Hamilton County shelters are serving a growing number of homeless families in 2016

More than 100 kids at Bethany House this month
Posted at 5:00 AM, Oct 24, 2016

CINCINNATI -- In the last few weeks, Seairra Collier lost her source of income, got evicted when she couldn't pay the rent and faced homelessness with her children.

Still, Collier feels fortunate, she said, because she found Bethany House Services.

"It's feels good. It feels like home," Collier said, describing what it was like to stay at the family homeless shelter as her five young daughters ate a snack nearby. "They're happy so I'm happy."

Bethany House staff members are helping Collier get Social Security cards, birth certificates and housing for herself and her kids. They're helping her look for a new job and secure affordable daycare, too.

Despite all those hurdles to getting back on track, though, Collier and her daughters are among the lucky ones: They have a safe place to stay at a time when the number of homeless families in Hamilton County has stayed persistently high.

Bethany House is filled beyond capacity, sheltering 157 people, said Executive Director Susan Schiller. The shelter is so full that the organization is paying for two families to stay in hotel rooms, she said.

Perhaps most heartbreaking: More than 100 of the people staying with Bethany House are children.

Susan Schiller

Those numbers are particularly worrisome for Schiller because family homelessness usually peaks during the summer. The "summer surge," as it's known, happens when kids are off school, and it becomes more difficult for friends and extended family to give homeless families a place to stay. Usually after school starts again, local shelters see a decrease in the numbers of homeless families. But that hasn't happened this year.

"The question that we're asking ourselves is, is this just a blip right now or is this a trend?" Schiller said. "We probably won't know for quite some time."

Trend or not, Bethany House predicts it will serve more homeless families this year than any year in its 33-year history.

'How do children learn?'

Across Hamilton County, the story with family homelessness is the same, said Kevin Finn, CEO of the nonprofit organization Strategies to End Homelessness.

"So far this year, the demand has not seemed to go down," Finn said.

Last year between Jan. 1 and Sept. 30, Hamilton County's emergency family homeless shelters served 340 families, comprised of 1,145 people, Finn said.

During the same time period this year, shelters have served 366 families made up of 1,300 people, he said. That's an 8 percent increase in families and a 14 percent increase in the number of people in those families.

And while unemployment numbers indicate that the national economy is on the upswing, it takes a while for prosperity to reach families who experience homelessness.

"Homelessness is very much a lagging indicator," Finn said. "It takes a long time of things going wrong for somebody for them to become homeless. And sometimes it takes an equally long time for things to go better for someone for them to get out of homelessness for good."

The increase in the number of families that Bethany House is serving can be explained, in part, because the organization expanded its capacity when it took over the homeless shelter services that Mercy Health – St. John used to operate.

Seairra Collier's oldest daughter holds a doll at the Bethany House Services shelter in Fairmount while one of her younger sisters looks on.

Last year was the first full year that Bethany House had the expanded capacity, going from 30 beds to 130 beds, not including the baby beds that the shelter has in every room.

In 2015, Bethany House Services served 909 people, and 610 of them were children, Schiller said.

This year, the organization is projecting that it will serve 1,200 people, with 850 of them being children, she said.

Not only that, the shelter is seeing larger families becoming homeless.

"How do children learn when their lives are disrupted through homelessness?" Schiller said. "If they're switching schools and then come into a shelter. Children who are homeless have far more issues than other children who are living in poverty. We know that."

Because of that, Bethany House strives to get families in housing as quickly as possible. Families typically stay at the shelter for anywhere from 30 to 60 days, Schiller said.

Big challenges, big goals

But no matter how fast Bethany House's staff can help families become more stable, being at full capacity for so long stretches the staff -- and the facilities, Schiller said.

The organization operates four shelter locations. Bethany House has its main Fairmount shelter, where each family has a room and everyone shares the bathrooms, kitchen and other facilities. The other three shelter locations are apartment buildings in other parts of the city.

The organization also has two administrative buildings in Fairmount, and one of them has a serious maintenance problem that needs fixing before winter.

"Our furnace is leaking carbon monoxide," Schiller said from her office, which is in the building with the bad furnace. "We can't turn it on, and we don't have a lot of reserves to take care of it."

The bad furnace.

Schiller said Bethany House has been lucky that it has stayed so warm in October. But sooner or later, the organization will have to come up with the $4,216 it will cost to address the problem.

But the furnace is only a small part of the organization's problem.

Ultimately, Bethany House needs a whole new facility, Schiller said.

The three Fairmount properties were built in the 1800s and need constant repairs. And having families and staff spread over four shelter locations is not efficient, she said.

Over the past nine months, Bethany House has been working with architects to determine whether the organization can build on its Fairmount property, but it's so hilly that building there would add at least $1 million to the facility's cost, Schiller said.

So Bethany House has been looking for a flat site that is three or four acres in size where the organization can build a 45,000-square-foot state-of-the-art family homeless shelter.

Bethany House Services recently resurfaced the driveway for its shelter in Fairmount to make it safer.

The property needs to be close to the urban core and all the services that the shelter's families need to get back on their feet, she said. And Bethany House doesn't want to go where it's not wanted so that's a consideration, too.

Schiller envisions a place with 40 bedrooms in different sizes that can be expanded for especially large families.

"We want to be able to get this going as quickly as possible," she said. "We are just so convinced that our services will be better if we're all together."

Schiller said she knows it won't be a simple process, and a new facility will cost millions of dollars.

But Schiller sees the new building as Bethany House's best chance to reach its ultimate goal: Eliminating family homelessness and working itself out of a job.

In the meantime, scores of local families like Collier's are counting on Bethany House and its aging facilities to help them build better lives.

Seairra Collier's youngest daughter, right, with another baby who is staying at the Bethany House Services shelter in Fairmount with his mom.

More information about Bethany House Services andhow you can helpis available online. If you become an Insider during the month of October, $10 of your membership payment will go to Bethany House Services.

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, go to

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