The inspiring, courageous and aggravating leadership of the city's foremost advocate for the disenfranchised
Editor’s note: Kent Beittel, who led the Open Shelter for nearly four decades, died on Friday Oct. 16. In 1987, Columbus Monthly’s Ray Paprocki profiled Beittel.
Kent Beittel patrols his turf, walking the sidewalks and parking lots around the Open Shelter—a two-story, dingy tan and cement-block building behind Central High School. It used to be a furniture warehouse. Now it houses people who have nowhere else to go. Looking east, there is an impressive view of the Downtown skyline, and the irony of the shelter's location is not lost on Beittel: Those who have not seek survival at the feet of those who have. He sees the construction spreading, like ivy, into "the shadows of where the poor hide." He sees the closing of the cheap hotels and the boarding homes, and is painfully aware of the shortage of low-income housing.
Beittel knows and appreciates that many do help, and that nobody wants men, women and children living on the streets. But it's the pace of their action—the budget constraints, the social service bureaucracy. Dammit, the homeless don't have time for the process to inch along to a solution; people die if they wait too long. And Beittel burns. "I have a hard time being patient, because I know their names."
It's the week of the Columbus 500, and the city is preparing for the race, workers blocking off streets and erecting stands. Today, rain falls; swollen clouds wash out the afternoon in dull grays. Outside the Open Shelter, a young man, no more than 20, walks past with a plastic garbage bag under his right arm. An older man, with yellowed skin and hollowed eyes, is nestled in a doorway. Across the street, about 10 others gather under a train trestle. Some have been waiting for a door, any door, to open all of their lives. They are waiting again. It's 3 p.m. and the shelter won't unlock its doors until 4:30 p.m.
This is not an unusual scene—it's been played out during the summer and early fall. The Open Shelter, because of a money crunch, was forced to cut back from 24 hours to 16. (By mid October, it would be operating all day.)
And it's not unusual to find Kent Beittel inside the Open Shelter, sharing claustrophobic quarters with two staffers. It resembles a cluttered attic more than an office, with desks and chairs and various stands crowded together. The blue-jeaned and booted Beittel looks younger than his 40 years. Black hair to his shoulders, a full beard, wire-rim glasses. He is long and lean, about as narrow as the ties he wears. He lights a Benson & Hedges. He sips coffee from a full mug. Neither is his first, nor will they be his last, of the day.
Beittel's official title is executive director of the nonprofit Open Shelter. But, as many titles are, it is too vague to describe what he actually does. He's part administrator, fund-raiser, advocate, inspirational leader, politician, public relations man. He's what he describes as a bridge between the "in" people and the "out" people. Beittel moves between the two groups, raising money and consciouses, and giving help and hope. "We try to get homeless people back into the community," he says.
When the temperature drops below 32 degrees, making housing more critical for the homeless, reporters search out Beittel. While the Open Shelter is not the only shelter in town, Beittel has emerged publicly as a spokesman for those without a voice. He speaks eloquently and dramatically, in a lyrical cadence, quoting Socrates, Robert Frost or even Charlie Brown, Sometimes, he runs off with his thoughts to esoteric fairyland. (It can be explained. He's a philosophy major and a preacher's son.) But his impassioned commentary and criticisms are as penetrating as a stiletto. And he's always on, whether it's before the TV cameras or in a meeting with other shelter operators. It's a style that demands attention, and a style that causes friction. Beittel would get no votes for Least Likely to Make Waves.
Every cause needs a front man … and every front man needs a cause. Beittel's cause is the "disenfranchised"—those cut out of the system—and he's willing to be an advocate for "my people," as he calls the homeless. But he says he doesn't seek recognition for himself; “I don't think of myself as hot shit."
“I get paid to keep people alive. This is the bottom,” he says. “We are not social workers. I am not a social service supervisor. I'm not in a meeting talking about health care for the poor. I know that J.C. doesn't have his nitro, and he could die." He smiles and laughs, with a look that seems to ask, "Do you know what I mean? Do you understand? OK?"
"I hate the word 'homeless,’ " he says, turning to add another cigarette butt to the ashtray. "Homelessness is not a condition, like being left-handed. Homelessness passes. Part of what I do is to be a myth buster. That the homeless are visiting hobos, all mentally ill, all alcoholic. That's not true." There are "bums," yes, panhandlers seen on the streets, but many of them shun the shelters. The vast majority of those who use shelters, says Beittel, are not "bag ladies." At the Open Shelter, Beittel says, the average length of stay is less than a month. "You can't group people into one category and call them the homeless. Everybody who stays here is different," he says. "What people who don't have homes have in common is no money, no shelter and no peace of mind. Living on the streets is hell. That's it."
"We've got old people in here who lived in apartments and were afraid of the other tenants. Here they can sleep with both eyes closed, and they don't have to worry about getting rolled in the bathrooms. There are the deinstitionalized ... they don't know what it's like to be poor. They've been in an environment where they have to be passive and capitulating ... then suddenly they're released and they're on their own."
Myths and offhand comments rankle Beittel. "Ever notice how easy it is for people who are paid regularly to talk about poverty? You don't have to be a junkie to know the horror of heroin, but if you don't have the respect of people trapped in a situation, then you ain't never going to be able to make an intelligent decision about them. You have to listen to individuals."
"This place is a dump," he says. "People come here when there's nowhere to go. What we give them is a place to stay.And we give them respect. This is not a warehouse." Beittel is passionate about respect, and talks about it at length. "The most important part of my job is staying in touch with my people. I stay in touch, and see how fragile their sense of hope is and how bitter they are, because their sense of hope is shot to hell. We allow people the opportunity to have hope. They’ve been kicked around 25 times before they get here. People are used to being told, 'Call back Tuesday.' Procrastination on the outside is, in some way, a reason for why they are here. People didn't believe that they had an emergency."
“So they have to trust that you are not going to kick them around again. They don't have to trust your title, your authority, your serial number, but you. We give food, clothing, shelter, a place to wash their clothes. And respect. We give them one or two things that make them feel good enough about themselves that they are willing to try again.
Beittel tells a story about a Vietnam vet who isolated himself from others at the shelter. For six months, he spoke to no one, even though Beittel told the staff to say hello to him as often as possible. One day, during a staff meeting, someone noticed the vet peering through the window—doing a Richard Nixon impression. "Can you imagine the risk he took to entertain us?" Beittel says. “But he knew we cared. He's no longer here, and now he's talking." He pauses, smiles, reflects. "That's why we do this."
It's 5 p.m. on a pleasant fall day, and about 50 men stand single-file inside the Open Shelter. They are signing in so they can have a bed for the night; by curfew, 9 p.m., there will be about 95 men, which is the legal limit, even though the Open Shelter has housed up to 120 at times. Those who are closed out are sent to other shelters. About 1,400 different men will use the shelter this year, an increase of 100 from last year. Since 1983, 5,500 different people have stayed there. The Open Shelter houses only men because shelters that take women and families have opened.
Beittel says some people are surprised that so many use the shelter during warmer weather. "People understand cold. They feel cold," says Beittel. "They don't understand prolonged exposure, heatstroke, malnutrition, lack of sleep.” Living on the street is to be constantly aware of your surroundings, of knowing where to find a bathroom, of avoiding arrest for loitering, of wondering who's going to mug you.
Now that the Open Shelter is open all day again, staffers help the men by contacting appropriate agencies who can find them jobs, homes and late Supplemental Secuity Income checks, among other things. It's a constant hassle, says Beittel. "If somebody's case worker hasn't been around in two weeks, we call and ask where the hell they have been," says Beittel.
The old warehouse is split into sections. About one-third is devoted to the shelter's distribution center, which handles donated goods—from clothing to furniture—and gives it to the men at the shelter or to any of a hundred agencies in 16 counties. The other part is for housing. Lockers, from the YWCA, butt against the walls. Yellow parallel lines are painted on the cement floor. Mattresses are stacked in a corner. The men, before they sleep, take the mattresses and place them between the yellow lines. There's a storage area, and a "Little Lazarus," with racks of donated clothing.
About 10 men sit in folding chairs around a TV, watching Three's Company. Beittel moves easily among them, exchanging hellos and answering questions. Each person has a different face, a different name, a different story. Ray, in his 20s, is articulate and curious. "You know, there are five types of gentlemen here," he says. "There are those like myself who are here temporarily. Others," he smiles, and adjusts his glasses, "will be here a long time." He is distracted, and doesn't complete the clientele run down. Later he comments about a magazine restaurant reviewer he reads regularly. Ray is looking for a job.
Harold struts past briskly, standing out among the others; he's wearing a black, three-piece suit. "A way to survive in Downtown is to blend in, to be invisible. What better way to do so in Downtown than to wear a suit?" says Beittel. "The homeless don't want you to know they are homeless. So Harold can go into the state office tower to use the bathroom without being kicked out for loitering." A man slowly paces, mumbling to himself. “And then there are guys who talk to people we don't even see," Beittel says,
Another man, blond and bulky, nods to Beittel and they stop to chat. He is working at a Lazarus warehouse, and trying to save enough money to find a place to live. (The Open Shelter operates a bank, which residents use to save their earnings. The bank also provides an important document that some homeless people have difficulty getting: an identification card.) He's excited. There's an opening that pays $6.25 an hour. "I heard that and I saw dollar signs in my eyes."
Beittel says about $800 and a steady cash flow are needed before a resident moves from the shelter into his own housing. "If they can get through the first two months, then they usually make it. And when they graduate, we never see their faces again."
The shelter is quiet. An older man, with battered clothes and disheveled hair, sits grim-faced and hunched, just staring. Many, though, are outside waiting for a bus to take them to dinner at a nearby church. The Open Shelter has a small kitchen used only in emergencies. "Boring, isn't it?" says Beittel. "We like it that way."
Earlier he had pointed out that no staff member wears a tie when working the floor. "Because it's connected to your neck. The homeless are not violent by nature, but with a mixed population and different behaviors you don't know what can happen. You have to be cautious, but not paranoid."
“Stability is the key to shelter—that and respect. We have to earn their respect so you can make rules for them. There are four staff members and 100 men. You don't control them. You have to be fair. We look out for vultures. People who come in here and pick on those who can’t take care of themselves—make them into gofers. We notice that, and we kick the vultures out. We also have a 5 p.m. sign-in, but there are people who come here who have absolutely no concept of time—they do’t even know what day it is. Now is it fair to make them be here at 5 p.m.? No.” So exceptions are made.
A smiling man walks in carrying towels; he waves to Beittel. “He lives in a car. He comes here for showers and food. He likes his privacy.” Beittel joins a handful of men watching the Channel 4 newscast. A story is on about the Open Shelter, and Ray is perturbed. “Did you hear what Mona Scott called this place? She said it was no more than a flophouse. We ought to do something about that.”
Beittel started at the Open Shelter in 1983, when it reopened after the original site on South High Street closed. Before then, he held social service jobs, working for the Delaware City-County Health Department, the Delaware County United Way and various Franklin County organizations; he was instrumental in establishing such young adult programs as the Open Door Clinic and the Huckleberry House. During the early 1970s, he was a roaming counselor in the University area, carrying a beeper and, when notified, going to talk to runaways and drug abusers. "I felt comfortable being on the streets," he says.
Beittel grew up during the social turmoil of the 1960s. His father, Dale, is a Methodist minister who joined the civil rights march of Martin Luther King Jr. on Washington, D.C. "He taught compassion, integrity and believing that all people can grow all their lives," Beittel says. The family—Beittel's mother, Barbara, is an accomplished pianist, and he has two brothers and a sister—lived in Upper Arlington for eight years; his father served as pastor at Riverside United Methodist. "Problems of the 1960s put the steel in [Kent's] spine," says Barbara. "He was well aware of many important issues, and decided in his senior year of high school to take personal responsibility for doing something about the serious errors of the time."
In 1972, he received a B.A. in philosophy at Albion College, in southern Michigan, where he protested the Vietnam War. In the late 1970s, Beittel earned two degrees from the Methodist Theological School in Delaware. He studied to join the ministry, but side tracked his ambitions. "You can preach all you want," he says, "but at some point you've got to shut up and feed the people." Now, Beittel's at the Open Shelter, dealing firsthand with life at the bottom. He is not motivated to become financially rich; his starting salary in 1983 was $15,000, and today he collects $26,000. “This is where I am needed," he says. "Besides, I was the best person for the job dumb enough to apply."
He works six days a week, taking most Saturdays off, and long past 5 p.m. Some describe him as a workaholic, with an endless energy source. Aside from his administrative duties, and mingling with the men, Beittel speaks before community groups two to three times a week. It's a hectic pace. One day, he's reminded of a scheduled talk he'd forgotten. "Who? Where? When and what do I wear?" he hurriedly asks.
Beittel covets his privacy; only one staff member knows his home phone number. (He carries a beeper, instead.) So he is reluctant to discuss life beyond work. From a failed marriage, he has a teen-aged daughter, Shanti, whose name is the Hindu equivalent of "peace.” He has not remarried, Beittel eats Chinese food with chopsticks because it helps him concentrate on something other than the frustration and misery he sees each day. "Even the warmth here at the shelter comes from pain," he says. "Two guys become buddies, but they do so because they don't want to get mugged."
When he escapes, Beittel removes his watch and jumps on his 1973 BMW motorcycle, which he named Solomon. "It treats me well and wise." He straddles Solomon and lets the road take him where it may, zig-zagging 2,000 miles during a normal 700-mile trip. "When I want to get away I pack all my maps east of the Mississippi and promise to change my mind three times."
But extended vacations, even long weekends, are hard for him to take. When the Open Shelter cut back to 16 hours, Beittel took the closing personally. “It really shook him up," says Mike Walsh, director of emergency housing at the Open Shelter. Without daytime hours, homeless men went without help in getting needs met. Some lost job and housing opportunities. The first day, it rained. "I let a hell of a lot of people down," says Beittel. "It's different than betraying them. I did all I could. But when the door comes down, I let down 100 men. Failures here are mine. It's hard to walk away from something that is so blatantly yours."
No one doubts Beittel's intensity. Some, however, doubt his method of operation. He's praised for making the homeless an urgent issue and for raising funds. Beittel says he started at the Open Shelter with four days worth of cash and a small amount of grant money. Now, his budget is $600,000, with $100,000 coming from government and United Way funding and the remaining sum from donations or grants. "I have a very high opinion of him because he has a great passion about his work—a very caring person," says Mel Schottenstein, head of the Community Shelter Board, a volunteer group that addresses housing needs.
Sometimes, though, that passion erupts. Beittel, when impatient or dissatisfied, is piercingly outspoken. "He's knifelike, the way he slices into people," says an associate. He reportedly stood before a meeting of mental health advocates and called them "chicken shits."
"He has antagonized a lot of people in the system. And this isn't New York or Chicago, where you can get away with that. In Columbus it could come back to haunt you," says Roy Lowenstein, director of the Friends of the Homeless, who also speaks highly of Beittel. "He'll lose people, but gain people he wouldn't normally get—what the balance is I don't know. The community has taken steps to deal with [homelessness]. There are other ways to make things work. He could be dealing in a more balanced way."
He's called a Lone Ranger by some who say he's not a team player. Tom Brittenham, former Open Shelter board president and now director of Social Concerns in the Catholic Diocese, praises Beittel. But he says, “He’s hard to deal with. He’s very smart and he uses language to turn arguments around—to get people to agree with him. Sometimes his ego gets in the way. He likes to be a perfiormer. He sees himself as a messiah—that he’s the oly one who knows how to deal with it. He an be very effeive when he wants to work with othrs, coming up with excellent strategies. But he has to make sacrifices of his ego.
Questions are raised about why the Open Shelter doesn’t use beds; the men sleep on mats on the floor. “If swe put up beds, we would turn back 50 people” because they would use too much space, Beittel says. “It’s insane to tie whether a person feels respected to an aesthetic environment. It is important, but if you want to know if people feel respected, go out there and ask them. They get respect from staff.”
Questions also were raised about money management when the Open Shelter closed during the day. City Council member Cindy Lazarus has worked with all area shelters the past 18 months. Seh says that the Open Shelter plunged forward with progams without sufficient funds, dependkng on future donations to cover the costs. In this case, contributions didn’t keep pace, forcing reduced hours. “On the whole, I am convinced that he works very hard,” says Lazarus. “But he has faced the reality … is operating within his known resources.” She adds, “I think he has demonstrated some real growth in working with agencies.”
Beittel is aware of the criticism and admits his passion causes him to lose patience. “Social service agencies do phenomenal work with most of the people. But the ones that they miss are the ones that I see. I'm talking about people who are dying. I attack systems, not people."
However, "If someone is being blatantly wrong, am I going to put the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval on his comments to appear to be on his side? Probably not." He says, citing examples, that he can build alliances and is a team player. But Beittel can't seem to resist the temptation to jab his critics. He attributes some of their complaints to jealousy of his media recognition, "which grates their butts." But then he turns conciliatory, again, to a point. “This is give and take. The same people who disagree are the same ones who we have worked well together with. I learn from my mistakes, but I don't keep track of how many times they make idiots of themselves. And being as passionate as I am doesn't mean I don't make an asshole of myself. We have to keep improving our questions, instead of defending our answers. I need to try to get along better, and they need to get along better with me. Free agents play for teams." He smiles.
It's a weekday evening, and Beittel is talking to a women's group at the Church of the Good Shepherd in the city's far north side. It's an odd sight. There are 10 middle-aged, middle class women gathered around a cafeteria table in a well-lighted, comfortable room; they're listening to a long haired, bearded man who spends his days with the homeless. Everyone is eating brownies or yellow cake with chocolate icing, and sipping coffee or tea. It's only 14 miles from the Open Shelter to the church—about 25 minutes by way of I-71—but their worlds are far apart. The women, though, are interested and concerned, and Beittel is acting as a bridge.
“I do the inappropriate for a living. I run an abandoned warehouse for nearly abandoned people.” He has their attention.
Then, during his talk, he makes them laugh with a story about men’s underwear. He startles them with a story about a man who lives in a dumpster. He jolts them with a story about lice burrowed in unwashed clothing. Bettel wants them to understand. “A homeless person is us with keys that won’t open anything. It’s a condition that passes if a person still has hope.”
One woman asks, “What can we do to help?”
“Respect,” says Beittel.
It’s not the answer she’s looking for, and she probably wasn’t expecting the second half of his response. He says, referring to his staff, “if you dont respect my people, I fire your ass. We are in this mess together.”
Beitell then brings his point home: That “they and us” are no different. They just got a raw deal. Don’t expect them to grovel because we gave them our discarded clothing. OK?
The woman, though, doesn’t get the point, yet. “Yes, but what can we do to help?”
Beittel again emphasizes the need for respect until he thinks she understands. Then he says what she originally asked to hear. “We can use towels, socks, toothbrushes, coffee, disposable razors, clothes … but donate only what you would want to wear yourself, not something you’d be embarrassed to be seen in.”
The meeting ends at 9:07; some women make plans to donate the leftovers from the church rummage sale. Beittel politely exchanges small talk and then leaves.
What did he want to accomplish?
“Maybe a couple of people who can touch a couple of people who can touch a couple more people who will slow down before they make a judgment. And maybe we’ll get some socks. Even money. That would be great.”
He strides into the parking lot. The air is chilled, a harbringer of season to come. It’s been another long day for Beittel, but he lingers by his car, a Ford Fiesta, to talk. Minutes pass quickly. The women have driven away to their homes and families. The parking lot is empty. The air gets colder. And Beittel burns.
“You hear people saying that people should pull themselves up by their bootstraps. People have to realize that some people don’t have boots. And some people have had their boots stolen. Hey, man, shelters are monuments to failure.”
“Last year, for the first time, nobody died or lost any feet or fingers in this city because they were turned away from a shelter. Will that happen this year? We, the whole shelter system, will have more beds. One hundred for men. Fifty for women. Twenty more for families. But we’ll have more homeless. We need more money. We need more respect.
“Let me tell you a story. It’s the dead of winter, about four years ago. A guy had no place to stay. Shelters were full. He sholved snow to earn money. Driveway after driveway. He never changed his socks or shoes. Then he sat down and took off his socks, and his toes stayed in them. He lost his toes so he could buy coffee to keep warm. That should never, ever, ever happen.” He pauses, then smiles.
More than an hour has passed since the meeting ended, and Beittel is ready to go home. He angles his legs into the compact Fiesta. As he pulls the car onto the street, a bumper sticker is visible on the back. It says, “I Brake for Unicorns.”
This story was originally published in the December 1987 issue of Columbus Monthly.
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