Paul Jonas knows life on the streets. Now, this 61-year-old veteran also knows what it means to have a home, people who care and a chance to give back to those who helped him get on his feet.
“I spent 14 years on the streets. It’s a vicious situation to find yourself in. I’ve seen some stuff out there that will curl your hair,” Jonas said. “Now I’m 61. When I first became homeless, I was 40. As long as I had my bottle, I didn’t care where I was. I really didn’t.”
That changed after Paul made a conscious decision that he was done with that life.
“I’ve known Paul for more than a decade,” said Food and Shelter Executive Director April Doshier. “He was homeless on the streets, and I rarely saw him when he wasn’t dirty and drunk. One day he came in and said ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’”
Food and Shelter is a local non-profit that serves people with food and housing needs. Paul was one of those people.
“He’s been sober many years now and taking care of his health,” she said. “We have some positions here that we offer to people who live here. He came in and expressed interest and is one of our most reliable people.”
Working in the kitchen and the food pantry allows Paul to give back to society and to Food and Shelter who he credits with saving his life.
The difference in Paul has been remarkable, and there is a light in his eyes that wasn’t there during his earlier years, according to Doshier.
“I’ve got a heart condition, arthritis, COPD, and I know I wouldn’t last much longer out there,” he said. “For a while now, I’ve been in one of these cottages here, and I think that’s why I’m still alive.”
While the cottages provide long-term housing, they aren’t permanent. Food and Shelter works with those residents to help them successfully transition to other housing.
“We’re working with the VA right now to get the documentation of his service and to get him into veteran specific supportive housing,” Doshier said.
Veterans Affairs comes to Food and Shelter regularly to work with veterans and to ensure they are getting the benefits they deserve.
Paul’s story is one of many.
“We often see people who are facing eviction,” Doshier said. “They’re worried about how they are going to pay their rent, and so they come to us looking for resources. Our goal is to keep those folks housed. The majority of people who come to us are just struggling people. They’re moms and dads and kids and seniors and veterans who have limited income. They’re struggling to pay those bills, and they turn to us to make those dollars stretch through our food pantry or through our emergency services.”
Doshier said the $1 million ARPA investment by Cleveland County will go a long way to bolster the services they offer.
“The work we do at Food and Shelter is pretty simple. We feed people who are hungry and we help people who have lost their homes find their way back home,” she said. “Without food, people can’t really live to their fullest potential, so we really give the most basic of human needs to help people get through the day and start to make some big steps for tomorrow.”
Another resident, Sonya McCoy lives in one of the cottages with her three grandchildren, ages 9 months, 3 years and 10 years.
“I lost my place three months ago, and Miss Natalie and Miss April gave me a place to live,” Sonya said. “It helped me and my three grandkids out.”
Sonya also works in the kitchen and the food pantry. She said she found a warm, safe place to live with her grandchildren at Food and Shelter, and she’s appreciative of Cleveland County awarding ARPA funds to the agency.
“It’s a blessing that they were willing to give. It’s going to help a lot of families,” she said.
For those who are housing insecure, Food and Shelter can be a soft place to land, either through resources to help them keep their housing or in Sonya’s case, a place to live until she can find housing she can afford.
For others, it’s about making ends meet.
“We serve thousands of people a month, most of which are just looking for food and to feed their families,” Doshier said. “Our food pantry is open to anyone who needs us. These are working people here in Cleveland County who are doing everything right but just can’t make enough money to both pay their rent and buy food.”
For those experiencing homelessness, Food and Shelter can be the first step back toward housing.
“The people who come here, though they come here for a wide range of reasons all have one thing in common,” Doshier said. “They’re just struggling with poverty.”
Sonya lost a sister to COVID and has seen how it has changed things. She doesn’t know if that’s why her rent increased to the point she couldn’t afford it, she just knows that she has to keep moving forward for the sake of her grandchildren, and she’s glad Food and Shelter was here to help.
“COVID messed up a lot of lives,” she said. “You’ve got to move forward, you can’t keep looking back.”
Paul is also forward looking. He said he appreciates the county’s support of Food and Shelter.
“Thank you from the bottom of my heart,” he said. “This place saved my life. ”