After eviction, Columbus social worker see how hard it is to access homeless aid programs

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When AnnMarie Buswell would settle somewhere, she’d barely be able to catch her breath and calm her nerves before her situation would change again.

A friend would say she could no longer stay with them, or she’d run out of money to pay for the motel room she was staying in.

It felt hopeless being homeless and trying to get back on her feet.

Everything that Buswell, a social worker for more than two decades, had told her clients to do in the past now seemed impossible when she was faced with doing it herself.

Find a job? Request your birth certificate?

She was just trying to survive.

On top of that, the system she’d worked within for years to help other people wasn’t working for her.

“I found myself facing one barrier after another after another,” said Buswell, 49, who was evicted from her apartment in the fall after her rent was raised. “I’ve always been on the other side. … I’ve always been very self-sufficient; I’ve always worked. I’ve always been able to make it.”

Every social safety net system let her down, Buswell said, and she found herself with no connections or resources except two women who were there for her at the Open Shelter, where she’d volunteered for years.

Buswell couldn’t qualify for food stamps because of her previous income, despite the fact that she was unemployed after she’d gotten evicted. Her prior income also disqualified her for emergency assistance.

To Sheli Mathias, director of the Open Shelter, what happened to Buswell is indicative of a larger problem.

“A lot of the programs that are available are typically funded through the government and have tight boundaries. If you don’t fit into that then there’s not much they can do for you,” said Mathias, who has known Buswell since she began volunteering at the shelter in 2017. “AnnMarie found herself in the middle of that.”

Mathias was aware of the hurdles and boundaries, but believed that Buswell should be able to navigate them, as she was a social worker who helped others navigate the same systems for years.

Buswell’s experience magnified the struggles unhoused people face, and the big gaps within the safety net system, such as a lack of shelter beds locally, not enough housing and often seemingly impossible-to-navigate government programs, Mathias said, causing people to start “10 steps back.”

“If it was simple, we would do it,” Mathias said of helping people find housing. “There’s nowhere to go.”

Housing costs are at a record high in Columbus, which is in need of more than 267,000 more units for the lowest income residents, according to the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio’s Gap Report.

As a result, “a lot of people are closer to [becoming homeless] than they realize,” Buswell said.

The Gap Report:Rent prices out of reach, housing not available for 1/4 of Columbus residents who need it

For a Columbus family of three whose income is at or below the 2024 federal poverty level at $25,820 annually, rent and utilities would have to cost just $717 to qualify as “affordable,” or not exceeding 30% of renters’ income, according to the Gap Report, released in March 2024.

But median rent in Columbus was at $1,298 per month in December, according to Yardi Matrix, a real estate service.

In 2023, the count of unhoused people in Columbus showed the single largest increase and an all-time high of people experiencing homelessness: 2,337, a 22% increase from 1,912 in 2022, according to the Community Shelter Board’s count. This year’s numbers are not out yet.

Open Shelter volunteer AnnMarie Buswell talks with staff members Allison Smith (dark shirt) and Sarah Hatchard (cream-colored shirt). Even though she has navigated the Columbus housing crisis for other people, Buswell is now having a difficult time finding housing and help for herself.

There are more and more news reports of people who are middle class with good-paying jobs becoming homeless due to evictions or not enough money to pay three months of rent upfront, which many leasing companies require.

“It could be your cousin, your neighbor. … It could be anybody,” Buswell said. “You don’t know people’s stories.”

Buswell was doing well for herself when she got evicted, she said. But now, with an eviction on her record, she’s not sure how she’ll find another place to live that isn’t the friend’s basement she’s staying in now, an inexpensive motel or her Honda Civic, where she’s slept some nights.

She has two cats, Galaxy and Mr. Beazer, who are her only family and she isn’t willing to part with them to enter a shelter.

Buswell’s own experience has changed her perspective and approach to helping others.

“I know that hopelessness,” Buswell said, of being unhoused. “I know what it feels like. A lot of people don’t make it.”

Buswell worked for a month as the lead coordinator for three of Columbus’ warming shelters. With the closing date of the shelters looming, she was helping to get people permanent homes. When that job ended at the end of March, she was once again unemployed and trying to get back on her feet.

AnnMarie Buswell, who works at the Open Shelter, is an example of how just a quarter of Columbus residents in need of affordable housing will find it. She has struggled with finding affordable housing for herself. An illegal eviction meant she was living out of her Honda Civic with her two cats and not much else.

But, to Kawan Woods, Buswell’s help during that month made all the difference.

The East Side resident had been trying to get his birth certificate for months with no luck. When Buswell overheard him talking about it at the Open Shelter, she offered to help and got it for him in 24 hours, just in time for him to use it to get his identification so he could start work with a moving company.

“She gets it done,” said Woods, 37. “She’s a big help to the community. … She kind of saved my life.”

He thinks it’s unfair that Buswell is unhoused and that, a little over a month ago she was a client of the Open Shelter herself, getting padding to make her car more comfortable to sleep in.

“Her situation gives her a better understanding of a lot of us,” Woods said.

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Buswell agrees, and said she won’t stop volunteering at the shelter.

Now, instead of immediately offering people advice or pointing out what they can do to improve their situation — often navigating the systems she was let down by — she just lets them talk. Listening to their experiences and pain, like Mathias did for her, can make a big difference, she’s found.

“My biggest thing for people is to hold space for them,” Buswell said. “To validate what they’re feeling. It does miracles when you just have the right people around you to hold space.”