YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – We didn’t have to go far to find Stephen Townes; he found us.
While we were nearly finished with an on-camera interview with a local community organizer in front of an abandoned red brick home in Youngstown’s historic district, Townes drove past and yelled out the window, “Save those homes! Don’t tear those homes down!”
We flagged him down and asked him to talk. Reluctant at first, Townes stood talking to us for a good half an hour, then agreed to let us come to his apartment to interview him on film.
“I don’t understand why have all these abandoned homes and have people living on the streets,” he said. “Why can’t turn them into affordable housing and have poor people who can’t afford normal rent live there. As long as they obey the rules, they should be allowed to stay.”
Youngstown has some 4,500 abandoned properties in a city of less than 73,000 people.
“There ain’t no way that a poor can ever pull himself up when you keep kicking him while he’s down,” said Townes, 42, who described himself as a “pastor without a church.”
Townes said that he used to be homeless himself and knows full well how difficult it is to get back into the mainstream.
“I took drugs, I ate out of the trash, I stole and I committed minor crimes just so I could go to jail where I would be warm and have a hot meal,” he said. “This so-called Christian society needs to stop looking at what people have done. Society needs to stop looking at who they were and start looking at who they are today and who they could be tomorrow.”
Townes said he spent time in jail on three separate occasions for minor crimes, but has since cleaned up himself and is trying to help his fellow man.
“It makes me angry that if a man goes to prison and pays for his crime, he can’t get a job,” Townes said. “No one will hire a convicted felon.”
“The problem with this society is that we’re not helping each other,” he added. “If you’re hungry and you ask for bread they’ll give you a brick and tell you it’s over.”
Photos by Brian Snyder