."

"Each time we provide him with a list of resources where he can find assistance" Bruning said. "...The court filing came after these attempts to ask the gentleman to leave state property."

The man, who later said that he had worked in construction for most of his life, said he’d been living on the land since last September – he called it a “homestead,” but then corrected himself and said it’s just a “home” to him. He said he’s a veteran, having “fought for this country” in 1994-1996, and showed this reporter a tattoo on his arm with the letters “USMC” (presumably U.S. Marine Corps) below the image of a bulldog. (The NEWS has no way of independently verifying this information, however.)

He declined to talk much about why he was in the situation he was in, outside of encountering the same problems that “everyone else has had.” He said he’s from Reynoldsburg, a suburb of Columbus.

The man did say, when asked, that he would likely turn down any offers of help or donations.

THERE ARE FEW resources in the region for homeless people in terms of shelter that can be provided to them. That’s according to former Athens County Job and Family Services Director Jack Frech. In a brief interview Monday, Frech said there’s an ongoing “housing crisis” in Appalachian communities.

“You have very, very low incomes, and decent housing property is becoming more and more expensive, and we have continually deteriorating housing (stock) as well,” Frech said.

There’s only one homeless shelter in Athens County – Good Works’ Timothy House in Athens – and priority is often, but not always, given to housing families (as opposed to individuals).

Keith Wasserman, executive director of Good Works, said in a brief comment Monday that Timothy House is “busy, I can tell you that.” Still, anyone who needs shelter there should call the home at 740-594-3333 to set up an interview, he said.

Meanwhile, cuts to cash assistance at the state level and an increasing number of hurdles implemented for Medicaid and SNAP (food stamps) at the state and federal levels continue to hurt the poorest populations in the region, Frech said.

“We (the state of Ohio) have more people living out there with no cash income than we have anytime in decades because we have so drastically cut our safety-net programs that we just no longer provide enough money to people that we can make sure that they can find their own safe, affordable housing,” Frech said. 

The Southeastern Ohio Food Bank does provide food and support for a number of food pantries and free-meal programs in the region. United Appeal of Athens County has a searchable database at http://www.211athenscounty.org/ filled with information on assistance programs for those struggling to make ends meet, and information for those who want to volunteer or donate to help out.

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