CINCINNATI – The awful reality is that some moms in Hamilton County are so desperate for shelter that they trade sex for a safe place for their children to stay.
"They're out there in a very bad situation, and they would be much better off in shelter, but they can't get it," said Kevin Finn, CEO of the nonprofit organization Strategies to End Homelessness.
Fortunately, there is help on the way.
The U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development in December awarded nearly $17.5 million in funding to help reduce homelessness here, including money that will fund 55 new housing units for chronically homeless families.
Called "permanent supportive housing," the places will be designed to help families become financially stable and stop the cycle of homelessness. In addition to a safe place to live, the families will receive help from caseworkers to get the social services they need.
"We have these families where a family member has a disabling condition, and their struggle with managing that disability is part of what is keeping them homeless," Finn said. "This is really a critical need in our community."
• Over-the-Rhine Community Housing will redevelop two buildings in Over-the-Rhine into apartments that could serve as many as four chronically homeless families, Executive Director Mary Burke Rivers said.
• Interfaith Hospitality Network of Greater Cincinnati will be able to serve as many as 25 more chronically homeless families with the new funding it will receive, Executive Director Stacey Burge said.
• And Bethany House Services, the region's largest provider of shelter for homeless families, will begin providing permanent supportive housing for 25 families with the new funding, Executive Director Susan Schiller said.
Both Interfaith Hospitality Network and Bethany House will provide the housing and supporting services in properties the organizations don't own.
Families typically stay in the special housing for a couple years, but sometimes it truly is more permanent than that, Burge said.
"Making sure they have all their mental and medical health needs, seeing if they will be able to earn income and what their options are going to be long-term takes some time," she said. "We have some people that started with us in 2012 that are still in the housing."
Investing in families
The special housing doesn't come cheap, but providing it to families is much more cost-effective than what it otherwise costs to serve families who experience homelessness over and over, Finn said.
"When people are homeless, they more frequently end up in the emergency room. They more frequently end up in jail. They more frequently end up using those sorts of resources in the community that cost a whole lot more than housing costs," he said.
"Permanent supportive housing is an investment with a very specific goal," he added. "It actually reduces the cost on the total community when you look at things like police runs and jail stays."
Being able to provide more families with permanent supportive housing also will free up more space in family homeless shelters, Finn said, which is desperately needed.
As WCPO reported in October, family homelessness is on the increase in Cincinnati and Hamilton County. The number of families experiencing homelessness was up nearly 10 percent in late 2016 over the same time the year before.
While local nonprofits are helping more people than ever, there still are thousands of families that aren't getting the help they need.
"Because these chronically homeless families get stuck in shelter, that means that other families can't get into shelter," Finn said. "Which means we have families out there doing things we would never want them to do because they can't get into shelter."
Like the moms who trade sex for a place for their children to stay, he said.
Other families split up -- sending children to stay with relatives while parents stay at emergency homeless shelters for individuals or sleep on the street, he said.
It's difficult to say how much more permanent supportive housing the region needs because homelessness is such a moving target.
But the Interfaith Hospitality Network of Greater Cincinnati has been providing the special housing for families since 2012, Burge said, and the organization has always had social workers desperate to refer families.
"From the very start, we have been full up," she said. "And there has been no lack of families needing that kind of support."
The new federal funding will allow Burge's organization to double the number of permanent supportive housing units it can operate.
The 25 that Bethany House will be able to operate will help, too. Until Bethany House's funding comes through in July, Schiller said, the organization would have to do its best to help as many families as possible in other ways.
"There's just not enough support out there for the families," she said.
With the money from HUD, there soon will be more.
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 www.wcpo.com/poverty.