The Columbus Dispatch
HOPE Resource Center expands its services
Center sees need skyrocket amid pandemic
Jacob Melanson smiled as he gestured with his coffee cup at the nondescript white house, only unusual because of the walk-up window set into the side of it and the people milling around the patio. ● Melanson, 36, is a drug addict who has found refuge on that patio. ● “It’s a blessing in disguise,” he said. ● Attached to a house on Sullivant Avenue in Columbus’ Hilltop neighborhood, the patio is part of the HOPE Resource Center that offers food, clothing and more to men and women facing poverty — many of whom are homeless — and those battling addiction. ● Since the center opened, just as the pandemic hit Ohio, the need it has tried to fill has skyrocketed.
In 2020, the center at at 2596 Sullivant Ave. went from serving a few dozen women a month to serving nearly 900 different people total by the end of the year, according to manager Linda Mcauley. In 2021, that number swelled to approximately 1,500 people.
The visitors mirror a larger change: overdoses and drug use increased during the pandemic, with resource centers like the HOPE Resource Center seeing more people asking for help.
In 2019, there were 4,138 accidental overdose deaths in Ohio. In 2020, that number climbed to 5,158 — meaning drug overdoses killed more Ohioans than they had in at least 14 years. By 2021, the number was still high at 5,071, according to the Ohio Department of Health. Health professionals have attributed the rise to the pandemic.
April Caudill, HOPE Resource Center’s executive director and founder, said there are so many people in need now that there could be a center like it on every corner of the neighborhood and it wouldn’t be enough.
“We met more people who really, really needed (help),” she said.
For Melanson, HOPE — an acronym that stands for Helping Other People Excel — is a place to get coffee and a meal, clothes and also a place to come for a friendly, distracting conversation when he’s feeling depressed.
“The people, the staff, you can’t say nothin’ bad about ‘em,” he said on a recent morning, standing on the patio. “They’re just great people . ... I got all their personal phone numbers.”
Melanson, who lives on the Hilltop and has spent time in prison, has been struggling with drug addiction on and off since 2006, he said. Before the opening of HOPE, he felt like he had nowhere to go.
And in some ways, as a man on the Hilltop, that was true, Mcauley said.
While there is a lot of attention and resources given to women on the Hilltop — as it’s a neighborhood known for human trafficking and prostitution — “a lot of guys need help, too,” said Scott Sanders, a case manager and peer supporter at the center. Sanders is a recovering addict himself, as are all the case managers.
HOPE didn’t start out offering that help. When Caudill dreamed it up and bought the Hilltop home where it is now located in 2017, it was supposed to be a sober living house for women. And it was for a little while, from March 2018 to early 2020.
Then the pandemic hit and she saw more, varied needs. From 2020 to 2021, the percentage of visitors who were men grew, from 43% in 2020 to 57% in 2021.
“April realized after a short period of time there was a disconnection between those in active addiction and services,” Mcauley said.
There are rehab facilities, but not a lot of places that support people before they choose to get treatment, when they may be homeless and are still seeking drugs, she said.
And while some area churches were doing outreach, there was nothing sustainable, she added.
When COVID closed things down, HOPE decided to open its walk-up window and help all comers.
“We’ve also kind of become that hub for people to come in,” Mcauley said.
Lower Lights Christian Health Center comes in twice a week to offer health care, and the Columbus Dream Center — an organization that works to combat issues including addiction, hunger and poverty — serves people off the porch on Monday nights.
HOPE gets funding from a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention grant as
well as a grant from the Franklin County Office of Justice Policy and Programs, Mcauley said. But the center couldn’t operate without donations, as the grants only cover salaries, some transportation and some medical supplies.
“We describe ourselves as kind of like an emergency room,” Caudill said. “We see them first thing, say, ‘What is this need?’ and then we move them on to where they need to go.”
The center works hard to do more than make sure people have love and food; its aim is to move people forward in their lives, she said.
“Our plan is not to keep people here. It’s to give them someone that loves them enough to move them to a better place,” Caudill said. “We hope that everyone moves to a better place.”
To that end, the staff of seven takes people to treatment, helps them get mental healthcare and assists them in finding housing when possible. And there’s no judgment.
“There’s a fine line between enabling and helping,” Mcauley said. “We’re not going to save everybody.”
But, as the numbers show, the need for the help the center offers to people isn’t going away anytime soon.
“They’re here and if people don’t help them, they’re going to be here for a long time,” Caudill said.
She knows addicts may stay on the streets with no one to ask for help, or that they could end up accidentally overdosing, as her own daughter Peyton did just days before the center opened in 2018 as the Margaret House.
“We love them,” she said of those who come to the center. “These people are our families.”
That’s certainly the way Suzy Hinton, 30, sees Mcauley. Like Melanson, she has been coming to the center since it opened during the pandemic to get food, clothing and the nonjudgmental support that’s offered.
The two embraced when Mcauley approached Hinton on a recent day on the center’s patio, and Mcauley surreptitiously passed the other woman a small gift she bought her in Mexico on a recent trip.
“I was thinking of my girl,” Mcauley said in a low voice. Hinton grinned.
“This is the only family I got,” Hinton said. “You can be yourself here. They don’t judge you. You’re welcome no matter what.”
Mcauley looked after her fondly as she approached the window to get food.
“She’s a good egg,” Mcauley said. “She’s got a heart of gold.”
This story is part of the Dispatch’s Mobile Newsroom initiative, which has included Northland, Driving Park, the Hilltop and now Whitehall. Visit our reporters at the Columbus Metropolitan Library’s Whitehall branch library and read their work at dispatch .com/mobilenewsroom, where you also can sign up for The Mobile Newsroom newsletter. firstname.lastname@example.org @Danaeking