Homelessness in Montgomery County is on the rise. The two biggest shelters reported a 12 percent increase in need last year. But some people aren't in the shelters at all. They're living on the streets. For a pastor in Dayton the homeless problem has become personal. Ryan Riddel spent the month of January living in a van in downtown Dayton. As Emily McCord reports, Riddell chose to live this way to understand the lives of the homeless better.
"Not Till You Live It"
On this January day, I'm walking with Ryan Riddell down Main Street in Dayton. He spent every day last month walking these streets, trying to talking to talk to homeless people and hear their stories. His face is unshaven and he's been sick.
"No matter how hard I try I'm not homeless and no matter what I do I can't really experience all that these people experience," says Riddell.
Riddell had thought about this idea for while, and it took him weeks to get the courage to tell his wife about the plan. She was supportive, but they did agree on rules. He'd sleep in a van at night with a cot and a carbon monoxide detector. He'd come home twice a week to visit her and their three children and bathe. And Riddell would hold onto a credit card. This way, he was prepared just in case, and he could help others with it by buying a hot meal.
"Those people at the bottom of the pyramid, they're not thinking about what they need to do to take care of the situation two to three weeks down the road. They're concerned about what they're going to do minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day," says Riddell.
"There's a lot of people that say 'oh, I've been there, I've been there'. No you haven't. Not till you live it," says Melissa. She's 23 years old and lived in foster care until she was 18. She couldn't find a home after she that.
It's a problem called "aging out". Riddell says he's seen a lot of it. Melissa has been in and out of the shelters. She's just one of the many young people Riddell has met. He said it's been hard to win her trust and that's a common problem.
Melissa didn't want to trust Riddell at first because of her abusive past and she worries that people will lie to her. But when she landed in the hospital because she had a miscarriage, she listed him as her emergency contact. Then he helped her find temporary housing, and helped her fianc find a job.
"We Ignore The Plight Of Others"
Riddell shows me the city parking garage. It's a place where a lot of homeless spend time. Riddell says it's attractive because it has a roof. It's relatively warm and Riddell says it's somewhat private.
Next, we go to 5th Street, under the familiar train trestle into the Oregon District. Just after we pass under the trestle, there's a semi truck trailer on our left where obviously people had been living. Even though there's no one there at the moment, the cardboard and broken bottles are evidence that this has been a makeshift home.
"Obviously the bottles are part of the problem. To me it's very troubling to see this. And to see that, we drive under that trestle, all of us, we spend time on the other side, not realizing what's on this side. It's kind of a dividing line. We drive through with the windows up and ignore the plight of others," says Riddell.
That's why Riddell says he's doing this. He believes he has to become like someone to understand them better and that stems from his faith. He's a Christian pastor and he thinks the church can be doing more to raise awareness for people less fortunate.
"You know, Jesus fed people, he healed people, placed value on people. If people felt moved by that, then people responded to that. I feel like that's a much healthier approach to evangelism than standing on a street corner with a bull horn," says Riddell.
Riddell feels more comfortable putting his beliefs into action. He's keeping a video blog documenting his experiences and asking for donations. He also uses social media to engage others for help.
"I Can't Get It Out Of My Mind"
January is over Riddell is back at home now with his family.
"You know this week has been a huge adjustment to reacclimate myself to normal life," says Riddell, "Sunday, I had the boys playing soccer at the YMCA. I go back to my suburban life and I'm having a good time watching my boys play. I'm watching all these families. In the back of my mind, I'm thinking about Eddie and Henry. I'm thinking about Joe. I can't get it out of my mind. It's been difficult."
But the time away has given him some clarity. Riddell says he will continue his work by focusing on the younger people he has met, the ones that have aged out of the foster care system. He's working on finding mentors for some of his friends so that hopefully they can find jobs, maybe go to school, and finally find a place of their own.