You could be a single mother escaping domestic violence and struggling to feed your children, or a drug addict living under a bridge. To Jen Kanagy, you’re someone who needs help to find housing or support to get mental-health or substance-abuse treatment.
“We think every person has value, worth and deserves respect,” said Kanagy, co-founder of Newark Homeless Outreach, along with Patricia Perry. “They can always count on us.”
People in Newark can count on Kanagy and Perry to man the corner of East Main Street and Buena Vista Avenue—hot or cold, rain or shine—from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Saturday.
They’ve done so since January 2017, when they began handing out coats after meeting at Newark’s first Women’s March, which Kanagy organized.
Since that time, they’ve expanded the outreach to include free handouts of everything from grilled sandwiches to clothing and personal items. They also provide heroin and methamphetamine users with strips to test their drugs for fentanyl, and they provide Narcan and Narcan training so people can reverse the effects of
Over the roughly 30 months they’ve been operating, Kanagy and Perry have gone from paying for all the food and other items they hand out weekly to receiving support from a core group of volunteers who contribute items of need.
They’ve also increased the number of people they’re helping from about 25 to nearly 135 a week.
“We were just two moms on the corner with a grill,” said Kanagy, a 25-year nurse specializing in dialysis and general practice. “Now, we’re serving 100 to 135 people each Saturday.”
“Once the community started to see what we were doing, the outpouring from Newark, Heath and Granville has been tremendous,” she added.
Kanagy admitted not everyone supports Newark Homeless Outreach’s cause. She said some city leaders have questioned their tactics, and some in the community have offered disparaging comments on the group’s Facebook page.
But that hasn’t stopped Kanagy and others from trying to help link victims of domestic violence, as well as the homeless, to safe housing. It also hasn’t dissuaded them from providing “harm-reduction” services such as fentanyl-testing strips and encouragement to seek treatment, with a goal of helping people stay alive until they’re ready to get clean.
“Jen is one of the most compassionate, energetic people I know,” said Andrea Eastman, who nominated Kanagy as an Everyday Hero after meeting her on Licking County political campaigns trails and seeing the work of Newark Homeless Outreach. “When something needs [to be] done, she just does it.”
“She speaks her mind freely and openly, and whatever anybody needs, it’s given freely and without question,” Eastman says. “Jen has always tried to be a voice for people who don’t have a voice.”
Kanagy said Newark Homeless Outreach doesn’t have rules.
“If you need it and we have it, take it,” she said. “We’re just meeting people where they are. They might be ready for treatment, or they may just be ready for a warm sandwich and to go back under the bridge.”
In May, Newark Homeless Outreach held a 5K event that raised more than $2,000 to support its causes, and it also recently secured a United Way grant for more than $4,900.
The funds will help Kanagy and Perry continue to distribute food, harm-reduction supplies and information as they network with groups in the region that provide resources for safe and affordable housing, as well as mental-health and substance-abuse treatment.
“We have people who’ve come out of a domestic-violence situation and are homeless; we’ve had people who’ve lost their jobs,” Kanagy said. “There are the haves, and you drive down the hill and there are the have-nots. We’re out here spreading kindness and sharing love, and we’re just going to keep doing what we do until there’s no one left that needs us.”