EILI WRIGHT, Narrative Journalism Health & Poverty Fellow – Every Saturday at 11:50 p.m., a crowd can be seen on the right fork from North Cedar Street to East Main Street. From the street it looks like a group of people are talking and getting to know each other. But after three churches, an abandoned Dollar General and a speedway, the view becomes clearer.

On an empty lot on the corner of East Main and Buena Vista, a line of people begins to form at the edge of two white folding tables, wrapping themselves around the corner of the block. Two women frantically occupy the white table while other volunteers buzz around them, trying to get everything right before the clock gets to noon. People who want to donate stand on the sidelines, chatting, and greeting those who have come to collect merchandise such as clothing, groceries, hygiene products, and harm reduction kits.

The line is bulky in some places and thin in others, but it’s lively with groups of two or three people or people who have banded together to share small talk between friends. In any case, everyone knows the exercise.

The Newark Homeless Outreach was started in 2017 by Trish Perry, who is passionate about selfless service in her community. Initially the concept was just providing coats and hot meals for the unprotected in the winter of 2017, but things grew and now they are four years strong. More and more people have joined their cause, from locals with small handcrafted tools like solar lights to church donations to motorcycle groups who just want to help.

“This is real road range. Bottom-up base, ”said Nancy Welu, a fellow attorney and dedicated volunteer with the organization. According to Welu, in the summer months, when the tables, clothes racks and containers with free food were set up until 10 a.m., up to 130 people could be served within two hours.

Welu has been a loyal part of The Newark Homeless Outreach since 2018 when they joined during the Thanksgiving holiday season. Welu has come every Saturday since then, rain or shine, and familiarized himself with the usual crowd. Welu called The Outreach more of a gap service until people can get back on their feet. “We are a gap service – not a social service – a gap service until they find shelter just to do something,” she explained.

One of the things The Outreach was proud of was the harm reduction kits, which included Narcan and Fentanyl test strips. “Newark has an unprotected problem,” Welu said, “and we realize that there is addiction in Newark.”

Welu also wanted to realize the importance of having a safe place for the people of Newark that they hope the Newark Homeless Outreach can provide. “These are people who are important to us,” she said. “It’s a safe place, people can show up in active addiction and we don’t judge.

Licking County’s Department of Health information officer, Olivia Biggs, said 36 people in Licking County died from overdosing in 2019. Despite these important data, however, the health department has no information on the number of overdosed people without death.

Despite the addiction in Newark that people like Welu see every day, Newark still doesn’t have a needle exchange program.

Needle exchange programs are a public health program that allows people who use drugs to exchange used needles for clean ones to help prevent the spread of HIV / AIDS. These programs have proven to be an effective and safe way to promote safe drug use, according to research supported by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. In addition to providing safe access to sterile needles, syringe service programs can also dispose of used needles and conduct other educational and disease screening programs that can help improve overall health, according to the CDC.

Biggs said the health department is about to start a needle exchange program, but the program is still in the information processing phase.

In 2018, the U.S. Small Area Life Expectancy Estimation Project found that life expectancy in Newark Ohio among other small towns is 69.4 years. Based on 2010 census data, at 77.8 years, this is eight years younger than the national average for the United States.

This is why it is so important that Welu and Perry fill the void for people who do not have access to other social resources such as a needle exchange program. Addressing the social determinants of health, such as access to adequate public health resources, is one way to increase life expectancy and, as Welu said, provide a grassroots approach to community support.

Welus sympathy for The Outreach and the people who flock to the corner of East Main and Buena Vista every Saturday is evident in future plans for The Outreach. Given the large amount of donations the organization has received over the years of its operation, Welu said they tried to construct a building on the exact block where The Outreach began four years ago.

However, there is a problem with where the building would be built. At the back of the grass lot, one tree is taller than all the others. It’s low to the ground, but because of its size, the shade it provides extends far into the property, forming a small cove.

Welu said in the summer that this tree provides a cool, shady place for people to lie under and rest, where they know they are safe. However, if a new building is to be erected on the property, the tree may need to be felled.

Even in the name of progress, Welu and the other The Outreach volunteers always put the needs of the community first.

For anyone interested in helping the Newark Homeless Outreach, the hours are 10 a.m. until, according to Welu, when they run out of supplies in the summer months. They’re always looking for more clothes, groceries, and toiletries to hand out every Saturday!