By Tim Chitwood, Columbus Ledger-Enquirer*
Eric and Sherry Roth had lost everything but each other.
They had been in jail, on drug charges. They had no jobs, no home. Their six children had been taken away, turned over to Sherry’s mother.
For two months since their release, they had been living in a tent in the woods, near some railroad tracks in Sonora, Calif.
It was December, five years ago. “It was going to get cold,” Sherry recalled. “It was going to start snowing. We got a map. He said, ‘Where do you want to go?’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’ … We closed our eyes, and picked, and found Columbus, Georgia, and that’s what brought us here.”
That and what little money they had scraped together doing odd jobs. They went to Greyhound to buy bus tickets to Columbus. They couldn’t believe each ticket cost only $85.
Their disbelief was warranted: They had been sold tickets to Columbus, Ohio -- a mistake the bus driver discovered when they reached Louisville, Ky.
“They took us in there, and they told us we had to pay $192 each, and we didn’t have it,” Sherry said.
But they were lucky: They were traveling on Christmas Eve, and the driver was feeling generous. She initialed their tickets for them and said, “Merry Christmas, and I hope you get there.”
For the rest of the trip, Eric worried someone else would check those tickets, kick them off the bus, and then they’d be stuck.
“That was funny,” he remembered, “because I was worried about being stuck, but we were going to nowhere we knew anyway. But you know, the plan was here.”
And here they arrived, with nothing but the bags on their backs and about $100 they had left. They figured they faced a choice: eat or sleep. They chose to sleep, to get a motel room for a couple of nights and rest up.
Then they went looking for shelter, first to the House of Mercy, where workers there told them it wouldn’t take couples. They kept moving, walking through town, in the cold and rain.
They passed by the vacant Krystal restaurant on Veterans Parkway, and noticed a shed in the back parking lot. It wasn’t much, but it was shelter, so they stopped there.
“It was raining right then, and it was the only place we were walking by where we seen a roof,” Eric said. “So we said, you know what? It’s empty. It’s abandoned. Nobody’s there. Let’s just sit down and chill out.”
For the next two weeks, they stayed.
“It was secure for me because it had a gate around it, and we got a lock and locked it up, so we were safe,” Sherry said.
Relatively safe: “Water and roaches, that’s what I remember,” Eric said.
The long road
Five years later, as they rest in their rented home on 17th Avenue and look back over all they’ve been through, Sherry mentions with some nostalgia that the tiny shed is gone now.
“They tore it down, so it’s kind of sad now when I drive by and look at it,” she said. “It was home.”
It was where they were living when they first met Donna Harper, wife of the Rev. Lamar Harper of Rose Hill United Methodist Church.
One turning point in their story was that moment in the woods in California, where they blindly picked a spot on a map. The next was meeting Donna.
While living in the Krystal shed, they had sought out other homeless people to ask where to eat. They were told of the churches and shelters that offered free meals. One was the Salvation Army on Second Avenue.
One Saturday afternoon, Eric and Sherry sat in an adjacent park, waiting for the Salvation Army to serve dinner. That’s when people from Rose Hill Methodist came to the park to serve the 14 homeless people who’d gathered there.
Donna spoke to each of them.
“I remember the first words she ever said to me, ‘What can I do for you?’” Eric said. “And I said, ‘I need to do my laundry.’ She said, ‘Come on to church tomorrow. Bring your clothes with you.’”
They did, and Donna took them both to her home, where they washed their clothes, took showers, and had dinner. Then she got them into her car to take them back to the little shed behind the abandoned restaurant next door to the McDonald’s at 14th Street and Veterans Parkway.
Again, it was raining, and cold.
“She was supposed to drop us back off by McDonald’s, and it was raining, and she says, ‘I can’t send you guys back out in the rain,’” Eric said.
Instead she put them up in the Econo-Lodge. She told them it was for just two nights, but she paid for a week, and kept paying, and refused to take any money in return.
The Roths had found jobs just before they met Donna. Sherry was working at the McDonald’s on Bradley Park Drive. Eric was working for a roofer. They didn’t make enough to pay for the motel, but they could have helped pay for it.
They wound up staying there about two months, then they slipped away.
They waited for a weekend when Donna was out of town, and moved to a motel on Victory Drive. They didn’t feel they should keep taking Donna’s money if they could make it on their own.
“It was a roach-infested place and it was kind of nasty, but it was what we could afford,” Eric said.
One drawback was that Sherry no longer could get to the Bradley Park Drive McDonald’s, where she was expected to work Sundays. She was fired.
Eric, though, was making decent money at his roofing job. They stayed at the Victory Drive motel four to six months, until the day Donna came there to pick them up, and saw what it was like. Get ready, she told them: They were going apartment hunting.
With her help, they found an affordable apartment on 15th Avenue, in Midtown, where they remained about a year before they found their first rental house a few blocks away, on 17th Avenue.
From the first Sunday they had visited Rose Hill United Methodist Church, they had kept going back, joining its ministry to the homeless, never forgetting what the church had done for them, and believing in what it could do for others.
The church showed it believed in them, too: It paid for them to visit their children in California, at Sherry’s mother’s home in Stockton. When her mother saw they were off drugs, working and maintaining a home, she agreed to relinquish custody of the children. The church paid for the kids to come to a new home in Columbus.
The three youngest have stayed here: Kelley, 17; Emily, 14; and Robin, 10.
With the kids here, Eric told Sherry she needed to go back to work. She had not worked in about three years. Once more she got on her bike with her backpack and pedaled down Veterans Parkway, applying for jobs.
First she got one at Golden Corral, then she moved to a Christian-based restaurant called His Place. When that closed about a year later, she got a job at IHOP, and worked there for three months until Eric decided the late hours weren’t safe for her route home.
She left IHOP and got a job at Circle K, where she has worked for five months now.
It’s not easy: She doesn’t get much time to spend with her children, who are off to school early in the morning and in bed by the time she gets home at night. But they need the money.
Eric left his roofing job when the owner retired. He works for a landscaping company now, and hopes eventually to start his own lawn service.
He works long hours in the summer, less these days when dusk comes early. Every now and then he gets a chance to make a little extra money. Sometimes he turns it down, choosing instead to work at the church.
The church struggles to maintain its mission. Some longtime members have left, perhaps suspecting the homeless are a lost cause. Some are, as the minister acknowledges, as also do Eric and Sherry.
“Oh, they’re still there,” Eric said when asked whether he sees any of the same people he saw when he and Sherry were on the street. “I haven’t seen the crowd change much … I don’t see very many people trying to move forward. I see a lot of people just comfortable where they’re at, and that’s kind of sad.”
But his faith remains unshaken, and he works to help the church that helped him, going about 8 a.m. every Sunday to cook breakfast for more than a hundred people who come to eat and are invited to stay for Sunday services – invited, but not required to.
Most leave after they eat, but they don’t get away without hearing from Eric.
“If you want to take your food and go, you can, but before you leave, you’re going to hear my lecture: ‘Why are you walking out on God’s word?’” he said. “I try to make ’em feel guilty. I probably shouldn’t.”
It’s his way of repaying his debt to the congregation that helped him and his wife recover their home and their family.
“Thanks is really given to them, because without that church, we’d be a lot further behind, I believe,” he said.
When a cold rain hits their roof, Eric and Sherry sit in their home on 17th Avenue, and think back.
Said Sherry, who’s now 42: “We sit here sometimes thinking back, ‘What did we do? For all those hours, what did we do? Just walk.”
Said Eric, who’s 32: “It’s been a bumpy journey, but it’s been an OK one. It’s been a good experience. The friendliest people are here in Columbus. I love this town. I think it’s great. You know, in California, everybody’s rude. I mean, there’s no politeness.”
Had they not blindly picked this place on the map, had they not made the journey, found the church, and rebuilt their lives, they wouldn’t be the people they are today, he said.
“I look back, and I’m just grateful that somebody gave me a chance,” Eric said.
*Reprinted with permission