BATAVIA, Ohio -- RaShawnda Matthews had been staying at the James Sauls Homeless Shelter in Batavia for several weeks when she got up in the middle of the night and was startled.
Instead of a shelter employee keeping watch over the more than three dozen men, women and children staying there, a fellow resident was awake and explained that he was in charge.
"None of us knew about it," said Matthews, who became homeless after the Cincinnati apartment building where she was living was sold and all the tenants were moved out. "I was just really concerned."
As it turns out, a resident was in charge for a number of hours over few nights earlier this summer because the staff member who usually works the overnight shift had a medical emergency, said Billie Kuntz, the shelter's executive director.
"Our policy is if that happens, and we can't get another employee, then we have a client who has keys to the kitchen," she said. "It's not something that occurs regularly."
But it is a policy that underscores just how tight funding is for homeless shelters.
The James Sauls facility is Clermont County's only homeless shelter besides the YWCA House of Peace battered women's shelter. The James Sauls shelter serves single women, single men and families -- all under one, modest roof.
The shelter serves about 500 people a year, Kuntz said, and must turn away anywhere from 700 to 900 people annually. It has 16 beds in its women's dormitory area, 16 beds in its men's dormitory area and two separate bedrooms for families. It houses as many as 40 people at a time.
"We'd like to extend for more family units," she said. "But I don't have the staff. I don't have the operational support to have additional staff. We're on a skeleton crew as it is."
A shelter in need helping people in need
The shelter has an annual budget of about $250,000, which includes state funding and funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, that it receives via the Ohio Development Services Agency.
That differs from the way homeless shelters in large, metropolitan counties in Ohio receive federal funding.
In Cincinnati and Hamilton County, for example, federal funding is channeled through Strategies to End Homelessness, a nonprofit that supports local organizations that serve people experiencing homelessness.
Ohio's more rural counties, such as Clermont, get their funding through the state. Ohio distributes about $8.8 million per year in state and federal funding for homeless shelters throughout its 88 counties based on the need in each county, according to Penny Martin, a public information officer for the Ohio Development Services Agency.
Spreading that money over scores of counties and shelters means funding is far from abundant.
"The current government and political way of life right now, people want less government funding. And I understand. I pay taxes, too," Kuntz said. "But you can't have both. You can't have all these wrap-around services and want to pay less."
Every year presents a financial challenge, Kuntz said, because the shelter typically gets the same amount of funding from one year to the next.
"The electric bill doesn't go down. It's going up," she said. "The food doesn't go down. Our washers and dryers break down. Our expenses continually go up, and it's a struggle to keep it going."
Even so, Kuntz said the shelter gets lots of support from the community in Clermont County. This summer, for example, a local business has provided landscaping work free of charge. And county residents often drop off donations of clothes or laundry detergent.
The shelter's goal is to help the people staying there get back on their feet. The average length of stay is about 30 days, Kuntz said, but residents can stay as long as 89 days if they can show they are making progress toward more financial stability.
'A wonderful experience'
In Hamilton County, only about 5 percent of the federal funds allocated by Strategies to End Homelessness goes to emergency shelters, said Kevin Finn, the nonprofit's CEO.
The vast majority of the $18 million in HUD funding that Hamilton County receives goes to fund supportive housing programs for people after they have been homeless, he said.
"The emphasis from the federal government has been on if someone becomes homeless, we want to be able to as quickly as possible get them back into their own housing," Finn said. "That is not something that I disagree with. But the result of that philosophy is that most of the money is targeted at the housing and very little is targeted at prevention or sheltering people while they are homeless."
Helping people work their way out of homelessness and into stable, permanent housing as quickly as possible is the goal at the James Sauls shelter, Kuntz said.
The state encourages shelter stays of fewer than 30 days, she said, although Kuntz said the shelter can extend that to 45 days or a bit more if residents are making progress.
And, despite the scare that Matthews had earlier this summer, she said the shelter has been a huge help to her.
In fact, she is preparing to move into her own, one-bedroom apartment later this month, she said.
"I feel like a different person, but I know that I'm more experienced in how to deal with a crisis situation now," Matthews said. "It's just been a wonderful experience."
To learn more about James Sauls Homeless Shelter, click here. The shelter always needs donations. The document below lists items the shelter needs.
To learn more about Strategies to End Homelessness or to donate, 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 about childhood poverty, to go www.wcpo.com/poverty.