Family homelessness is up, but Greater Cincinnati is making progress

'There's still a long way to go'

CINCINNATI -- Angel Harris was working full-time and supporting her seven kids on her own when her 18-year-old son Lionel was diagnosed with liver cancer.

His medical needs required Harris to cut back her hours as a housekeeper, and she started struggling with paying her bills.

"I thought we were going to be homeless, and that's something I've never experienced before," said Harris, who lives in Mount Auburn. "I've always kept a roof over our heads."

A friend recommended Harris call 513-381-SAFE, the number for families on the verge of homelessness. Harris got connected with a Shelter Diversion program operated by Freestore Foodbank. It helped pay her rent and utilities for a few months until Lionel's health stabilized and she could go back to working full-time.

Angel Harris's son, Lionel.

"Going from working full-time to barely working -- it's stressful," Harris said.

Harris and her kids are an example of what's working locally when it comes to helping homeless families, and they're not the only success story.

Even as the number of families experiencing homelessness has grown, the region has seen progress since last year's release of the Solutions for Family Homelessness plan.

RELATED: Plan to help region's homeless families

Over the past year:

  • More homeless families are getting housing through the Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority. A total of 58 families got CMHA housing through Oct. 31 of this year, compared with 48 during the same period last year.
  • More families on the verge of homelessness are getting help to pay rent and utility bills so they can stay in their homes. St. Vincent de Paul of Cincinnati has been able to increase that emergency assistance by 18 percent over last year.
  • And more money has been dedicated to Shelter Diversion and helping homeless families move quickly out of shelters and into apartments they can afford. The city of Cincinnati allocated $420,000 to help an additional 85 families per year.

"It's progress," said Mike Dunn, executive director of St. Vincent de Paul of Cincinnati. "But there's still a long way to go."

'Stretching us to our limits'

The number of families experiencing homelessness in Cincinnati and Hamilton County is up nearly 10 percent over last year, according to Kevin Finn, CEO of the nonprofit organization Strategies to End Homelessness.

RELATED: What do you do about so many homeless kids?

And even as his organization and others are making progress, there are thousands of families that aren't getting the help they need, he said.

Of all the calls that come into the 513-381-SAFE Central Access Point number that Harris called, 69 percent of the callers don't get any help at all, Finn said. That's either because they are seeking help that the Central Access Point can't provide or because service providers are maxed out and don't have the space or money to assist them, he said.

Angel Harris and her family.

"For the system as a whole, it's really meant stretching us to our limits and being as efficient as we can in getting people out of shelter so we can open spaces back up," said Stacey Burge, executive director of the Interfaith Hospitality Network of Greater Cincinnati, which provides shelter for families with the help of local religious congregations.

Interfaith Hospitality Network has been working to create partnerships with more local congregations and has been asking those that help shelter homeless families whether they can help even more.

"You're talking about people working double time to try to make a dent in this increasing need," Burge said.

But even as the system to help homeless families is stretched more than ever, the groups behind the Solutions for Family Homelessness plan are looking to do more.

  • They have created a Childcare Task Force to provide childcare for moms while they are in shelters, and they also are working to find a way to provide early childhood services for every child in the county's emergency homeless shelter.
  • The various organizations that provide shelter to homeless families -- Bethany House Services, Interfaith Hospitality Network of Greater Cincinnati, The Salvation Army and YWCA of Greater Cincinnati -- are working to better coordinate the services they provide to help families as efficiently and effectively as possible, Burge said.
  • A Landlord Advisory Group is working with local landlords to try to expand rental options for the community's families in need.

There are 74 families in Hamilton County right now that were once homeless and have a subsidy in hand to help them cover a deposit and the first few months of rent for an apartment, Finn said, but they can't find landlords who will rent to them.

"We believe there are units out there that if landlords just had a better understanding of who was actually homeless and what the programs are that help people get into housing and subsidize them for a period of time, that they would be more likely to rent to people who have been homeless," Finn said. "And all of a sudden there would be more housing available."

None of the strategies are quick fixes, of course. But in the end, they all are designed to try to make family homelessness "rare, brief and non-recurring," in the words of the plan.

"It's great to see so many different groups come together to work collaboratively on a plan," Dunn said. "The methodology is there. And the practices are there. We just need the funding secured to take care of it."

More information about the Solutions for Family Homelessness plan and how you can donate is available online.

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and also shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Childhood poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO. To read more stories about childhood poverty, go to www.wcpo.com/poverty.

To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.

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