First phase of plan to help Hamilton County's homeless families would cost about $3.3 million

1,863 kids stayed in emergency shelters last year

CINCINNATI — For about $3.3 million, Hamilton County could significantly reduce the number of families and children who experience homelessness — and help homeless families get back into stable housing more quickly.

That's the price tag for the first phase of a plan called "Solutions for Family Homelessness" that was unveiled last October. In the months since, local organizations that work with homeless families have selected pieces of the plan to emphasize first and have figured out how much those would cost.

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The $3.3 million price tag is an estimate. And the groups still are looking for foundations and other funders who are willing to pay.

The goal is to make family homelessness "rare, brief and non-recurring." The organizations involved plan to measure their success by:

• Reducing the percentage of families turned away without getting any help. Currently, 69 percent of all families who seek help are turned away. This plan seeks to cut that to 45 percent.

• Reducing the length of time families are homeless. The current average is 43 days. The goal is to bring that down to 30 days.

• Increasing the percentage of families who get permanent housing. Right now, 64 percent of families do. The goal is to boost that number to 85 percent.

• And reducing the percentage of families who return to homelessness. Currently, 21 percent of families slide back into homelessness. The goal is to cut that to 10 percent.

"Every time I look at one of my 10-year-olds, I think she might be back in eight years with children of her own if we're not careful," said Susan Schiller, executive director of Bethany House Services, the county's largest provider of services for homeless families.

The need is urgent. In 2015, a total of 1,863 children stayed in emergency homeless shelters in Hamilton County, said Kevin Finn, president of the agency Strategies to End Homelessness.

Children represent 30 percent of all people who are homeless in the county.

"We're talking about young kids, many that aren't even school-age yet," Finn said.

Children like eight-month-old Kamryn.

Losing Everything

Kamryn and his mom, Sierra Lewis, moved into a shelter operated by Bethany House Services on May 24. Lewis never thought she would be homeless.

She has been supporting herself since she was 16. She graduated from high school in 2013 and held a job as a customer care representative for two years.

But she suffered from post-partum depression after Kamryn was born. Things went sour with Kamryn's dad, her long-time boyfriend. Before Lewis knew it, she was out of work and then locked out of their apartment after her boyfriend got caught for violating his probation.

"That made us homeless," said Lewis, who is 21 and five months pregnant with her second child. "I lost basically everything."

Sierra Lewis and Kamryn

Lewis was ashamed and tried to conceal her troubles. But after a month of bouncing from relative to relative, she called Bethany House. She and Kamryn moved into a Bethany House homeless shelter May 24.

Now Lewis is attending University of Cincinnati, majoring in biology with dreams of becoming a nurse. Bethany House has helped her arrange daycare for Kamryn, and Lewis expects to be moving into her own place in July. Bethany House has given her a place for her and Kamryn to sleep, food to eat and clothes to wear. But most of all, she said, the shelter has helped empower her to know she has the ability to make life better for herself and her children.

"When I came here, I was out of it, and I felt like I couldn't get out," she said. "I'm just trying to do better. My kids was my biggest motivation because that's all I have at the end of the day. They're going to look up to Mommy."

Helping Thousands of Families

For local nonprofits that work with parents like Lewis and their children, the goal is to have fewer families experience homelessness in the first place.

That can be difficult, though, because the biggest source of funding available to help people experiencing homelessness comes from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Finn said. And most of that federal money is only available after people have become homeless.

"The federal government is very specific about what their dollars pay for," Finn said.

Finn isn't optimistic that federal funds will be available for the $3.3 million first phase of the "Solutions for Family Homelessness" plan.

The top priorities identified as the first phase of the plan are:

• Investing $1.25 million more in emergency assistance. That would serve an additional 5,500 families who call the St. Vincent de Paul Call Center seeking help.

• Spending $970,000 more on Shelter Diversion. That program aims to prevent families from needing to go to a homeless shelter by helping them get into more stable housing. The extra money could serve an additional 345 families.

• Investing $630,000 on something called Cross-system Case Management. This would allow providers to coordinate services more effectively to ensure families are getting the help they need and to follow up with them after the leave shelters. The service would reach more than the 621 families who were in emergency shelters in 2015, but organizers aren't sure exactly how many more.

• Spending $20,000 on training for case managers so they can offer what's called "trauma-informed care." The idea is that families who become homeless experience lots of trauma, and case managers who understand how to deal with that can help them more effectively.

• Investing $400,000 on child service coordinators. This would ensure that every shelter has employees whose jobs are focused on addressing the needs of the children who are staying there.

Bethany House has one child service coordinator who helps parents get child care vouchers and helps ensure that kids keep going to the same schools they have been attending. The coordinator also helps moms learn how to bond with and play with their children, Schiller said.

One of Bethany House Services' shelter locations.

The Interfaith Hospitality Network of Greater Cincinnati has had a child service coordinator since 2008, said Stacey Burge, the network's executive director. But the organization has struggled to keep one full-time with the qualifications it wants.

Finding more funding for those child service coordinators would have a "preventative effect," Burge said.

"If you can catch children who are going through this situation and ameliorate the impacts, you can send them back into housing with a sense of confidence," she said.

As heartbreaking as family homelessness is, Burge said it's important to remember the success stories. Interfaith Hospitality Network has people who were once clients who now have good jobs and whose children have grown up to be happy, successful adults.

"We know if we have the resources we need, the services we provide can work," she said.

And for a few million more dollars, she, Schiller and Finn are confident that thousands of additional Hamilton County families could be helped.

Sierra Lewis and Kamryn at the Bethany House shelter where they are staying temporarily.

For more information about the "Solutions for Family Homelessness" plan, click here.

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 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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