COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – It’s been 18 years since James “Big Baby” Stephens had a roof over his head.

The life of the 45-year-old resident of Camp Shameless, a homeless encampment in the Olde Towne East neighborhood, has been riddled with drug addiction, crime, and post-traumatic stress disorder beginning at the age of 6 – when he said he was first molested.

But starting this week, thanks to a $256 million program launched by Columbus’ Department of Development and community partners, Stephens and 11 other campers walked through the doors of their new home: a climate-controlled hotel room with access to case workers, meals, and COTA bus passes.

“We’re celebrating now because we all have a roof over our head, and we don’t have to worry about being cold no more, or wet or being starved to death,” Stephens said.

Getting folks off the street, into hotels

The first city-launched program of its kind in Columbus, the Department of Development’s transitional housing pilot program launched Monday, relocating 12 of the 13 residents of Camp Shameless to a hotel.

As its name suggests, the pilot program is a trial period, according to the department’s assistant director of special projects Emerald Hernandez-Parra, who spearheaded the program. She “lovingly called” Camp Shameless residents the “Alpha group” – the first participants who will help define the program that city leaders hope to make permanent.

“They came to me and said, ‘Hey, we have this group on East Mound that’s doing some really great work and they really want to get inside,’” Hernandez-Parra said. “That’s when first discussions really began around, ‘Could this be the group that we finally start this project with?'”                                                                                 

Aimed at providing campers with short-term shelter as they work toward securing permanent housing, Hernandez-Parra said each participant will live with a fellow Camp Shameless resident in a hotel room free of charge. On-site help from Equitas Health case managers is available, and campers will be fed and given COTA bus passes.

Campers will be housed indefinitely, with no established endpoint, as the city evaluates the trial program’s progress and tweaks the nuts and bolts of it as needed, she said.

“It’s a little microcosm of what we do at a larger level,” Hernandez-Parra said. “But we’re able to really laser focus with these individuals, these 12 individuals, and really kind of take it apart one by one.” 

‘Everyone sticks together’ at Camp Shameless

Elizabeth Blackburn founded Camp Shameless at the beginning of 2022, shortly after she found herself displaced from her own home. The Columbus woman liquidated her retirement fund to help fund a space for folks like James to build a community, she said.

“A big part of what made Camp Shameless work is that it’s in the community,” Blackburn said. “We’re not off in the woods isolated from Columbus. This is part of the neighborhood; we’re part of the neighborhood.”

A few tents remain pitched at Camp Shameless as residents slowly move their belongings into the hotel. But life at the camp – which Stephens coined “Camp Shameless” after the TV show about a dysfunctional, impoverished family in Chicago – resembled that of a family, he said.

“We got electricity, a way to keep our food cold, a way we can cook with propane – we formed a family here,” he said. “We’re starting to realize that we were unhoused one time. Now, we’re starting to help other people that are unhoused.”

With stints at camps near Berliner Park, Front Street, and Whittier Avenue, it’s not the first time that Stephens has lived in a homeless encampment in Columbus. The city’s response to past encampments, he said, has been to “just bulldoze ‘em” and “move ‘em out.”

Stephens said he hopes a case manager can hook him up with an ID card (something he’s lacked for 18 years), food stamps, and, hopefully, an application for disability benefits. As he gains a roof over his head for the first time in nearly two decades, the 45-year-old said he is “starting to realize who James is again.”

“I believe in God,” he said. “A lot of people have their own beliefs, but I believe in God and I believe God is helping me now.”