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Columbus Advocate for Homeless Knows "Life in Trenches"

Erika Clark Jones is wrapping up her third month as the director of Homeless and Social Services for the city of Columbus.

A member of the mayor's cabinet, Jones moves from board rooms to food pantries to gauge need in the community and represent the city in finding ways to meet the needs. WOSU's Christina Morgan spent some time with Jones to see how a city official advocates for homeless and at risk individuals

37 year old Erika Clark Jones is a high energy person on a mission. She has worked in Mayor Michael Coleman's office for eight years, most recently as a policy adviser.

Born and raised in Columbus and a graduate of Eastmoor High School, Jones says she grew up in the church and figures public service is in her genes. She points to her grandmother who at the age of 80 does prison ministry and to her mother's work in politics and grassroots organizing. But something else gives Jones unique insight into her new job as advocate for homeless services. She has been homeless.

"Several years ago," says Jones, "I found myself in a situation where, you know, I had to pretty much set up my home in an abandoned building."

Jones was working as a grass roots organizer in New York City. She and her husband at the time had just had their first son. The unstable living situation continued for more than year.

"So, I understand what it's like for families to have to reach out and ask someone to help them, and I understand what it's like when you don't know what's going to happen the next day what that can do to the human spirit, your outlook."

Jones begins this Friday with an 8am meeting in downtown Columbus with representatives of major donors to the non-profit Community Shelter Board. CSB is central Ohio's primary source of homeless services. One of those donors, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is looking for ideas on ways to improve homeless services in the Seattle area.

Jones' next appointment is on the near east side of Columbus. It's a short drive from the Hyatt Capital Square to the Friends of the Homeless shelter on the near east side, but the two could not be farther apart. In the shelter parking lot, Jones meets Bishop Jerry Pierce, outreach coordinator for Southeast, Inc. which operates the shelter. Pierce is pastor of the Strong Tower church and a 20-year veteran of work in homeless services.

Every week, Pierce and Jones climb into his well-traveled pick-up truck to visit sites which serve as barometers of the need for food and shelter. Jones says the impact of an economic downturn registers quickly in homeless shelters and places like the Holy Family Community Kitchen and Pantry on South Grubb Street west of downtown

Frances Carr runs the kitchen. This day, she tells Jones everyone there is like her family. She says if it wasn't for them, she probably wouldn't be here. Jones says, "If it wasn't for you, they wouldn't be either. God bless you."

The next stop is a small camp site on the far west side of Columbus, an example of what is called living on the land .

After parking in a restaurant parking lot, Pierce leads the way around the chain link fence at the back of the property, down a slope and along a lightly-worn path which winds back into an area of tall grass and scores of young trees.

Jones and Pierce pass by dozens of empty, 40-ounce beer bottles tossed in a shaded area. Near them are several empty baby food jars Pierce explains, for a body more accustomed to liquids than solids, baby food is one way to take in a little nutrition without getting sick.

After walking about 50 yards from a busy west Columbus intersection, Jones and Pierce approach an outdoor site where at least two people spent the winter.

Pierce shouts, "Anybody home?" Jones says, "Hello ..outreach!" Jones calls out toward the larger of two tents, "Hey Rambo, you in there?"

No one is home in either tent. Jones is grim-faced as she surveys the site which is cluttered with a chairs, coolers, a shopping cart , blankets, and trash - plastic, paper, fabric.

In her new job, Jones juggles the distant worlds of those in need and those in a position to alleviate the need, She describes herself as a very spiritual person. And Jones draws on that spirituality and the experience of living, as she puts it, in the trenches

"It's not new to me," she says. "It's not foreign. And I see it in these people's eyes everyday when I go out to the pantries, when I go out to the shelters, you know, it's the human spirit that's shining through . I admire that will and that determination to keep going. And you know what, if I can be a voice for some of these folks, in the board rooms, then that's what I want to be."

Jones occasionally brings her sons, 12-year-old Elias and 9-year-old Redd to visit shelters, camp sites & soup kitchens.

She says she wants them - and others - to see past the conditions and see these are real people who have just fallen on hard times.