NEWARK — Scott Hayes knows what it’s like to be homeless. He was once there himself.
So when Hayes, chaplain of Licking County Jail Ministries, started noticing more people sleeping in stairwells and doorways over the summer in downtown Newark, he felt something needed to be done.
After a few months of prayer, Hayes officially opened the Vertical 196 Hope Center in November, just south of the city’s downtown.
Unlike traditional homeless shelters, which typically open in the evenings, the Hope Center is a place for homeless and low-income residents to come during the day.
“It’s filling a void,” Hayes said. “A few centers out there are doing a good job as night centers, but they have limited resources, too.”
The Hope Center is overseen by the Licking County Jail Ministries and is rooted in the biblical teaching of bearing another person’s burdens. It’s a natural relationship, Hayes said, because more than half of the homeless population in Newark are former inmates.
Like the jail ministries though, the center is open to all regardless of religious belief, and visitors aren’t pressured to convert, Hayes said.
The Hope Center is open 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. Guests are served a hot meal, can take a shower and have their laundry done during that time.
Free wireless internet, charging stations for cellphones and spaces to read and watch TV are available. An alcove at the front of the building allows guests to bring their dogs. Evening programs, such as addiction recovery and social events, are in the works.
Hayes said he wants the center to be a place where people feel at home, even if it’s just for a few hours.
About 12 area churches supply volunteers to the Hope Center each week, said Gary Kirkpatrick, chairman of the county’s jail ministries and a pastor at Spring Hills Baptist Church in Granville.
Volunteers help with everything from cooking meals to greeting visitors, but their main job is building relationships with the guests, Kirkpatrick said.
“We want people to feel again like they matter,” he said.
Tresha Winston, a hairstylist at J. Winston Hair Salon in Newark, heard about the Hope Center from Hayes while cutting his hair over the summer. A lifelong Newark resident, she said she never realized how many people were homeless in her community.
Last week, Winston gave haircuts to about 10 men at the Hope Center. To style each of their hair, she said, was an eye-opener for her.
“We all want to feel important,” Winston said. “We have no idea how much we can do for someone in two minutes.”
The Hope Center also offers job placement and training.
Several visitors already have landed jobs and permanent housing through connections with volunteers and the county’s Job and Family Services office, Kirkpatrick said. During the center’s opening week alone, five people received job offers and six found permanent housing, Hayes said.
It’s bittersweet, Hayes said, to see the guests leave after building such close relationships with them. But it’s part of the Hope Center’s ultimate goal — to provide a starting point for lasting change.
“We’re not successful if we’re seeing the same people come in in five years,” Hayes said. “We want to encourage them to find their way. I just want to offer a spark.”