CINCINNATI — Kimmi walked over from her encampment wearing a baggy black sweatshirt and smelling of the fire that had been keeping her warm.
She told me she has been homeless for a couple of years. She started living on the streets after her husband died, her dad died, and her child died.
"I lost everybody and ended up out here," she said. She was raped and beaten last winter while staying on the Covington riverfront. Now she's with a guy who protects her, she said, adding, "it's crazy out here."
It's tough to be poor and even tougher to be homeless.
A team of about 25 volunteers and outreach workers spent several hours starting late Tuesday night to try to count every person experiencing homelessness in Cincinnati and Hamilton County.
It's an annual exercise called the "Point-in-Time Count," and it's designed to help communities and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development get a handle on the stubborn problem of homelessness.
"It helps us know as a community how we're doing in terms of reducing and eliminating homelessness," said Kevin Finn, president of the nonprofit Strategies to End Homelessness, which is coordinating the count this year. "We want to make sure we have an accurate snapshot."
The count includes people like Kimmi who live outside in tents, under bridges or in other places deemed "unfit for human habitation." It also includes the hundreds of homeless people staying in shelters and living in "transitional housing" — where they can live temporarily until they can get a stable, permanent place to call home.
To help the public understand how the count is done and why it's important, WCPO photographer Ron Fischer and I spent a couple of hours Monday morning with three people who work for the PATH Program. PATH stands for Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness. On Monday afternoon, we talked to Finn at the City Gospel Mission homeless shelter in Queensgate.
PATH workers go out in a van each weekday at different times to try to find people who are homeless and living on the street.
Megan Jones is the PATH team leader. Arnita Miller is a street outreach worker and Lester Waller is the PATH worker who specializes in working with veterans.
It was about 27 degrees and overcast when we got started a little after 8 a.m. Monday. It didn't take long before we found a makeshift living space under a Queensgate overpass.
Based on the number of blankets, mattresses and a bowl of kibble hidden under the beams of the overpass, Miller figured as many as three or four people were living there with at least one cat.
She looked around for prescription bottles or anything else that might list someone's name.
The PATH workers' day-to-day goal is to connect the people they find with resources to help them get off the streets eventually. It's a process that can take years. But the first step is finding the people.
For the Point-In-Time Count, just finding an encampment like this isn't enough. The PATH workers and volunteers had to find each person, which is why they started late in the evening when people are more likely to be settled in for the night or sleeping.
It didn't look like this group was coming back anytime soon, so we left.
At our next stop, we found Kimmi.
'One Step At A Time'
The encampment where she lives is in a wooded area near the intersection of Dalton Avenue and Linn Street.
We saw the campfire first and then the three people huddled around it — Kimmi, her friend Robert and another man who told Waller that he was just there visiting.
Miller and Waller gave Kimmi and Robert small bags of toiletries along with bottles of water and a few "heater meals" — meals that get warm when you open them. Kimmi looked a little dazed. The skin on her hands was thick and dry and starting to look a bit blue from the cold.
She complained that a case manager who had been trying to help her get housing was taking too long. Kimmi has been trying to get housing since September, she said, and she was frustrated.
Miller promised to help connect her with someone who could get results faster, and Kimmi began weeping and leaned in for a hug.
"Don't cry now. It's going to be all right," Miller told her. "One step at a time."
Kimmi promised to meet Miller at the PATH Outreach Office on Race Street and then rode off with another case manager who had come to see her.
I didn't get Kimmi's age or where she used to live before she was homeless or even much of her story about how she got to this point. Getting her the help she needed seemed far more important.
Miller and Jones said they had met Kimmi before and hoped she was ready to come in off the streets.
They didn't know why it was taking so long to get Kimmi housing. But it can take longer to help people who are homeless if they don't go to their appointments with the caseworkers who are trying to help them, Jones said. And sometimes as the weather warms up, people on the streets decide they would rather stay there than have to follow the rules at a shelter or in transitional housing.
Brothers In Need
We encountered other people that morning, but nobody else who would talk with me.
There were the two brothers huddled in separate sleeping bags under an overpass across from the Clay Wade Bailey Bridge. The men looked young — maybe in their 20s — and Miller thought they might have been twins.
Miller and Waller handed each of them a bottle of water and a couple of heater meals. The men promised to come see them at the outreach office and then covered their heads to go back to sleep.
A couple was living under some plastic tarps in a wooded area behind the UPS Customer Service Center on Third Street. A UPS employee told Jones they had been there for about six weeks.
A guy who was panhandling at the base of the Clay Wade Bailey Bridge told Waller that he and another man lived in a spot near Longworth Hall. We drove over that way but couldn't find any encampments.
Tuesday night, Miller, Waller, Jones and others kept looking until they were as certain as they could be that they had found every homeless person in Hamilton County.
The shelters and transitional housing facilities did their own counts and sent that information to Finn's group.
Then Strategies to End Homelessness will take some time to make sure nobody was counted twice. Duplicate counts can happen when a person starts out prepared to sleep under a bridge but then decides to go to a shelter instead a few hours later, Finn said.
Within about a month, Strategies to End Homelessness will have an official Point-In-Time Count for HUD that will then become public.
Similar counts are happening this week in communities throughout the country. Northern Kentucky's count, for example, happens Wednesday.
The federal government will use the information as part of a complicated formula to figure out how much money to send to communities to help them reduce homelessness, Finn said.
And in Hamilton County, the people who work to reduce homelessness every day will use it to help figure out how we're doing.
It's important, Finn said, but Hamilton County's homeless shelters and other providers all do a good job of keeping data on how many people use their services every day.
So even though last year's Point-In-Time Count showed more people on the streets in Hamilton County than the previous year, the day-to-day data showed there were fewer homeless people than in 2014.
If the whole thing sounds complicated, that's because it is. Being homeless can be a chaotic way to live, moving from spot to spot and losing everything you have to a fire or rain or because of other people who tear through your camp.
That's why Miller and Waller and other outreach workers go out each weekday to talk to people like Kimmi and try to connect them with the help they need. It's all in the hope that maybe next year, there will be fewer people like her to count.
For more information on Strategies to End Homelessness, 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.