CINCINNATI – Little Tiffany is only six years old, but she doesn't have any trouble explaining why she likes staying at the Bethany House shelter in Fairmount.
First, she gets to sing a lot, which she really likes to do. Also, the toy box has bubbles, and Tiffany likes blowing bubbles. Plus, she said, it's nicer than the basement where her family stayed for a while.
"It was cold," Tiffany said of the basement. "We started living over here, and it's warm."
Tiffany and her family are one of the thousands of families in Hamilton County who become homeless each year. Her mom, Tawanna Terrell, had to move in July when her apartment could no longer accept her Section 8 voucher.
Terrell and her six kids moved in with relatives until the commotion of family got to be too much. The night before she got a room at Bethany House, Terrell drove her car around for hours while her kids slept in it. It was hot that night, she said, so she drove to keep the air-conditioning on to keep the kids comfortable.
"It really hurt me that I had to do that, but it beats sleeping outside on the sidewalk," she said. "We were kind of blessed not to have to sleep outside."
Bethany House Services is the largest family homeless shelter provider in Hamilton County with 130 beds, not counting baby beds. Every family's story is heartbreaking, said Executive Director Susan Schiller.
"It can happen to anyone, and one unfortunate situation in someone's life can make them homeless," she said. "It's sort of like a spiral then. One thing after another – if you're in a wreck or you become sick, then you can't work, you lose your job, lose your car lose your apartment. So many of our families just do not have the support and, quite honestly the savings, to help get through those rough times."
Need Far Greater Than Shelters Can Meet
In Hamilton County alone, nearly 10,000 families on the brink of homelessness asked for help from the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in Cincinnati in 2013.
And more than half of them -- 5,548 -- had to be turned away.
Of those, half were too far behind on their rent to be helped by the type of one-time financial assistance that St. Vincent de Paul could give. The others would have been a good fit for the assistance but couldn't get it because there wasn't enough funding available to help them.
Those heartbreaking numbers -- detailed in a 2014 Cincinnati Family Homelessness Services Study provided to WCPO -- show just how far the region is from being able to serve our most fragile families.
This morning, a group of local organizations that work with families experiencing homelessness has announced a community-wide plan to address the problem.
Called "Solutions for Family Homelessness," the plan was created with a process similar to the one used to develop the Homeless to Homes plan for individuals. The 2009 Homeless to Homes plan paved the way for the development of several new shelters in the region, including the $8.3 million Esther Marie Hatton Center, an emergency shelter for women that opened in June.
The organizations releasing the plan include Strategies to End Homelessness, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and the Family Housing Partnership, which is made up of Bethany House Services, Interfaith Hospitality Network of Greater Cincinnati, The Salvation Army and the YWCA of Greater Cincinnati.
The goal is to ensure that family homelessness is rare, that the time families spend homeless is brief and that families do not become homeless more than once.
The plan is focused on prevention, capacity building, housing and policy changes.
"As a team, we have identified three priorities, including expanding homelessness prevention services, offering specialized services for homeless children and targeting existing housing resources toward at-risk and homeless families so that we can minimize the trauma of homelessness," Kevin Finn, CEO of Strategies to End Homelessness, said in the news release.
Preventing homelessness in the first place is the most cost-effective way to address the problem, according to the Family Homelessness Services Study.
St. Vincent de Paul has found that 89 percent of the families that the organization helps avoid eviction for at least six months after receiving just $200 in emergency assistance.
But when a person becomes homeless, the cost to serve them increases to $3,032 per person, according to the study.
The new plan recommends the following.
• Prevention: More money to help families avoid homelessness; create a system to help connect families with prevention services; and figure out ways to help families before it becomes a crisis.
• Capacity building: Increase coordination among service providers; improve the quality of family shelters; and develop special services that families need for kids while they're in homeless shelters.
• Housing strategies: Coordinate so families get help based on how long they've been homeless, how vulnerable they are and what their needs are; target housing subsidies more strategically; work more closely with private landlords; and collaborate with faith-based programs that offer emergency assistance and programs that offer transitional housing.
• Policy changes: Expand local government support for the development of affordable, family-sized housing units; explore policy changes necessary to get the funding that will be needed to implement the plan's recommendations; expand the Ohio Housing Finance Agency Low Income Housing Tax Credit program to allow funding of more "permanent supportive housing" projects in our community; expand services that are now offered only to homeless families to include families at risk of becoming homeless.
For the entire plan, click here or go to http://www.strategiestoendhomelessness.org/solutions-for-family-homelessness.
Work Already Underway
Some efforts to address the problem already have begun, Finn told WCPO. The city of Cincinnati allocated an extra $420,000 for the Shelter Diversion program that helps families in need find stable housing and get the services they need so they don't need to enter homeless shelters.
The city also has allocated $100,000 to Bethany House Services to help study the possible consolidation of the organization's four different locations into one, larger more efficient family shelter.
And Hamilton County Administrator Christian Sigman recommended $1 million in spending related to the newly released plan in the budgeted he submitted to county commissioners earlier this month, Finn said.
Sigman was part of the large committee that studied the issues and developed the recommendations, Finn said, so he knew what the need would be before the report was unveiled Monday morning.
It isn't yet known what the total cost of implementing the plans recommendations will be. Finn said he hopes to have that determined in January.
But this much is certain – whatever the community can spend on the front end that prevents families from becoming homeless will cost far less than helping them get out of shelters and back on their feet afterwards, Finn said.
"If more families were getting the short-term limited assistance at just the right moment early in their descent towards homelessness, they would never become homeless," he said.
Terrell said she never thought it would come to this for her and her kids.
She had always worked – up until she broke her hip in a bad car accident last May and needed surgery. Now her doctors are telling her to take it easy, but she desperately wants a job.
"I'm in a lot of pain, but nothing is like the pain that I have in my heart," she said.
Terrell said she knows she can't work as a certified nurse's aide anymore because the job is too physically strenuous for her now.
But she's desperate to find a way to support her kids and get back on her feet, she said.
"I have a daughter in her senior year, and she wants to go to college," Terrell said, tears streaming down her cheek. "I really need to support my family. There must be something out there that I can do."
Here's what you can do to help the organizations that help families like Terrell's:
• Bethany House Services. Volunteers are needed to prepare evening dinners or weekend brunches, help with minor maintenance, yard work, serve on board and event committees – all to provide homeless families with emergency shelter or housing solutions. Call Courtney at (513) 557-2402 or email email@example.com.
• Interfaith Hospitality Network of Greater Cincinnati. Individual and congregational volunteers are needed to work with children, perform clerical tasks, make and serve meals and provide other skills to support families staying together. Call Hume at (513) 471-1100, extension 10, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
• The Salvation Army. Individual and small groups of volunteers support local community centers and emergency assistance programs to help prevent homelessness. Call Kate Hamilton at (513) 762-5641 or email email@example.com.
• St. Vincent de Paul. Volunteers can directly assist our neighbors in need with emergency assistance geared toward basic necessities and homeless prevention or can provide behind-the-scenes support. To help, contact Tim Barr at (513) 562-8841, extension 211, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Strategies to End Homelessness leads the coordinated community effort to end homelessness in Cincinnati and Hamilton County. To learn more about how to get involved, visit www.strategiestoendhomelessness.org/ending-homelessness/get-involved or email email@example.com.
• YWCA of Greater Cincinnati. Volunteers help support Hamilton County's only domestic violence shelter, which provides safe, protective shelter, crisis line assistance, and necessary support services for women and their children. Visit www.ywca.org to get involved.
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 this year.