Cincinnati's tent city: What have we learned?

Posted: 5:00 AM, Aug 16, 2018
Updated: 2019-01-18 07:46:23-05
Cincinnati's tent city: What have we learned?


CINCINNATI -- Sweaty and exhausted from moving late the night before, a woman who goes by Sunshine prepared as best she could for her second television interview in as many days.

She looked at herself in the camera of a reporter’s cell phone, ran her fingers through her long, dark hair, then twisted it into a plastic clip before taking another look.

“Well, I’m homeless,” Sunshine said, dabbing her face and shrugging her shoulders. “This is what it looks like.”

The region has gotten a much closer look at homelessness since July 16. That’s the day the city of Cincinnati began issuing notices to dozens of people living in tents beneath an overpass near Third and Plum streets Downtown. The notices gave the people 72 hours to pack up and leave so city crews could clean the space and contractors could fence off the area.

The weeks since have brought nearly nonstop controversy, culminating in an Aug. 9 court order that effectively banned homeless camps on public property throughout Hamilton County. Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters said Wednesday that the ban extended to private property, too. A hearing in the case is scheduled for Aug. 20.

Greater Cincinnati is far from unique, and our trouble with homelessness started long before tents began popping up along Third Street. As difficult as the past month has been, the people who work every day to reduce homelessness here hope the legal battles, ugliness and name-calling on all sides can serve a larger purpose: To get the community focused on what we could do differently to address the problem.

“I’m almost positive that if we look at it and are prepared to make changes that there could be some realignment so that we are really targeting where the most need is,” said Arlene Nolan, executive director of Shelterhouse, which operates the region’s largest emergency homeless shelters for single men and women. “Let’s take a good, hard look at what we currently do.”




Understanding the dollars

Cincinnati and Hamilton County have been doing a lot.

Five new homeless shelters, including two new Shelterhouse facilities, opened in Cincinnati between 2012 and 2015. The five shelters cost more than $42 million in all to build. They were part of the 2009 Homeless to Homes plan pushed by the city of Cincinnati, which contributed $10 million toward the cost of construction. 

The bulk of the money for the new shelters came from donations by local corporations and foundations and through fundraising that the shelters did themselves.

But the new buildings have been full or beyond capacity since almost the day they opened, and other key parts of the Homeless to Homes plan never materialized. 

For example, the plan called for the creation of something called “street outreach transitional housing.” The idea was to have an apartment building for people living in homeless camps where street outreach workers would help them move into the apartments exactly as they had been living on the street, said Kevin Finn, the CEO of Strategies to End Homelessness, which oversaw the implementation of Homeless to Homes. 

“That never happened largely because the biggest source of funding for that type of transitional housing is the federal government,” he said. “And the federal government pulled the plug on funding any new transitional housing years ago.”

The county’s homeless shelters get federal funding each year to help with their operations, but it’s not as much as people might think, Finn said. The nonprofit organization he oversees administers that funding, too.

Strategies to End Homelessness will funnel more than $23.1 million to homeless service providers in Cincinnati and Hamilton County this year.

The vast majority of that money comes from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, but the city, county and state also contribute.



Only about $3.4 million of the total will be used to fund street outreach programs and homeless shelters. Those are the services aimed at people living outside, in vacant buildings or in other places not fit for them to live.

Most of the money, nearly $19 million, goes toward housing for people who have already been homeless. Even all those millions don’t come close to covering the need.

“We’re only able to offer housing to one out of every 10 homeless people in the system all together,” Finn said. “We’re trying to do a lot of things to be as efficient with the money as possible.”

Nolan said she thinks the system that provides homeless services could do more. She said there should be a thorough review of how all the money is spent.

“How can anybody demand more money when you haven’t even taken stock of what you’re doing with the money now?” she said.

Homelessness by the numbers

Strategies to End Homelessness received about $300,000 less through HUD’s largest homeless funding program for 2018 than it did in 2017, Finn noted.

Two local nonprofits -- Over-the-Rhine Community Housing and Ohio Valley Goodwill Industries -- had funding for their housing programs cut. That amounted to a reduction of more than $1.4 million for programs aimed at getting people out of homelessness and into housing that would help them stabilize their lives.

The community got funding for new programs to offset that loss. Still, Finn said Strategies to End Homelessness is appealing HUD’s decision related to a cut of more than $1 million to Over-the-Rhine Community Housing.

The affordable housing developer had been using that money to operate permanent supportive housing, which combines affordable homes with the services of a social worker or case manager to help people who had been homeless get and keep the services they need to become stable. 

Advocates said more than 50 homeless people lived at the camp at Third and Plum streets in downtown Cincinnati at one point. Emily Maxwell | WCPO

It’s the type of housing that often works best for chronically homeless people, such as those who have lived on the streets. Cincinnati and Hamilton County have other organizations that still provide the housing. But losing so much funding for Over-the-Rhine Community Housing and for Goodwill’s housing program has hurt, Nolan said.

“Those two programs that lost funding serve single adults,” she said. “And as far as I’m concerned, for the single adults in shelter, there’s very few housing options.”

The community’s emphasis in recent years has been on reducing homelessness among youth and families, Nolan said. But single adults -- like those living in the downtown Cincinnati encampments -- make up the largest group of homeless people in Hamilton County.

A total of 7,197 people in Hamilton County experienced homelessness at some point during 2017, according to data from Strategies to End Homelessness. That included 5,504 adults and 1,692 children.

The data show Hamilton County has seen a decrease in the number of people sleeping on the street -- 979 in 2017 as compared to 1,692 in 2013.

But while the number of families and children experiencing homelessness has decreased steadily since 2013, there were more homeless individuals in 2017 than there were five years earlier.

The public tends to be less sympathetic about helping adults because the general belief is that they should be able to help themselves, Nolan said.

“Well, we can clearly see they’re not self-resolving with the shelter’s being overburdened and with the street population being what it is,” she said. “Yes, there are a certain number who will self-resolve. But there are a number who have incredible barriers. The resources need to be available for them to access.”

‘Communities are really struggling’

Not every person living on the street is willing or able to go into shelters to get those resources.

Experts say people are more likely to enter shelters that allow them to bring the “three Ps:” their people, personal belongings and pets.

Hamilton County’s new shelters do typically have places for people to store personal items, and the Interfaith Hospitality Network of Greater Cincinnati has kennels for homeless pets so individuals and families entering local shelters don’t have to give up their animals.

But people are another story.

Sunshine and her husband, who goes by Darkness, wouldn’t go to a shelter because they didn’t want to be separated. Hamilton County doesn’t have any shelters for couples without children. Even some local family shelters don’t allow older teenage children to stay with the rest of the family.

Sunshine speaks during a press conference on Third Street. Emily Maxwell | WCPO

There are other restrictions, too.

None of the local shelters accept registered sex offenders into their facilities. People who have become violent with shelter staff or who have gotten into fights there aren’t typically allowed to return.

Homeless people who are addicted to drugs or alcohol often don’t stay at shelters because they can’t go a full night without drinking or using, Finn said.

Then there are those who have experienced trauma of some kind, and they can’t handle staying in shelters for that reason.

Bison, a leader of the tent city near Third and Plum streets, said he had such a bad experience at a local shelter a few years ago that he would never go back to one.

Finn’s numbers show the amount of homeless people living on the streets in Hamilton County has decreased over the past five years, but the number of “unsheltered” homeless people -- homeless people who aren't staying in shelters -- is growing nationwide, said Mary K. Cunningham, vice president for Metropolitan Housing and Communities policy at the Urban Institute based in Washington, D.C.

The United States has 190,000 unsheltered homeless people on any given night, she said. Nationwide, 35 percent of people experiencing homelessness are living outside the shelter system. That’s an increase of nine percent since 2015, according to data from HUD.

Bison, who calls himself the mayor of the tent city at Third and Plum streets, sits on his bike outside the camp. Breanna Molloy | WCPO

“I think a lot of communities are really struggling with this issue,” she said.

Some cities are clearing homeless encampments without warning while others, like Cincinnati, have policies in place to give people in the encampments advance notice.

Still other places, such as Seattle and Portland, allow public encampments when their shelters are full, she said. The people staying there must follow rules, and the cities make sure there are portable toilets and trash receptacles available on site.

The U.S. Department of Justice during the Obama administration advised communities against arresting people for sleeping outside, something that is often referred to as “criminalizing homelessness,” said Nan Roman, CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness in Washington, D.C.

But Roman said advocates for the homeless understand that communities can’t tolerate lawlessness either.

Downtown Cincinnati residents said they have walked past people in homeless camps using illegal drugs out in the open and having violent fights. Downtown businesses also complained about the human excrement that had built up in parking lots near the Third and Plum encampment.

Simply housing

Roman called it “a balancing act” for cities to try to ensure laws are enforced and safeguard public health and safety without penalizing people simply for being homeless.

“But I don’t think just arresting people is going to solve the problem,” she said. “It’s just going to make it harder for people to get housing because they’re going to have a criminal record.”

As complex as the problem of homelessness is, advocates agree that the solution can be as simple as having more affordable housing.

“There’s no place anywhere across the country where there’s enough affordable housing,” Cunningham said. “The places that have huge explosions of homelessness have bigger affordable housing challenges.”

In that regard, Cincinnati and Hamilton County are better positioned than the east or west coasts.

Crews clean up after a homeless encampment at Third and Plum streets. Emily Maxwell | WCPO

But even Hamilton County has far less affordable housing than it needs.

A 2017 study by the Community Building Institute at Xavier University estimated that for every 100 of the lowest income households in Hamilton County, there are only 28 units of housing that are affordable and available.

To have enough for everyone, the county would need 40,000 more units of affordable housing for families with an annual household income of $14,678 or less.

When families are forced to pay far more than they can afford for their housing, any unexpected expense, job loss or medical problem can result in homelessness, said Josh Spring, executive director of the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition.

City leaders have contributed to the problem with many decisions over the years that have eliminated affordable housing to make way for new, more expensive residential developments, Spring said.

“In the last 25 years, we’ve lost over 2,000 units of affordable housing in the Central Business District alone. We’ve lost over 2,500 units of affordable housing in Over-the-Rhine alone,” he said. “In many of those instances, the developments that have replaced that affordable housing were built with city subsidies.”

Sienna Burgan, seated, one of the individuals living at the tent city on Third Street, speaks to Councilman Greg Landsman, far right, and Samuel Landis, center, during a visit from city leaders at the camp. Emily Maxwell | WCPO

The current city council appears to want to address the issue.

Councilwoman Tamaya Dennard and Councilman Greg Landsman were among a council majority that pushed to give residents of the tent city near Third and Plum streets extra time. They also are among six council members supporting a motion to form a working group to study the issue.

The group would include representatives from the city, the county, the homeless camps and Downtown residents, among others. It would have 60 days to come up with recommendations on how to help homeless people who can’t -- or won’t -- go to local shelters.

Dennard acknowledged that’s only a short-term fix.

“The permanent solution is safe and affordable and income-based housing,” she said, but that won’t come quickly.

“It’s a lot of issues and many years of kicking the can down the road,” she said. “We didn’t arrive here in 30 days, and we’re not going to get out of it in 30 days.”

In search of solutions

Finn said he hopes the community can find ways to spend more on homelessness prevention.

Less than $1 million -- a small fraction of the $23.1 million that Strategies to End Homelessness will distribute this year -- will be spent on prevention. That money comes from the city because the federal government requires that its funding be spent on people who already are homeless, Finn said.

He argues spending more on programs that help people cover a few months rent so they don’t get evicted would be far more cost effective.

“We can serve a person through prevention with a third the cost,” he said.

The remains of a homeless encampment after city crews cleaned the area where advocates say more than 50 people were living at Third and Plum streets. Emily Maxwell | WCPO

Landsman said he thinks the crisis exposed an even bigger problem: a lack of leadership.

“We have amazing people who are leaders, and they are doing really good work,” he said. “But when it came to this piece, and quite frankly some other issues related to homelessness, we just don’t have somebody in charge. And that is something that I think we have to fix.”

That’s what it will take to help everyone who has been living alongside Bison and Sunshine and Darkness, he said, so they don’t simply move from place to place until they’re out of sight.

“The key is to solve the problem for folks,” Landsman said. “Not just disperse folks.”

The city of Cincinnati issued 72-hour notices to 24 people at the Third and Plum streets camp and to another 10 people who were living in tents on Third Street sidewalks.

Only a handful of tents remain pitched on privately owned property near 13th and Republic streets in Over-the-Rhine. City officials don’t know exactly what happened to everyone who got the notices.

Advocates say many of them have gone to shelters or detox programs or have even gotten housing vouchers thanks to street outreach workers and others who connected them to the services they needed.

That’s the good news.

Josh Spring of the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition speaks during a protest on Third Street. Emily Maxwell | WCPO

But others have gone into hiding, Spring said, for fear they will be arrested for trying to sleep outside, which makes it all the more difficult for outreach workers to get those people the help they need.

That’s the bad news.

Cincinnati City Council is expected to vote in the coming weeks to form the working group that Dennard and Landsman have pushed for. The clock already is ticking for the people in tents and the people in hiding and the people who live and work Downtown and want long-term solutions.

Spring said he hopes the people working to find solutions won’t make the answer more complicated than it needs to be.

“I think a lot of times we add complication to these issues,” he said. “Because if we admitted that these problems were really pretty straightforward, our conscience would probably get to us a little more and we would have to do something about it.”

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